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  • Germany: Managing the downswing

Feb 2010
Jörg Schwartz,

BERLIN – Looking back on 2009, many business analysts see Germany as less hard-hit by the recession than some other European countries, and a feeling prevails that “it could have been worse.” However, as was the case in most neighboring countries, the government had to use tax money to keep things going. The German government, with a new coalition since the September 2009 elections, did this not by nationalizing whole sectors or by cutting the sales tax but by injecting funds into key industries – with indirect relief also for many parts of the photonics sector.

Cars are important in Germany, not only for the average citizen but for the overall economy, with the auto industry providing 1.4 million jobs plus many more that depend on vehicle manufacturing. The car scrappage scheme available in the first nine months of 2009, although criticized by many, probably has helped this key industry to avoid a much deeper dive; other countries also have adopted the incentive program.

Rolling right along

Not surprisingly, large sectors of the photonics industry depend on core German businesses such as engineering and automobile manufacturing. As a result, there is little talk of companies struggling, and the outlook is even moderately positive. As for Germany’s machine vision industry, overall business volume was down 30 percent; the VDMA, the national engineering association, described 2009 as “lost.” However, it also reported signs that in 2010, the numbers will be positive again, as they were for more than a decade up until 2008 (see “Vision on the Upswing,” November 2009

Laser machinery maker Trumpf GmbH & Co. KG of Ditzingen, which also is heavily involved in car manufacturing, expects a “transition” year. “We have identified an economic upswing in individual markets, and there are signs that order declines may be slowing,” said President Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller in presenting the company’s results. Despite considerable sales declines, the company closed out the year with a profit. The only business division that saw any growth – of 11 percent – was medical technology.

The impact of the downturn on the country’s job market has been found to be surprisingly small, with fears of a jump in the unemployment rate proved wrong. One reason for this is that many employers are reluctant to lay off workers for fear that skilled staff cannot be replaced when times get better. This is particularly true for the photonics field: Spectaris, the German Association for Optical, Medical and Mechatronical Technologies, has identified a shortage of skilled labor; working with 11 companies, it has launched a campaign called LightAlliance to raise awareness of optical technologies among students and to encourage them to consider careers in photonics.

Renewable still green

Environmental awareness has a long history in Germany, and “green” technologies such as renewable energy continue to gain significance in the overall economy. Generous funding for solar cell installations (see “Make green energy, not war,” October 2009, p. E18) has helped a whole industry to grow – although, as with the car scrappage scheme, a lot of the funding goes abroad to vendors producing at lower cost.

So even this sector saw a dip, but demand for solar power systems is expected to grow this year in Germany and in several important foreign markets, despite the financial crisis, according to the latest predictions of BSW-Solar, the interest group of the German solar energy industry. This forecast is only put at risk by the new government’s recent announcement that it will cut its generous subsidy to citizens feeding solar electricity into the national grid.

If you think all the money has been spent by now, think again. Even in difficult times, when solving immediate issues with short-term stimulus packages dominates the news, it is important not to lose sight of the midrange and long-term future. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is still the largest national supporter of photonics research, with significant funding going to a broad range of optical technologies, such as “femtonics” (materials processing and medicine with ultrashort laser pulses), high-performance diode lasers, biophotonics and organic LEDs.

The European x-ray laser research facility XFEL is under construction in the vicinity of Hamburg, Germany.Beginning in 2014, it will generate extremely intense x-ray flashes to be used by researchers worldwide.

On the research horizon, the outlook also is promising. In November 2009, an agreement signed by 13 European countries established XFEL (X-ray Free-Electron Laser) as an international research center. The facility, near Hamburg, is expected to be commissioned in 2014 and will make it possible to depict molecules that in the past were too small for imaging techniques or that could not be fixed, and to film molecules during chemical reactions.

The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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