A leading voice for the photonics industry

With COVID-19 impacting all sectors of the economy, which will in turn influence future government policy and spending decisions, a strong voice for the photonics industry has never been more important. The Photonics Leadership Group (PLG) has been gathering industry intelligence and facilitating the development of a vision for next-generation photonics, in order to understand the effects of COVID-19 on the sector and inform future research, funding and strategy decisions.

Dr John Lincoln, who is Chief Executive of the PLG as well as Industrial Liaison Manager at The Future Photonics Hub, shares the results of these significant pieces of work.

Tell us about the Photonics Leadership Group’s role

The PLG acts as a conduit between the photonics industry and government agencies, with the overall aim of nudging all parties in beneficial directions. We let industry know about policy shifts, and when companies’ interests or needs shift, we make sure policymakers are aware of that. The idea is to create win-win scenarios and foster an atmosphere where the photonics industry grows stronger and faster than it otherwise would.

The PLG is also a point of contact for information about the industry and generates reliable information with a robust process behind it, to feed into strategy and policy decisions.

Why did the PLG decide to undertake a photonics research horizon scanning exercise?

The government has stated its intention to increase investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP and beyond, suggesting a trend towards more funding for research as well as industrial innovation. However, nobody will support research unless they know where it’s going to go and what it’s going to be for, so that’s where a vision statement comes in.

Having been around for about 60 years, photonics is simultaneously a mature field and an emerging field. So another purpose of the horizon scanning exercise is to make it clear that photonics research is not a ‘done’ subject, but has a really interesting, high-impact future. By looking at what’s coming over the hill in a decade from now, we want to inspire the next generation of researchers to pursue those avenues and show policymakers what the possibilities might be.

How was it carried out? 

We held a workshop with 26 leading UK academics, which resulted in the identification of 70 topics that offer significant potential for future investigation. We’ve released the initial summary findings and, with the support of The Future Photonics Hub, we will be publishing a full report in the summer.

To encourage out-of-the-box thinking, we’ve driven the process from the imagination of the researchers. If the starting point was industry need, we would only find out what industry thinks it needs, and we wanted the exercise to be more expansive than that. As Steve Jobs famously said: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

What key areas for future research has the exercise identified?

Our horizon scan summary contains 70 great ideas across a wealth of different areas. We did ask the contributors to identify which would have the greatest impact on strategy. However, we also recommend not setting too much store in that prioritisation, because it is inevitably done through a lens of what’s happening now. Ideas that don’t seem particularly relevant to our immediate situation may actually be some of the most interesting.

Personally speaking, I’m intrigued by terms such as biodegradable photonics and neuromorphic photonics – areas that are just on the edge of consciousness but could be really exciting in the future. We want to encourage the photonics community to explore these kinds of ideas and use their imagination to determine what they could mean going forward.

How does this fit with the government’s industrial strategy?

We’ve tried to make clear which areas of highly innovative photonics are worthy of strong support, to help steer funding towards research that has impact across strategy priorities. We expect the government’s industrial strategy to be revised slightly, and we want our report to be available before then to make sure the opportunities to advance photonics are clear. Many industry sectors use photonics to keep them competitive, so fostering next-generation photonics will support growth not only across photonics but across the whole economy, which very much aligns with the UK industrial strategy.

Which elements of the recent budget do you think remain relevant in terms of photonics research directions, and which may change as a result of COVID-19?

We particularly welcomed the significant increase in R&D funding announced in the budget. The details are subject to a spending review expected to be delivered later this year, so we’re very interested in the outcome of that spending review. The horizon scanning exercise is just one way in which we can feed into decisions about the balance of research funding, and indeed from a wider PLG viewpoint, the balance between supporting R&D through the UK research councils, Innovate UK and through things like R&D tax credits.

What we don’t know is how COVID-19 will affect the spending plans, although it is likely there will be a greater focus on industry resilience. We hope that the broad direction will be pursued and continued, with an even greater investment in enabling innovative sectors like photonics to improve the robustness of the UK economy and supply chains.

How is the COVID-19 situation affecting the photonics industry?

We’ve gathered data on this from a survey of photonics and acoustics businesses, to which 200 organisations have responded so far. We asked how many manufacturing organisations had to stop production during the lockdown, and the answer was heartening, with 89 per cent of photonics companies reporting that they were able to continue production. We also asked how many businesses had made use of government financial support schemes. Almost half of the responding photonics companies said they hadn’t applied for financial support and had no intention of doing so unless their circumstances changed drastically. Again, that’s a very positive story that shows we’re a strong, resilient industry.

What is it about photonics companies that has enabled them to continue production?

I think it has been possible because in a high-knowledge manufacturing industry such as photonics, the density of people in a factory is never higher than one per four square metres – in fact it’s often much less. That means adjusting a factory for social distancing involves minimal change. Also it is a very technically aware industry, so businesses will have had no problem making arrangements for management and sales staff to work at home.

What immediate concerns has the COVID-19 situation raised within the industry?

Many companies rely on the import and export of goods to keep their supply chain working, so that has become a concern due to the drop in global air freight capacity.
Another concern that companies have reported is the stretching of their sales pipeline. They are still closing deals and shipping products, but everything is taking longer. On top of that, the usual sources of input into their pipelines, such as trade shows, may be shut down for a long time to come. So businesses will need to adjust their sales processes and find ways to build relationships and complete deals without these face-to-face opportunities.

Did respondents foresee any longer-term impacts?

There were concerns about the effect on revenue and turnover, as you might expect. But interestingly, more than 50 per cent of photonics companies thought their investment in new product development would be the same or higher in a year’s time. So it seems that the market disruption may result in companies accelerating their product development plans to stay ahead of the curve.

What impact is COVID–19 having on photonics research directions?

One can speculate that there will be a near-term focus on research applications in the healthcare field. Resilience of supply chains may be another focus, and that could drive manufacturing research as well as business development initiatives.

With most of the research community working at home, my impression is that people are spending more time reading research papers than they might otherwise have done. One can presume they will also have more time to take stock and think about their strategy. So another impact could be more a strategic approach to research directions.

Then there’s a more subtle question of how this major disruption to people’s lives might change their personal decisions about what areas of research to focus on. Will it make them more risk averse, or will they take more risks? It’s impossible to say which direction it will go in, but I think it will have an impact.

What is your focus as Industrial Liaison Manager for The Future Photonics Hub?

My role at The Future Photonics Hub involves brokering relationships between the academic community and industry, with a view to generating industrial contracts but also closer links overall. That means putting industry in touch with the photonics researchers at Southampton and Sheffield, as well as other UK institutions, depending on their needs.

The PLG and Hub roles have a different focus but the interests of the two organisations are very much aligned. There is often a requirement for academic research programmes to engage in national leadership groups in order to stay in touch with what’s happening in the sector, and the Hub and the PLG have a mutual interest in understanding the direction of flow in policy and industry, so having one person encompassing the two roles is an efficient way of doing things.

I think it has been possible because in a high-knowledge manufacturing industry such as photonics, the density of people in a factory is never higher than one per four square metres – in fact it’s often much less. That means adjusting a factory for social distancing involves minimal change. Also it is a very technically aware industry, so businesses will have had no problem making arrangements for management and sales staff to work at home.

How does the PLG benefit from its strategic relationship with the Hub?

In my PLG role I can access an extensive pool of photonics expertise via the Hub, and if there is no-one at Southampton who can answer my question, they will know someone elsewhere who can.
In addition, there are a number of routes of influence where having the right presentation is key, and the Hub’s support enables the PLG to present the output of pan-institution initiatives, such as the horizon scanning report, in a format that will maximise their impact.