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Education: Photonics Clusters - Providing a ‘Common Voice’

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Caren B. Les,

Photonics clusters, centers for optics/photonics and optoelectronics, are growing worldwide, wherever a critical mass occurs of companies, research universities, skilled employees and infrastructures within a geographically desirable region.

These regional industrial centers, or “clusters,” act as a catalyst for growth in a new industry or in an industry new to a region, said Alexandre Fong, president of the Florida Photonics Cluster. Photonics industry clusters help pull together the critical elements required for the success of the optics and photonics industries, including bringing together small and large, and private and public enterprises to enable them to pursue opportunities that might be outside of their individual scope, Fong explained.

James Pearson, executive director of the Florida Photonics Cluster, noted that the “common voice” of the organized cluster is a valuable tool for providing industry information to local, regional and state organizations that deal with economic development and education. He said clusters often are volunteer-driven, and that a leader who believes in the cluster concept and who will devote time and energy to make it happen is essential to the organization.

A mix of elements

The characteristics of a formalized industry cluster often include elements such as a business plan, organizational structure, workforce development, the cooperation of community stakeholders, an education system for training and research, and competition within the region.


Part of the Florida Photonics Cluster, CREOL, The College of Optics & Photonics at the University of Central Florida is shown.

An optics and photonics community of almost 40 members, the Florida Photonics Cluster is an example of this type of industrial cooperation. It was founded by the late William C. Schwartz of Schwartz Electro-Optics Inc. in Orlando and incorporated in 1995. Partly through his efforts, CREOL, The College of Optics & Photonics, University of Central Florida in Orlando was created, which, in turn, generated and attracted photonics professionals and firms – most recently, Raydiance Inc. of Orlando, an ultrafast laser company. The investment of larger organizations such as Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and the relocation of smaller companies that gravitated toward the region ultimately resulted in the formal organization.

Used for sharing sales opportunities and generating collaborative responses to customer requirements, clusters provide an excellent vehicle for communication with political representatives, job seekers and the broader global community, said Thomas Battley, executive director of the New York Photonics Industry Association.

New York has been home to industry giants such as Eastman Kodak Co. and Bausch & Lomb Inc., both in Rochester, which have spun off talent, research centers and supplier networks in light-based systems for consumer-, medical- and defense-related industries, Battley said.

The New York cluster today is driven mainly by companies with fewer than 250 employees, he said, adding that there have been challenges in collaborating with the very large corporations and universities. The larger entities have their own priorities for raising research dollars and lobbying at the state and federal levels, tending to make participation with statewide or regional clusters seem insignificant. The cluster still has good relationships with key staff within some of the larger companies, he said.

Battley, who spends one-third of his time on workforce development issues, noted that there is a worldwide shortage of workers to staff optics, photonics and imaging companies. He expects that regional collaboration in response to regional competition will be key to attracting skilled employees and to training the future workforce for the industry. He indicated that the New York cluster must demonstrate to the world that New York is a great place for a career in photonics in terms of quality of life and in educational and employment opportunities.

Taking a broader view, Pearson believes that clusters eventually will recognize the value of cooperation with each other and will begin to form a “learning community” to share best practices and to work together on common interests such as research and development funding, and education programs. He would like to see cluster collaboration in the US lead to a national photonics industry association, perhaps with regional clusters as chapters.

A sub-field of photonics that pertains to an electronic device that responds to optical power, emits or modifies optical radiation, or utilizes optical radiation for its internal operation. Any device that functions as an electrical-to-optical or optical-to-electrical transducer. Electro-optic often is used erroneously as a synonym.
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