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Better strategies needed for UK laser industry

All change at AILU - Mike Green, Neil Main, and Ric Allott

It’s all change at the Association of Laser Users (AILU) following the election of Ric Allott (Pic: right) as president, Lin Li as vice president, and Dave MacLellan as executive secretary. The handover means that Allott steps up from his role as vice president and Neil Main (Pic: centre) and Mike Green (Pic: left) are stepping down as president and executive secretary. Laser Systems Europe spoke to Allott, MacLellan, Main, and Green to see where they thought the laser market was going and where it’s come from under their respective tenures.

The Association of Laser Users (AILU) has recently announced the latest appointments of staff – Mike Green is stepping down as executive secretary after two decades of service to be replaced by Dave MacLellan, while Ric Allott has stepped up from vice presidency to president to take over from Neil Main.

It is AILU’s job to assist UK laser users, to help research reach the market, and do its best to keep the UK competitive in this field. At the recent Industrial Laser Applications Symposium grouped strategies were discussed as a means to improve UK laser industry and research.

Mike Green commented: ‘Laser materials processing is an enabling technology and without a strategy to steer R&D in this area there is a great danger of UK activity being spread too thinly. Also, by linking the strategy for laser materials processing with those of key industrial sectors, such as aerospace or automotive etcetera, the laser technology can be ready in the UK when it is required.’

However, there are disadvantages to joint strategies, as Main points out: ‘The use of lasers is very wide; they are used in many other industries in addition to material processing. Even in material processing they are used in a variety of industries and with scales from the very smallest to the very largest. I think it is unrealistic to talk of single strategies at any stage in the use of lasers from fundamental research to implementation.

‘EU money, UK Government money, Universities research budgets, companies R&D budgets and marketing budgets, customers’ capital budgets will all continue to be directed to achieving a myriad of different targets. If there is benefit by short- or medium-term groupings to maximise a benefit then go for it; but in general diversity is a good thing.’

Allott said: ‘It would provide a critical mass to provide the community with a voice that will be listened to. By having a strategy we are able to present a united front and use this to influence funding decisions. Also the strategy allows communication between academics and industry where industry needs can be identified and met by collaboration.

‘The strategy should result in more funding, more problems solved and more products so this is a good thing for UK photonics and the entire supply chain. “When the tide comes in, all of the boats in the harbour rise up together”.’

As to whom a joint strategy could benefit, Dave MacLellan said: ‘We can see more in the field of application development. The UK laser industry has a history of innovation but less success in commercialisation than in other EU countries. By working together, perhaps we can turn this around.

‘I think that one of the roles AILU can play is to facilitate collaboration between laser manufacturers and research centres of excellence. We have seen some success in this area regarding laser source research.’

Unified strategy could also increase visibility which would help reduce the skills gap within the UK laser industry. Currently, Green said: ‘There is indeed some anecdotal evidence for there being a shortage of laser-savvy engineers in the UK. In 2012, when we last looked into this, there were over 100 doctoral students researching in laser materials processing in the UK. At that time we estimated that only 20 per cent of those completing their PhDs would go on to work in UK industry in some laser materials processing-related activity. Of the remainder, a large percentage were international students returning home after completing their doctoral project.’

Allott explained: ‘Skills is an issue across all sectors. Photonics has the problem that people don't really know what it is. Electronics is generally recognised by the public but not photonics. So communications and information exchange is vital. Identifying where the gaps are is an important part of the strategy and then seeing how those gaps are closed by training and education.’

All change at AILU - Mike Green and Dave MacLellan

Mike Green (left) and Dave MacLellan (right)

A grouped strategy could also help UK companies stand their ground when competing with international groups. Main observed: ‘We in the UK seem to be able to innovate with the best. We can staff and manage and direct world class companies with British workers. What we cannot do, it seems, is own good companies for the benefit of continuing profitable sales. Any successful company is groomed and sold on, usually overseas. As to why, I think the politicians and the city have to answer.’

Only last month UK-based JK Lasers was acquired by the Trumpf Group subsidiary SPI Laser. The UK has a strong record in innovation, with many start-ups having strong technological leadership – however, as MacLellan pointed out, taking a product to market and making a strong manufacturing company is something that seems more difficult. He said: ‘The cost of development often needs a large company with “deep pockets” to fund the process effectively – sometimes perhaps lack of access to funding may be the issue.’ However, he noted UK companies taken over by EU organisations seem to fare better than those bought by US concerns.

Mike Green believes this acquisition could be a warning or a blessing: ‘I feel very sad about this: only in that it reflects the poor state of the industrial laser source and system manufacturing in the UK. On the other hand, JK Lasers has been in decline for many years so it is possible that the takeover will have a positive outcome for the UK.’

Allott suggested that UK industry should maximise its opportunities and be global in its outlook. He believes that protecting and growing UK jobs is ultimately how our economy will grow and society will benefit.

Related links:

AILU Industrial Laser Applications Symposium review

Trumpf boosts technology base with JK Laser acquisition

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