Conference organiser predicts a bright future for the photonics sector in Northern Ireland

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  • Carrickfergus is hosting a European-wide photonics conference today and tomorrow. It’s the first time that the European Photonic Industry Consortium have held such an event in Northern Ireland.

    The 15 year old association of photonic companies has over 350 members stretched across every country in Europe. Alongside big brand names like Huawei, LG and Sony, members include smaller companies like YELO, the photonics test company in Carrickfergus which is hosting this week’s event.

    EPIC’s Chief Technology Officer Jose Pozo is chairing the conference that focuses on the testing of optoelectronics and will be attended by senior representatives from 25 companies, large and small.

    It’s one of 30 focussed events that EPIC annually run for their members, and Jose sees his role as being that of a matchmaker “trying to find ways to connect members so that they can collaborate with each other – that’s where the magic happens”. He’s convinced that it is often the smaller companies in the industry which are the most innovative.

    Northern Ireland’s YELO have a world-wide reputation for the volume testing of photonic modules, mostly in the telecom market. Other local companies using photonics include Randox in the medical market and Raptor Photonics who make cameras. Local universities are also leading contributors to research in the field.

    Speaking to Sync NI before the conference, Jose explained that “a photonic device is something that transforms light, creates light or receives light.”

    Many people might hazard a guess that photonics is all about firing light and data down optical fibre cables. But the industry is much broader, taking in life sciences, transport, defence, lighting, integrated circuits as well as telecommunications.

    “With photonics you can communicate, like all the optical fibre networks in the world. But you can also make things: cutting and welding metal with lasers in the car industry.

    “And you can sense what’s around you, if there is an escape of methane gas or if there is oil underground or a fire in your house. When light travels through a material or bounces back it changes its properties, so by detecting the light with sensors you can know what it is touching.”

    The heart rate monitors many people wear on their wrists shine two green LEDs at the skin to detect changes in the volume of blood just under the surface. Photoplethysmography is a simple and long established photonics technique that can now be manufactured at a low cost and reliably built into consumer devices.

    “We are very close to having autonomous driving cars. How does a car know what’s around it? With light. Your eyes are receivers of light and the source of light is the sun. In the same way when a car drives around it’s going to have a range of cameras, which are detectors which receive light. LIDAR is a sensor that fires a laser beam, waits for it to bounce back and analyses the light that it receives.”

    Health is one of the sectors in which Jose thinks photonics could make a big impact.

    “We live in a beautiful world in which you or I could get lost in the middle of Northern Ireland, take out a mobile phone to order groceries, and they will be delivered to your house. Yet we are not regularly scanned for cancer. That’s crazy.

    “In my opinion, we really need to invest in linking the challenges of society with the research done at universities and especially to the money that investors can spend to bring these technologies, ideas and innovations into their companies.”

    EPIC recognise that a lot of manufacturing happens in countries with cheaper labour costs than Europe. However, they want to see manufacturing and testing carried out competitively in Europe.

    “To do that we need to invest in automation. Many companies are only looking at the automation of manufacturing, forgetting about the testing. At this conference we want to see what kind of testing we can do in parallel with manufacturing, as soon as possible, and not just testing the device after it is fully manufactured.

    “You want to diagnose your sickness as soon as possible? It’s the same with manufacturing. You want to detect the mistake as soon as it is made before you find that the whole device is broken, which is costly.”

    Jose is upbeat about the growth of the photonics industry in Europe and sees opportunities for innovative students who are studying physics to be able to find work. And he believes that Northern Ireland has the potential to host more photonics startup companies with the right local and national incentives, and if learning can be applied from other successful regions like Cambridge, Southampton and Edinburgh.

    “Firstly, you have good education with good students from good universities. And secondly, creating a company in Northern Ireland is not as difficult as it is in other countries bureaucratic-wise.”

    Europe is at the leading edge of the emergence of the photonic integrated circuit. This exciting technology will “revolutionise … in a similar way that electronic ICs did fifty years ago” when wafer technology reduced the cost of manufacturing electronic devices. Now

    a laser, a detector, and something that modifies the light can be integrated on a chip and produced at a low cost like electronic ICs.

    “That’s going to be huge” says Jose who explains that local company YELO wants to position itself as a leader in the volume testing of these silicon photonic devices.

    “At this conference we’re bringing companies who are already in the wafer-level manufacturing of devices together with those that can do the volume testing.”


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