National strategy to boost UK laser industry?

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The UK has a strong history in laser research, but does it need a more targeted strategy for turning research into products? Tom Eddershaw speaks to those heading the Association of Laser Users

There are both pluses and minuses for the UK laser industry regarding the news in April that UK-based JK Lasers was acquired by Trumpf subsidiary SPI Lasers, itself a UK spin-out from the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre and acquired by Trumpf in 2008. The UK has a strong record in laser research and innovation, but would it benefit from a more targeted strategy for industrial laser processing?

‘It is well recognised that until recently the UK did not have a strategy for lasers in industry, but this is now being rectified,’ commented Mike Green, the outgoing Association of Laser Users (AILU) executive secretary. Green is stepping down as executive secretary after two decades in the post to be replaced by Dave MacLellan.

Green noted that Innovate UK, a UK government technology strategy board, is a key driver for industrial research activity through its various collaborative industry-led competitions. In addition, AILU and the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Laser-Based Production Processes, based at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, have organised a UK road-mapping activity targeting laser-based production processes. A national strategy working group is currently being put together to turn the road-mapping output into a final product, Green said. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the main funder of basic academic research in the UK.

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. Neil Main, the outgoing president of AILU, said: ‘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, university research budgets, company R&D budgets and marketing budgets, and 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.’

Ric Allott, who has replaced Main as AILU president, said: ‘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. The strategy should result in more funding, more problems solved, and more products, so this is a good thing for UK photonics.’

As to whom a joint strategy could benefit, incoming AILU executive secretary 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.’

Unified strategy could also increase visibility which would help reduce the skills gap within the UK laser industry. Green commented that there is anecdotal evidence for a shortage of laser-savvy engineers in the UK. According to AILU, in 2012 there were more than 100 doctoral students researching in laser materials processing in the UK. The association estimated that only 20 per cent of those completing their PhDs would go on to work in UK industry in a 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.’

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.’

In terms of the JK Lasers acquisition, Green believes it 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.