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Powering growth and innovation: European photonics community’s 2030 mission

Electro Optics turns 50 in 2018. To mark the occasion, experts across industry and academia review the current state of the photonics industry and highlight what needs to happen for the field to prosper over the next five decades.

Aldo Kamper, president of Photonics21, reveals the association’s 2030 mission and discusses how Europe is to translate its current competencies into future leadership in a fast-growing global market

The photon will do for the 21st century what the electron did for the twentieth. Europe is already at the forefront of this technological revolution: harnessing the power of light to solve our greatest global challenges.

Photonics, the science of creating, manipulating, transmitting and detecting light, is part of our everyday lives. It is literally everywhere, from smartphone displays, fibre-optic broadband transmission, to the laser-assisted medical tools revolutionising healthcare.

As light particles, or photons, replace electrons in many of our most important technologies, innovations already in the pipeline are improving healthcare, growing food, saving energy, reducing pollution, expanding connectivity, transforming manufacturing and ushering in a new era of mobility. Across the economy, photonics technology will create new jobs and drive growth.

Best in H2020

The Horizon 2020 Photonics Public-Private Partnership (PPP) was created to build on the strengths of the European photonics sector and reinforce its competitiveness. For this purpose, the European Commission joined forces with the photonics industry – represented by Photonics21 – and the research community.

The result is a dynamic and effective partnership with 3,000 members, recognised as the best-in-class contractual PPP in Horizon 2020 by the Commission’s independent evaluators, and as demonstrated by the PPP’s impact on jobs and growth in Europe.

And the effort will continue. It is the mission of the European photonics community over the next ten years to deliver instant diagnosis of major diseases, quality food from farm to fork, accident and congestion-free road transport, a truly circular economy, a million new jobs, 10 per cent higher productivity, and zero downtime in a terabit economy.

Today, Europe’s photonics sector comprises some 5,000 companies producing optical components and systems. Most of them are highly specialised SMEs. The sector is export-oriented and research-intensive. It invests close to 10 per cent of revenues in R&D, about twice the rate of manufacturing as a whole.

The sector directly employs over 300,000 people. If we include everyone whose livelihood depends on the use of photonics – from workers using industrial lasers to doctors performing endoscopic surgery – 10 per cent of the workforce and as much as 30 per cent of the entire economy already depend on photonics technology.

Photonics is a highly dynamic and fiercely competitive global market that was worth €447 billion in 2015. At a compound annual growth rate of 6.2 per cent between 2011 and 2015, the global market has been growing substantially faster than the economy as a whole. A global market share of 15.5 per cent makes Europe the world’s second-biggest supplier of photonics, after China.

With China currently focusing on photovoltaics, displays, lighting and other commodity products, Europe is arguably the centre of global photonics innovation today. That said China is pushing strategically into more innovative areas.

European companies are market leaders in sectors such as production technology (including industrial lasers), optical components and systems, sensors and automated vision, as well as photonics in medicine and life sciences.

The future of photonics

Fundamental innovation trends will continue to drive strong growth in photonics employment and revenues up to 2030 and beyond. These trends include the development of optical computing to replace silicon circuits, as well as the spread of optical sensing and light technologies in healthcare, mobility, manufacturing, energy and other sectors.

If Europe is to translate today’s mastery of key technologies into future leadership in a fast-growing global market, further challenges need to be overcome.

Joint action by the European Commission, the member states and the photonics industry will clear the way to future innovation. However, this will require a long term concerted public-private effort that pools Europe’s strengths in photonics and builds out a highly innovative transnational ecosystem.

To achieve these goals, a number of specific measures will be needed:

  1. A European strategy for photonics leadership that focuses on mission-oriented breakthrough innovations and large-scale collaborative projects across industries and sectors must be created and implemented.
  2. A coordinated strategy involving all public and private stakeholders creates the momentum and unleashes the broad spill-over effects needed to address global challenges, exploit future markets and create jobs in Europe.
  3. Boosting opportunities for entrepreneurship in the photonics sector is essential. Access to risk finance must be improved by establishing a Europe-wide fund for photonics start-up, growth and bridge capital.
  4. A truly European lab-to-fab infrastructure for accelerating innovation and competitiveness must be created. Europe needs to speed up the uptake of technology and its translation into new products and services.
  5. The education and training of tomorrow’s specialists today cannot be over emphasised. Measures should include a coordinated public-private plan to define skill sets and curricula for professions in photonics. The harnessing of light should be a flagship science in schools, universities and across the education system.

With its industry and research community, Photonics21 provides a strong European platform of stakeholders with a proven track record of collaborating within this sector ready to complete these objectives.

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