Lasers in Ireland

Laser activity in Ireland has developed from a greenfield base and prospered, even in the absence of defenSe and auto–industrial sectors

By Gerard O'Connor

The transformation of the Irish economy during the 1990s, labelled the Celtic Tiger, is one of the great economic success stories. Ireland's economic growth in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) averaged 9.2 percent during the period 1995–2001, a record for any member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Even with the current global slow down, and after the tragic events of September 11th, Ireland's economy is expected to grow by 4 percent this year and by 7 percent in 2003. Economists have attributed much of this growth to employment gains and to increased productivity by existing employees. In the period 1996–2001, job growth was approximately 4.5 percent per annum compared to 1.3 percent throughout the European Union and 1.5 percent in the United States.

The principal driving forces that have generated this unprecedented growth were the positive global economic climate, the development of key infrastructure supported by the European Union and, perhaps most importantly, visionary national policies. For instance, education, fiscal reform of state finances and public/private partnerships on pay and competitiveness have all been of strategic importance in developing Ireland as the location of choice for foreign direct investment and in the generation of a high–tech indigenous sector.

Despite a slow start, Ireland has become a major user of laser technologies over the same period. Many hundreds of laser systems are now employed in manufacturing industries. These have been helped in no small way by a close collaboration between industry and academia, involving both training and applied research. Third–level colleges (the term used in Ireland to address all post high school technical/business colleges and universities) also host a number of vibrant teams performing fundamental research in laser technologies, and these have given rise to a number of high potential spin–offs based on optoelectronics and laser processing technologies.

Direct foreign investment in Ireland has been helped by a strong international scattering of Irish people. The positive feeling towards Ireland, stimulated by its emigrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, has helped the country at home to prosper. The location of foreign–owned, multinational companies in Ireland has been of paramount importance to the economy, both in terms of industrial output and human resource development. Since the early 1970s, more than 1,200 companies have chosen Ireland as their base to serve the European markets and beyond. In Ireland, these companies find a favorable corporate tax environment, competitive operating costs and an English–speaking, young, highly skilled workforce.

The relevance of this sector to the economy cannot be understated. Economically, foreign–owned industry contributes most significantly to exports, which is estimated at 90 percent of Gross National Product (GNP). Countries in the European Union are by far the most important destination for exports, with the United Kingdom being the most important trading partner. Technically, it has enabled the country to identify and generate a significant manufacturing presence in sectors such as medical devices, electronics and aerospace, all of which are important potential users of laser technology.

The development of a significant indigenous industrial sector in Ireland also has been strongly influenced by the presence of the multinational companies, mostly from the United States. In the mid–1990s the indigenous sector largely consisted of sub–supply companies that provided products and services to foreign–owned industries in Ireland. The strategy was that these companies would use the Irish–based multinational industries as "doorways" to the larger global organizations. In seeking to further enhance their relevance and competitiveness within these global structures, many Irish companies have turned to laser technologies for that competitive advantage.

The universities and third–level colleges have provided important support to such companies and to other start–up industries. Traditionally, the third–level institutions saw their role exclusively in education–producing graduates with appropriate skills. In the late 1980s, the Irish government began to see the third–level sector as a relevant technological resource for supporting industrial R&D. Strategic Programmes in Advanced Technol ogies were established creating applied research centers in universities across a number of disciplines, including optoelectronics, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and materials. Although other funding programs also had a positive impact, ten or so years on, the importance of the third–level sector in contributing to the optoelectronics infrastructure can be seen by the number of technology centers in place that date from this period.

For instance, photonic activities at the National Microelectronics Re search Centre, located in University College Cork, primarily specialize in active and passive optoelectronic devices. The National Centre for Sensors Research is a multidisciplinary research center, located at Dublin City University, which develops sensors for medical diagnostics, food quality assurance, environmental monitoring and industrial process monitoring. The National Centre for Laser Applications (NCLA), established in NUI Galway in 1989, supports and encourages new uses for lasers in manufacturing. This center has been pro–active in developing new applications in areas such as laser materials processing and optical metrology. With a client cluster of 50–60, this center is regarded by many as a key and highly relevant resource for industry in the country. There are other high–profile groups at Trinity College Dublin, University of Lim erick and University College Dublin, which carry out fundamental research in laser material interactions and in the development of new optical materials.

Emerging from the university sector are a number of start–up companies such as Eblana Photonics (Dublin), Tsunami Photonics (Dun Laoghaire) and InTune Technologies (Dublin)–all in diode laser technologies, Firecomms (Cork) in vertical cavity surface–emitting lasers, and Plasma Ireland (Cork) and CorkOpt (Cork – now part of Stoker Yale) in light–emitting diodes. Of specific importance to laser materials processing are two companies XSIL (Dublin) and Xonen Technologies (Knock) that target blue chip customers. XSIL develops workstations for laser micro–machining, while Xonen is developing laser systems for DVD mastering.

There are other indigenous companies, such as Creganna Medical De vices (Galway), Screentech (Bray), Mednova (Galway) and others, who rely on laser technology in their manufacturing processes. Finally, a number of other enterprises–Laserform (Droheda), Truform (Dundalk) and a group of companies located in Dublin: Laser Profiles, Lasercut and Atlantic LaserWorks–offer laser processing services in what is becoming an increasingly competitive market.

Alcon (Cork)–formerly Summit Technology–is the only multinational company engaged in laser manufacture that is located in Ireland. It manufactures excimer laser systems for eye treatment and is part of an active medical device/healthcare sector. Indeed, Ireland hosts manufacturing plants for 13 of the top 20 global medical device companies. There is a special emphasis throughout this sector on disposable medical devices distributed among several multinational companies. More than 50 Nd:YAG lasers are used to cut and weld precision metallic components such as stents, guide wires, pacemakers and more. Approximately 140 compact CO2 laser sources are used to weld polymer materials, where the advantages of laser technology for delivering energy outweigh those of any alternative joining technology. Another 50 or so laser systems are used to selectively etch coatings, drill holes and mark or code medical device materials. It is a measure of the pace of development, and growing awareness of the advantages of laser processing that in 1995 the number of laser systems in operation across this sector would have been in single figures.

In electronics, foreign–owned companies account for more than 150 systems in which lasers are used to mark, selectively etch materials, scribe and trim resistors and other electronic components. In the aerospace sector lasers are mainly deployed for laser drilling and marking applications and by companies in engine repair. Other companies, mainly in the light engineering sector, have also embraced laser technology although the processes in which they are applied tend to be laser cutting and marking and, to a lesser extent, drilling and welding.

The rapid take–up of laser and other enabling technologies in Ireland is perhaps a result of an evolving, knowledge–led economy having to compete in a global framework. As this continues, new challenges and opportunities will arise for laser and other technologies. Growing labor costs indicate that only high–value–added manufacturing processes will be viable, and this places new importance for "Ireland Inc." on developing fully automated manufacturing solutions. Moreover, in the future R&D activities in companies will clearly assume much greater importance.

Just as industrial policy over the last 30 years has developed a vibrant manufacturing sector, new initiatives are beginning to address an apparent R&D deficit. One innovative scheme deserves mention. A recently established government agency, Science Foundation Ireland, is seeking to strengthen the research infrastructure of the country by inviting world–class principal investigators and younger research fellows to relocate to Ireland and to undertake fundamental re search programs here. Financial packages of more than $5 million per applicant are available, over a five–year period, to facilitate the transfer of suitable candidates. It is hoped that the development of proprietary technologies under the general headings of Information & Communications Technologies and Biotechnologies, with special emphasis on photonics including lasers, will be enabled and the platform for Ireland's continued development will be established.

It is clear that over the next 20 years photonics has the potential to alter the way we live, work and play to the same extent as electronics has altered our lives in the last 20 years. Irish industry is now keenly aware that many of the most exciting changes will be driven by the rapid advances in lasers, optics and electronics, and particularly by novel and increasingly sophisticated uses of lasers in metrology and in materials processing. This awareness, combined with a workforce growing in confidence and in technical know–how, will enable the research and manufacturing communities in Ireland to exploit its optoelectronics and laser infrastructure in the future.

Dr. Gerard O'Connor is the center manager at the National Centre for Laser Applications. Contact him by e–mail at ncla@nuigalway.ie.

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