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[Image: Knowledge Transfer Network/U.K. Photonics Leadership Group, June 2017]

In an OPN story earlier this year, John Lincoln, the chief executive of the U.K. Photonics Leadership Group (PLG), mused about the importance of making an affirmative case for the business against an unstable political backdrop. “In a climate of uncertainty,” Lincoln noted, “all of us are beholden to provide as many facts as we can, and as much evidence as we can, to clearly substantiate the impact of photonic technology.”

Now Lincoln’s group, in partnership with the U.K. business-consulting firm Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), has done just that—in a new report suggesting that the photonics industry is worth some £12.9 billion (US$16.7 billion at current exchange rates) to the U.K. economy as a whole.

Growing at double the broader U.K. rate

The £12.9 billion number represents, according to the report, a £2.4 billion gain from the photonics industry’s economic heft calculated in a similar PLG report in 2013. That amounts to an average annual growth rate of more than 5.3 percent, or twice the growth rate of the U.K. economy at large, according to the group.

The report, released at the Laser World of Photonics conference in Munich, Germany, on 27 June, ties that faster-than-average growth to “the increasingly critical role that light plays in next-generation products and manufacturing,” according to a press release on its findings. The study also notes that some 75 percent of the U.K. industry’s manufactured output is sold into the export market—an unusually high fraction for a U.K. sector—and that the country’s 1,500 photonics companies employ more than 65,000 persons.

6.7 percent of U.K. GDP

The PLG’s estimate suggests that photonics currently accounts for some 6.7 percent of the total U.K. economy as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), which clocked in at £1.94 trillion in 2016—a number that itself makes the U.K. the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Yet estimating the “real” value of photonics to the broader economy is a notoriously slippery exercise. One reason is that photonic technology underpins a vast number of other undertakings, so studies of corporate revenues and earnings tied directly to photonics can substantially underestimate its overall economic sway. Moreover, even getting a grip on the direct contribution of photonics to corporate bottom lines can be complicated by the numerous ways that companies, large and small, aggregate their numbers.

The new PLG report, according to a press release, relies on “a fully revised company list and expert industry input on apportionment of revenues of diversified companies.” That methodology—apparently an improvement from the methods of earlier reports—should allow the numbers to be updated on an annual basis, according to the PLG release. PLG and KTN also plan to collaborate on “a new online map of the U.K. photonics landscape” based on the data, to be unveiled later this summer.