Photonics report cover

Cover of the new Photonics21 strategic roadmap. [Image: Photonics21]

On 27 March, the first day of its two-day annual meeting, the Photonics Public-Private Partnership (PPP), an industry-academic-government alliance managed by the European technology platform Photonics21, officially unveiled an ambitious strategic roadmap for the next generation of European photonics R&D.

The Photonics PPP was formed in November 2013 under the aegis of Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s eighth framework program, set up to govern E.U.-level research and innovation funding for the 2014-2020 period. The new roadmap—a detailed follow-up to the PPP’s “vision paper,” Europe’s Age of Light, released in late 2017—attempts to flesh out plans and priorities for the European photonics community during the ninth framework program, the €100 billion Horizon Europe, which will cover the years from 2021 to 2027.

The strategic roadmap is the product of a series of 12 workshops and consultations with stakeholders that “included over 1,700 companies and research organizations across Europe,” according to the report. The roadmap was officially handed over by Photonics21 leaders to European Commission officials at an evening ceremony at the PPP annual meeting venue, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.

Uncertain status

The roadmap’s release comes at a time in which the status of photonics in the next E.U. funding framework looks uncertain. In Horizon 2020, the discipline enjoyed a privileged status as one of six “key enabling technologies” (KETs). That designation led to the development of the Photonics PPP itself, and to increased funding opportunities during the Horizon 2020 period.

EU flag

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The plan for Horizon Europe, by contrast, has de-emphasized the KET approach. Instead, the next framework program will be organized around three broad thematic “pillars”: open science; global challenges and industrial competitiveness; and open innovation.

The second of those pillars, with an estimated allotment of half of the Horizon Europe funding pot, is in turn built around five cluster areas: health; inclusive and secure societies; digital and industry; climate, energy and mobility; and food and natural resources. And, while the framework program’s plans envision the designation of an undefined set of “key digital technologies” within the digital-and-industry cluster, the turgid draft documents for Horizon Europe did not specifically call out photonics as an area of emphasis.

Nobel laureates and EPIC criticisms

The ostensible downgrading of photonics in Horizon Europe has raised alarms in the photonics community over the past half-year. It has also set in motion a major lobbying campaign. The most visible manifestation of that has been an open letter in December from three physics Nobel laureates—OSA Fellows Gérard Mourou, Stefan Hell and Theodor Hänsch—declaring that the apparent omission of photonics from the Horizon Europe playbook constituted “a serious strategic mistake,” with “no scientific, technological or industry policy rationale.”

The three laureates called for the E.U. to rewrite the plans for Horizon Europe to include photonics as a “tenth intervention area” in the evolving digital-and-industry cluster. The laureates’ call mirrored a recommendation in a position paper drafted by the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) that was also critical of the Horizon Europe plan.

Eyeing overseas competition

Photonics PPP logo

[Image: Photonics21]

The just-released strategic roadmap from Photonics21 constitutes yet another salvo in the campaign for a greater photonics profile in Horizon Europe. The advance publicity for this year’s PPP annual meeting billed it as a “summit” that would demonstrate how “top megatrends” such as the Internet of Things, big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles hinge on photonic technology.

The roadmap document itself is unabashed in highlighting the growth and economic importance of photonics in Europe. Like the late-2017 vision paper, the new roadmap notes that photonics worldwide had grown into a €447 billion annual market by 2015—and that Europe owned some 15.5% of that yearly turnover. That makes Europe, according to the report, “only second to China” (with a much beefier 26.6 percent share) in the global photonics market.

Indeed, as is often the case in such industry reports, the roadmap document invokes the specter of China’s seemingly monolithic, mercantilist economy as a future competitive threat. The report notes the country’s increasing move away from commodity products and toward “higher-value technologies” to compete with the European industry, which is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The roadmap study also mentions that the Chinese central government is expected to increase “its annual spending in photonics by 40% to €1 billion by 2020,” and highlights other national programs such as the US$610 million AIM Photonics effort in the United States. These overseas efforts, the report concludes, point to the need for “immediate, active support” to buttress European photonics’ global competitive position.

No word on Brexit

Notwithstanding such overseas threats, the roadmap also stresses the health and rapid growth of the photonics scene in Europe right now, with a recent estimated compound annual growth rate of 6.2 percent—“four times faster than European GDP.” Today, the report observes, the SME-dominated European photonics industry includes “an estimated 5,000 companies that have created more than more than 300,000 highly skilled jobs in this sector alone, with an annual turnover in excess of €60 billion.”

The roadmap’s economic brief is curiously silent on one issue: The possible impact of Brexit on the constitution and workings of the European industry. The United Kingdom, which is apparently included in the figures cited above, was responsible for some 10 percent of European photonics production in 2015. Given the recent, well publicized disarray of the Brexit effort, it is difficult to quantify at this point what Brexit might mean for the kinds of industry aggregates cited by the roadmap, and how those potential impacts are best interpreted in the context of Horizon Europe and the general E.U. research program.

Nine interdependent areas

group with photonics banner

Banner-wielding attendees at last year’s Photonics PPP meeting. [Image: Photonics21]

The heart of the new strategic roadmap attempts to lay out, in more than 100 pages, the seven-year, 2021–2027 priorities for nine “megatrend” areas:

  • information and communications;
  • industrial manufacturing and quality;
  • life sciences and health;
  • emerging lighting, electronics and displays;
  • security, metrology and sensors;
  • design and manufacturing of components and systems;
  • photonics research, education and training;
  • agriculture and food; and
  • automotive and transport.

Each of the detailed roadmap sections includes an analysis of the broad socio-economic challenges of the target area; milestones on the route to 2027; the specific research and innovation challenges for photonics in meeting those milestones; and the likely overlaps with other disciplines.

One interesting subtext of the detailed roadmaps is the sheer interdependence of development across these theme areas. The “Information and Communications” track, for example, sketches out an ambitious vision moving from AI-enabled optical networks as early as 2021, to a cloud- and fog-computing-dominated “access anywhere” environment in the mid-2020s, to aspirational cost- and power-per-bit declines, driven by all-optical data centers and optical computing, that will enable sustainable long-term growth in communications capacity in 2027 and beyond.

Achieving so ambitious an agenda will obviously hinge not only on brisk progress in optical communications technology, but also on advances in integrated photonics envisioned within the “Design and Manufacturing of Components and Systems” track. Similarly, the Internet of Things/Industry 4.0 vision sketched out in the “Industrial Manufacturing and Quality” section, and the biomedical advances envisioned in “Life Sciences & Health,” will rest heavily on further miniaturization of equipment through integrated photonics, advances in sensor technology, and emerging display systems fleshed out in other roadmap tracks.

Training the workforce

roadmap list of advances photonics could deliver

The roadmap includes an ambitious list of benefits that, according to the report, “European leadership in photonics will deliver ... by 2030.” [Image: Photonics21 strategic roadmap]

While the technical visions spelled out in the various areas of the strategic roadmap are impressive and sometimes breathtaking, in some ways the most practical and consequential plan may lie in the least ostensibly high-tech area: the education and training of future photonics professionals. The education roadmap in the document, noting the challenges of training in a fast-moving discipline and in bringing university-led research to market, lays out an interesting seven-year program for rethinking the training of photonics professionals, and for increasing photonics’ profile in science and engineering education generally.

The program would include an industry-wide effort to define the skills needed in a future workforce, beginning in 2021; efforts to develop new and innovative, hands-on tools for photonics training during the 2022–2023 period; outreach to key digital application areas and innovation hubs through a “pan-European network” of fabs, demonstration platforms and pilot lines in 2024-2025; and public outreach stressing the impact and value of photonics and its place in other curricula in 2026–2027 and going forward.

“Photonics,” the roadmap authors conclude, “needs to become a pervasive discipline at all levels of education and professional training.”

The strategic roadmap can be downloaded from the Photonics21 website.