An umbrella group set up to give direction to Europe’s emerging photonics community has proposed a programme of strategic research and is calling for action to address a looming skills shortage.
The photonics industry is not new but the idea of it is rather novel. Many companies have been working on the applications of photons – the particles of light – for decades. They have brought us lasers, optical fibres, flat-panel TV screens and many other innovations.
Yet it is only in the last few years that the reality of photonics as a distinct industrial sector, with shared aims and objectives, has started to emerge in Europe.
It is not as though Europe’s photonics industry is insubstantial – in 2005, it employed a quarter of a million people, earned €43.5 billion and accounted for a fifth of world production – but until recently it lacked sufficient coherence to speak with one voice.
That has changed with the establishment of Photonics21, one of several European Technology Platforms (ETPs) set up with EU support to align research efforts in technologies of strategic importance.
“One of the main aims of the platform at the very beginning was to build up a European photonics community and prepare a comprehensive research strategy,” explains Markus Wilkens of the Photonics21 secretariat, based at VDI Technologiezentrum in Düsseldorf.
Agenda for research
Starting with 250 members in 2005, Photonics21 has now grown to encompass more than 1200 members in 49 countries. Almost half of the members are photonics companies, the majority of which are SMEs, and the rest are research centres and associations.
The project is organised into seven groups covering information and communication, industrial manufacturing, life sciences and health, lighting and displays, sensors and measurement, optical components and systems, and research, education and training.
One of its first acts was to publish, early in 2006, a 160-page strategic research agenda setting out the priorities for developing photonics in Europe. It listed the main technological challenges as the development of new, compact light sources, a more extensive coverage of wavelength range, integration of several optical functions into single components, and materials research in epitaxial films, quantum dots and meta-materials.
It called for better coordination and cooperation within the photonics community and warned of a shortfall in qualified workers if more was not invested in education and training. The report also said that Europe was not yet pulling its weight in the formulation of international standards.
One recommendation was quickly adopted. In 2007, the European Commission set up a Photonics Unit within the Information Society and Media Directorate General. “This way the EU recognised photonics as a strategic technology for Europe,” Wilkens notes. “And Photonics21 has now become the main advisory body for providing input to the photonics part of the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme.”
Cooperating to compete
Photonics21 also manages a database, inherited from the EU-funded OPERA2015 project, which lists details of more than 2100 companies and 700 research centres active in photonics. “We estimate that about 40% of all photonics companies in Europe are listed in the database,” says Wilkens.
In the three years that the platform has been running, the photonics community has been gradually getting its act together but, as Wilkens says, there is much more to be done.
“Above all, we need to improve trans-national cooperation between different players in Europe, especially universities and companies. We regard this as an ongoing, long-term goal of Photonics21. Joining forces will be the only way to tackle the increased competition we are facing from Asia and the USA.”
Photonics21 has set up links with other ETPs covering manufacturing, nanomedicine and e-mobility, and is supporting activities to strengthen national communities. For the first time, national technology platforms have been established in Spain, Italy, Greece, Poland and Switzerland, with more to come. “We believe that only with strong national photonics communities can a ‘European community’ be successfully established in the long run,” Wilkens says.
Indeed, national funding programmes for next-generation access networks in Germany and the UK owe their origin to Photonics21.
Improved coordination at European level is already bearing fruit. Two-thirds of the participants in photonics projects funded in the second call of the Seventh Framework Programme are members of Photonics21 and national efforts will be coordinated under the ERA-NET Plus scheme.
Wilkens is especially keen to promote education and training in photonics. “The photonics industry in Europe faces a tremendous skills shortage. We are now trying to increase the number of photonics students or students […] relevant to the photonics industry.”
Early this year, Photonics21 launched a student innovation award and a scheme for companies to offer internships to students.
A priority for 2009 is a major revision of the three-year-old strategic research agenda. “One challenge will be to focus on the most promising areas in photonics where Europe should invest its money in a coordinated way,” says Wilkens. “We need to strengthen our strengths in order to stay competitive,” he emphasises.