European photonics manufacturers predict key laser applications
Susanna Contini Hennink
MUNICH, Germany -- Measurement, medicine and machining will be the most important future applications of laser technology, according to a proposal that photonics manufacturers presented to the European Commission's fifth Framework Programme recently.
The European Federation of Precision Mechanical and Optical Industries (EUROM) introduced "Laser Technologies for Tomorrow's Needs" at the Laser 97 conference and exhibition.
Industry and R&D experts joined forces in EUROM II's Working Group 1 Lasers, the branch committee that represents small- and medium-size companies in optics, lasers and laboratory instrumentation. The group analyzed the potential of advanced laser applications and identified five key technologies, research areas and tasks for further development:
Optical measuring techniques, including environmental diagnostics. While optical measuring methods using lasers are widely used in all major industries, drawbacks such as cost, environmental sensitivity, size and efficiency have limited their use. European industry needs extensive research so it can continue development of more compact, efficient laser sources to improve the systems and sensors that are becoming standard components in many technologies.
Lasers in biomedical applications. With widespread practical applications of laser technology throughout biomedicine, technology is developing rapidly in laser biodynamics, micromanipulation and analysis. Many applications are sprouting up in laser diagnostics, such as two-photon microscopy in living cells, optical tomography and studies of interactions between proteins and enzymes. These require improved techniques and the continued development of applications.
Lasers in information technology. Today's rapidly increasing demand for information necessitates strong R&D activities to bring laser and microsystem technology to industrial use, to build new equipment and to provide components and systems commercially.
Laser treatment of materials. Many European manufacturing industries (e.g., automotive, aerospace, machine tool and shipbuilding) use or plan to use advanced laser technology in their production. A considerable R&D effort is needed to implement major improvements and innovative manufacturing techniques.
Laser microprocessing for micro- and nanotechnologies. Miniaturization and integration in microelectronics, sensors, electronic packaging and medical device manufacturing demonstrate the demand for more precise processing tools and technologies. Laser technologies that meet these requirements while delivering increased environmental performance still must find more industrial applications in Europe.
"EUROM hopes to create new long-lasting jobs in the future, based on needed applications," said Dirk Basting, chairman of Working Group 1 Lasers and president of Lambda Physik. "We want Europe's [laser] industry to become competitive on the world market."
Basting declined to estimate how much money would be needed to support the proposal: "We want to come up with project proposals and then calculate the needed budget, based on the application's requirements."
With about 350 medium-size companies and some 55,000 highly qualified employees across Europe, EUROM II's members produce sales of approximately 4 billion European currency units each year. R&D spending typically varies between 10 and 20 percent of sales in the laser industry, and exports far exceed imports. As lasers increasingly provide improved products and novel processes in such diverse areas as computers, automobiles, medical devices and diagnostics, micropatterning and art restoration, there is a growing need to improve public awareness of the industry's potential and to increase support for research and development.
"There are more and more small and medium-size companies that will be providing many jobs in the future," Basting said, "but they cannot afford to risk large investments to develop projects for new applications,"
He stressed the need for laser manufacturers to join other industries to determine what applications should be developed. For this reason the EUROM proposal was prepared in a "bottom-up" process aimed at defining applications based on market demands to ensure industry participation and market orientation.
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