A mobilized plan to counter laser technology competition

The future role for lasers as a key enabling technology in Europe's industrial renaissance


The future role for lasers as a key enabling technology in Europe's industrial renaissance


In November 2012, I had occasion to spend a month living and operating from a factory in Shenzhen, China. The experience was transformative—coming from a medium-sized and competitive academic institution (NUI Galway) integrated with a thriving manufacturing hub in the West of Ireland. My visit to China caused to me to reflect on the innovative power of mega-cities and the threat of emerging manufacturing ecosystems. I was suddenly challenged by how Europe, with its shrinking urban centers, complex social model, and aging population, could compete in the future. At the very least, I wanted to understand how Europe was planning to push back against the competitive forces originating from Asia so that teaching and research activities could be optimally positioned for future regional impact.

I embarked on this reflection from a frame of reference, which revolves around laser-based manufacturing. Anyone who is familiar with Galway will know that laser technology is an integral part of the medical device industry located in Ireland. Hundreds of laser sources are used routinely throughout the medical device manufacturing value chain to heat-treat, weld, cut, drill, mark, and characterize the very many diverse materials and assemblies that comprise a modern medical device. This critical mass of local end users of photonics technologies is complemented by other geographical regions in Europe that are highly adept in the development and production of laser components and systems. Europe is well known to have a world-leading position in the market of photonics for industrial production. This position is driven by key geographical regions of strength located throughout Germany, France, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom, to mention a few. In recent years, the European Technology Platform—Photonics21—has made significant strides to advance the photonics agenda in Europe by working closely with the European Commission.

The European Union (EU) has been very supportive and receptive to the recommendations from this photonics platform. The economic crisis in Europe has triggered a re-evaluation of the importance of its manufacturing industry. The European Commission is seeking to increase gross domestic product (GDP) associated with manufacturing industry from 16 to 20 percent in the six-year period up to 2020. This is a formidable and perhaps unrealistic challenge, but it is leading to a significant innovation in how the member states will operate in Europe.

Key enabling technologies

Perhaps of most relevance to the laser community is the concept of key enabling technologies (KETs). KETs are recognized by the EU to be the building blocks for future product and process solutions that address many challenges facing European society. There are six KETs identified for Europe's Innovation Union: photonics, advanced materials, industrial biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, nanotechnology, and micro-/nano-electronics. Europe has aligned its biggest-ever research program, Horizon 2020, of nearly €80 billion ($98 million) over seven years, to advance these key technologies while also addressing its response to grand societal challenges.

The provision of funding has been particularly targeted to support developments where multiple KETs are applied together to enable new productive platforms. The strategy is intended to make better use of the enabling character of KETs in versatile and sustainable manufacturing pilot lines. It is intended that value chains encompassing highly innovative small- to medium-size enterprises will assemble around such forward-looking pilot lines.

There are significant opportunities for laser technology; pilot lines can realize the potential for laser technology to make, monitor, and measure in the production of future sustainable multi-functional devices. For example, such integrated devices will regularly use patterned nanotech/biotech-inspired thin films deposited on flexible polymer/glass substrates, forming subcomponents that can continuously harvest and store energy. They apply this energy to drive smart functions—including colored illumination, data display, interactive (touch) sensors, and other bio/physical sensors—while at the same time connect to the Internet of Things through a micro-/millimeter-sized antenna. The integrated convergence of these technologies presents challenges for multiple KETs. It requires new materials and advanced processing tools. Polymer electronics, nanostructures, biofilms, and thin, flexible glasses provide the basic building blocks for such processes. Roll-to-roll (R2R) manufacturing platforms, where lightweight, smooth, flexible substrates with good barrier and thermal properties can support both additive and subtractive process steps, are likely to form the backbone of such productive platforms (FIGURE 1).

FIGURE 1. Representative laser process steps envisaged for a versatile, multilayer roll-to-roll (R2R) manufacturing pilot line. Next-generation R2R manufacturing exploits key enabling technologies (KETs) in photonics, advanced materials, nanotechnology, micro- and nano-electronics, and advanced manufacturing.

Smart specialization

In addition to the research and innovation priorities discussed above, Europe has also re-positioned its regional policies to more cohesively contribute to the economic development of the member states and their regions. In effect, Europe is seeking to align its regional budget to better serve as an input to its advanced research and training programs. Through an inspired move, the EU has requested each region to publish their evolving research and innovation priorities. In turn, these policies are reviewed by critical friends from across Europe. The smart specialization strategies that emerge are expected to be developed from the ground up, in the full knowledge of what other EU regions propose.

The purpose of this smart specialization is to assist regional stakeholders to develop highly competitive and complementary regions of research and innovation intensity. The research and innovation strategies for smart specialization (RIS3) are hosted by the European Commission on a dedicated website (http://s3platform.jrc.ec.europa.eu). Of particular use is an Eye@RIS3 tool or map. At the time of writing, Eye@RIS3 is a pilot project in its infancy stage; however, it is proposed to be a searchable online database that identifies activities for the EU region or member state into which significant future regional resources will be invested.

Photonics clusters

In terms of laser technology, the origin and development of geographical clusters in photonics throughout Europe are based on localized existing strengths. Thanks to the interactions between research laboratories, SMEs, and large corporations in these clusters, local cooperation makes possible the transfer of photonics technologies to industrial products and services. In Europe, there are approximately 27 or so active clusters centered on photonics (FIGURE 2). The best practices within these clusters were reported recently by a European project (www.fp7-aspice.eu). Best practice here is interpreted as a method or technique that consistently showed results superior to those achieved by other means.

FIGURE 2. A map of healthcare, optics/photonics, and security clusters identified by the ASPICE project in Europe. (Source: www.fp7-aspice.org)

The photonics clusters throughout Europe showed different characteristics depending on either the number of members, scope of technologies, or focused application markets. Thus, the extension from local cooperation to a European one allows photonic stakeholders to develop partnerships and invest in a broader scope of technologies. Regional and national clusters activated in photonics along the European landscape attempted to bridge or fill gaps existing within the value chains of relevant services or products. The weakest clusters tended to be those which were emerging and most inwardly focused by means of market and geographical figures. Clusters that fostered a sense of rivalry between participants, and had a well-established supply chain, appeared to be more competitive with better prospects in the photonics market. All photonic clusters examined were found to have a limited drive for internationalization; this is considered to negatively impact the growth potential of such constituent SMEs.

The growth of internationalization activities within a cluster is recognized to be a key aspect to a cluster's evolution and sustainability. The European Cluster Collaboration Platform (ECCP), also supported by the EU, provides many useful tools in assisting cluster-to-cluster collaborations. The platform provides quality online information and networking support for cluster organizations. The objective is to improve cluster performance and thereby enhance the competitiveness of their constituent SMEs. An example of this tool is presented in the www.clustercollaboration.eu website. A map and profile of the different clusters throughout Europe are provided; contacts for the different clusters can be obtained selecting the table tab and the hyperlink to the cluster of interest. This website is particularly important as photonics is a KET, and has an important role to play in the support of broader inter-disciplinary cooperation with clusters in other fields, such as healthcare, energy, ICT, etc.

One final EU tool deserves a mention. It is important to know the value chain at the outset of any proposed development or collaboration. In the case of photonics, this can be a particular challenge given the proliferation of SMEs along the value chain. While cluster databases described above can be useful, a more direct facility for establishing technology and business partners are often needed. The Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) provides an international portal (een.ec.europa.eu) for business and technology searches. European research performing organizations can find themselves in the position of writing a profile in three cases—if they are offering a technology, if they are requesting a technology, or if they wish to promote an R&D request. In the first case, the organization develops a technology offer and wishes to make it available to end users to carry out a technology transfer. In the second case, the organization needs to find one or several partners who will transfer technology or know-how needed to solve a problem. In the third case, partners are seeking to identify potential research partners for participation in European Horizon 2020 research projects. Optimal use of the Enterprise Europe Network requires engagement with EEN specialists; the network is supported by 3000+ network advisors and specialists. The aspiration to develop a single resource, informed and supported by specialists, spanning many different technologies is a significant development for Europe.


So, on completion of my reflection of Europe's competitiveness, it seems that Europe is doing what it can to mobilize the instruments it has to push back against the forces of competition. It seems it hopes to rival other global regions through the aggressive development and deployment of KETs (FIGURE 3); the laser technology is integrally involved.

FIGURE 3. Colored areas represent the regions or member states that have formally prioritized KETs. (Source: EyeRIS3 tool, European Commission)

It is also directing these resources towards addressing the threat of substitutes and new entrants by the development of pilot lines. It has significantly aligned its resources by providing more cohesion to the forces that pertain to the supply side of economic development. The final piece relying on the power of the buyer for the moment still appears to be firmly towards Asia.

DR. GERARD O'CONNOR(gerard.oconnor@nuigalway.ie) is with the School of Physics, National Center for Laser Applications, NUI - Galway, Ireland; www.ncla.ie.

More in Cutting