Photonics Continues Upward Trends Despite Challenges in the Global Economy, Notes SPIE CEO

Upward-trending photonics R&D investment and new government-backed ventures are helping the enabling technology to play a role in strengthening regional economies ― even while analysts predict slow overall growth. SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs offered comments in a presentation during OPTIC 2014 in Taiwan last week.

BELLLINGHAM, Washington, USA, and TAICHUNG, Taiwan December 12, 2014


Trend lines for photonics continue to rise, despite less rosy indicators in overall global economic growth, Eugene Arthurs, CEO of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, said in a featured talk at OPTIC (Optics and Photonics Taiwan, the International Conference) on 5 December at the National Chung Hsing University in Taichung.

As examples, Arthurs cited solar energy, which is being integrated into future energy supplies and soon to hit US$50 billion in factory gate revenues; and LED lighting, which is projected to hit US$26 billion in 2015.

"Also, photonics is increasingly key in advanced manufacturing in the form of lasers and metrology, and 3D manufacturing revenues are expected to be US$20 billion by 2020," Arthurs said. "Photonics is becoming increasingly important in defense. Analytical and process control instrumentation ― a US$45 billion market ― is being disrupted by photonics technologies such as plasmonics and chip-based instruments. Potential for biophotonics is bounded only by healthcare budgets."

Globally, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) all project lower economic growth in 2014 and 2015. Analysts predict that leadership changes in the United States and the European Union, which have led government R&D investment levels, will make the struggle for maintaining ― much less increasing ― funding there even more difficult. Arthurs noted that the OECD's latest study on science and technology contains disturbing data on reduced spending on R&D since the 2007-2009 recession, even as member countries proclaim innovation as key to future economic strength.

However, Arthurs said, some important initiatives are working to strengthen photonics positioning for R&D investment.

China is investing strongly in R&D, including many areas of photonics, and has just become the world's largest economy when measured by PPP (purchasing power parity), according to a recent IMF report.

The EU's Photonics21 technology platform continues to make a strong case for photonics as a key enabling technology for Europe. It must continue its strong efforts as the new EU commissioners take the reins, Arthurs said, noting that unfortunately the new EC president has discontinued the role of Chief Science Advisor.

With its £270 million budget, the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme is funding R&D hubs at the universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Oxford, and York. The government wants to see new products from these efforts within five years.

In the US, the National Photonics Initiative has helped raise awareness of the importance of photonics to the economy, Arthurs said. "Through the NPI, US societies led by SPIE and OSA are educating and winning over politicians."

In its first year, the NPI "has put photonics on the map," in the words of Tom Kalil, Director for Technology and Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The NPI concentrated its initial outreach and lobbying efforts on integrated photonics, and cites as a result the recent announcement of funding for an Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation. The institute will be a program of the Air Force Research Lab funded by US$110 million with a required 1:1 private-sector match.

The NPI's next emphasis will be on biophotonics, including support for the White House BRAIN Initiative. This challenging and inspiring effort is supported not just by the National Institutes of Health, but also by the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense.

Internationally, "SPIE is working to quantify the field in the language of politicians and economists: revenue and jobs," Arthurs said.

SPIE has calculated core photonic components and materials at US $156 billion in revenues, identifying 2,750 companies in that sector providing 700,000 jobs. The broader photonics market is around $500 billion, with more than 2 million jobs worldwide.

SPIE is now finishing gathering data on companies for which photonics is significant, but do not identify themselves as photonics companies ― for example, Samsung, Google, and others in enabled markets worldwide.

Science is under pressure in many nations with a history of strong funding, and the divides between scientists and politicians, and between scientists and much of the public, are growing in many developed nations, Arthurs said. "Innovation is seen positively, but many politicians fail to understand the relationship between science and innovation."

He emphasized the once-in-our-lifetime opportunity to raise awareness of photonics represented by the United Nations-decreed International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies.

"The IYL 2015 initiative is an opportunity to inspire, educate, and connect on a global scale," he said. Regional events have already helped to raise awareness, and an extensive list of activities in countries will follow the global launch next month at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

"Photonics, the exploitation of light, has changed our lives significantly for the better," Arthurs said. "Realizing further benefits relies on continuing innovation, in its fullest sense ― the maturity of an idea or concept into making a difference in people's lives ― and on communicating convincingly to the public and politicians."

At the annual meeting of Taiwan Photonics Society during OPTIC, TPS President Din-Ping Tsai announced Taiwan's IYL 2015 plans, including an IYL lantern in the Taiwan Lantern Festival in early March. Tsai, Arthurs, and TSMC Chairman Morris Chang (recipient of the SPIE Visionary Award at OPTIC) activated a model of the IYL lantern and an LED board, artwork created by students at the National Central University.

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 256,000 constituents from approximately 155 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional networking, and patent precedent.

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