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Key Enabling Technologies for Growth

May 2011
Photonic technologies are poised to grow industry and innovation in Europe.

Thomas P. Pearsall, European Photonics Industry Consortium

Several technologies have great potential to strengthen Europe’s capacity for innovation and industrial development in the face of global competition. In October 2009, the European Commission identified key enabling technologies (KETs); in particular, KETs were recognized as playing an increasingly vital role in developing the industrial and technological base indispensable for the delivery of smart, sustainable and inclusive European growth.

Six KETs are under consideration:

• Nanotechnology
• Micro- and nanoelectronics
• Advanced materials
• Photonics
• Industrial biotechnology
• Advanced manufacturing systems

A high-level group was launched in July 2010 to make recommendations about capturing the potential of these technologies for European economic development. The group is completing its study this month and should deliver a report to the commission later this year.

The KETs: six key enabling technologies for strategic industrial development in Europe. Images courtesy of European Commission High-Level Group on Key Enabling Technologies. (

Advanced manufacturing is the cross-cutting technology that can unite several KETs, creating powerful synergies. Solid-state high-power lasers are a key element of advanced manufacturing: agile, lean and green. The research and development behind these tools for welding, cutting, drilling and marking also has shown the possibilities for lasers to be applied to a much wider array of applications, including treatment of plastics, medical interventions, cutting and sewing of clothes, printing and packaging.

Photonics-powered production – the combination of lasers, sensors and Information and Communication Technologies – is the key component of agile, lean and green manufacturing. The introduction of laser technologies in manufacturing is highly disruptive, creating competitive opportunities in Europe because laser processing implements a flexible, fast and reactive platform that provides access to high-performance and low-cost manufacturing to institutions including universities, large companies and, above all, small- to medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

Sustainable and profitable manufacturing in Europe is a condition for continued investment in education, research and development. There also is strategic importance placed on innovation. Without strong support for discovery and innovation, there can be no strong added-value production, only low-cost mass manufacturing.

Opportunities through photonics

Manufacturing is an art that used to require costly investment in capital equipment. Extensive time in service for this equipment was necessary to pay back the investment. Profitable manufacturing today requires a break with this tradition because customers demand products based on innovation at a much more rapid schedule than the payback time for an old-style plant. In fact, the traditional manufacturing model has led to the failure of traditional companies and the loss of skilled jobs in Europe. We cannot build a new era of competitive manufacturing on the foundation of this obsolete tradition.

Significant opportunities exist in the implementation of agile and reactive manufacturing for high value-added production. To capture this opportunity, we should provide affordable, high-performance manufacturing resources to companies seeking to exploit specialty applications. Such sustainable manufacturing has two additional features: It is profitable, and it is respectful of environmental constraints.

Photonics-powered production is a powerful technology to build a functional infrastructure for manufacturing in Europe. According to statistics published by Photonics-21 and SEMI, it unites three sectors that account for more than €30 billion of economic activity per year: lasers, sensors and machine vision. In turn, this creates synergies among European technology platforms: Photonics-21, Manufuture and ENIAC (European Nanoelectronics Initiative Advisory Council). It also leverages key enabling technologies of photonics and advanced manufacturing.

Diode lasers are a core technology of this vision. With slope efficiencies of more than 90 percent and steadily improving output powers, direct diode laser processing could be developed for systems that deliver up to 1 kW of continuous machining power. For higher powers, such systems can pump fiber laser or disc laser systems. Diode laser pumping also is the basis for ultrashort-pulse-length, high-peak-power lasers that can be used to manufacture glass- and ceramic-based products: e.g., LCD displays and thin-film solar cells.

The diode-pumped laser and, in particular, the fiber laser, have been developed from optical amplifiers used for optical fiber telecommunications. The devices are relatively simple to design and assemble, and as a result, a number of small companies throughout Europe are making them. This technology is by nature easy to scale. Thus, high-performance fiber lasers can be made to fit in the palm of your hand, while the same technology is being used to make lasers the size of football fields for nuclear fusion. This is exciting technology with a brilliant future.

The LIFT (Leadership in Fiber Technology) Project, a consortium of 21 European partners, seeks to capture and exploit this vision by the development of the next generation of ultrahigh-brilliance fiber lasers. Innovative results from this project will open up application areas for laser-based materials processing and manufacturing.

• Ceramics: The cold ablation fiber laser, based on ultrashort pulses, will open a new market (€100 million per year) for laser processing of ceramics.

• EUV laser sources: The extreme ultraviolet (EUV) high-power fiber laser will enlarge the EUV lithography market to include fiber lasers.

• Medical applications: The visible fiber laser will produce the first high-brilliance source in the visible for medical applications (€100 million per year).

• Manufacturing tools: Future-oriented manufacturing tools will be based on higher power pulsed fiber lasers (€80 million per year).

• Laser remote processing: The high-reliability laser for large-scale manufacturing with high-speed remote processing means a new level of performance for 2-kW materials-processing lasers, with a mean time between failures raised to 50,000 hours (accessible market €1 billion per year).

Horizontal integration and networking among the partners will enable a greater market share for existing applications, will create new areas of exploitation for manufacturing and will build a European network of component suppliers, laser manufacturers, universities and research institutes. To accelerate this networking, the LIFT project has created the Fiber Laser network on LinkedIn:

The project also will help European companies take advantage of novel laser sources that can be employed for various processing applications, many of which cannot even be treated by today’s lasers. The companies will benefit from the exploitation of the consortium’s knowledge of fiber lasers, creating new markets and improving productivity in existing ones, and by building the competitiveness and technological role of Europe. The society as a whole would benefit because, in many sectors, further development of laser processing is crucial for the improvement of the quality of life.

If you would like to learn more about the LIFT project, please visit us at the Laser World of Photonics trade fair (Stand C2-629) to be held May 19-22 in Munich, Germany, or visit

Building the future

KETs offer the possibility for a transformational change in industrial development policy. New programs are possible that emphasize transformational results and that benefit from synergies among KETs. Because of budgetary limitations, such development requires defining new priorities and cutting – or even eliminating – other less productive programs. Most interesting would be the reorganization of the units that deliver cooperative research programs at the commission to take advantage of the KETs concept for the Common Strategic Framework for EU Research and Innovation Funding, which starts in 2014.

The KETs seek to build bridges between knowledge and the global market. These bridges are supported by three main pillars: technology development, product demonstration and competitive manufacturing. Photonics-powered production is a key element of competitive manufacturing.

The future will not be built on better laser diodes, sensors or circuits. It will be built on new systems based on the integration of functionalities to address specific applications. These advanced manufacturing systems are resistant to copy by cheap labor. In many cases, the market for application-specific systems is not large enough and does not last long enough to support such a copying effort.

Europe is well-placed to lead this manufacturing renaissance by exploiting its current worldwide leadership in innovative laser and machine tool technologies. Benefits will accrue to the manufacturing industry through commercialization of lower-cost, higher-performance manufacturing tools, and through research, development and innovations that open the door to new applications, stimulating the economy twice: for manufacture of new cost-competitive products and for the manufacturers of photonics-powered production systems.

Meet the author

Thomas P. Pearsall is general secretary of EPIC, the European Photonics Industry Consortium; e-mail:

Fiber laser technology is transformational because it:

• creates opportunities and greater competitiveness in “made in Europe” products.

• implements rapidly reconfigurable manufacturing sites for products and processes.

• implements agile manufacturing with tools that are easily adapted to the scale of the fabrication, benefiting industry from the SME to the industrial giant.

The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
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