September 21, 2016
“Light will remain an enabler”
Dr. Andreas Nitze has been involved in photonics since the early 1990s. That's when he started as student trainee at the Berliner Glas Group. These days, he manages the company as an executive partner. As the chair of the industry association SPECTARIS and a member of the advisory board of LASER World of PHOTONICS, he has a very good idea of what is happening in the industry. In the interview, he talks about the importance of photonics in Industry 4.0, about lasers in biophotonics and medicine and about the trend towards 3D technologies.
Dr. Nitze, Industry 4.0 is a megatrend. Digital factories need inline quality controls. Can optical technologies on the whole benefit from this?
Optical measuring processes will certainly play a significant role. According to a photonics industry report from SPECTARIS, image processing and metrology already make up 15 percent of the photonics market for German companies. Numerous measuring methods utilize the extraordinary properties of light. For example, surfaces are scanned with light to check the accuracy of shapes and to determine height differences. The optical industry also uses light for quality control—think of interferometric measurement.
How important are measuring technologies in your product portfolio?
The Berliner Glas Group has been involved in this market segment for about 15 years and more than five years ago, we created a separate metrology business unit. Sales, development and production are aligned specifically to this market, which shows how seriously we take this subject.
To what extent is Industry 4.0 present in your production?
We are looking at it. However, our production of optical components and optomechanical assemblies is generally small-series, as we produce only components and assemblies for specific customer orders. But we cover the entire process from design and development through the production and quality control. Most of the processes are manual. This is why we don't expect any major effects on our production. However, the situation for our customers is completely different. As a result, Industry 4.0 will have an effect on the design of our products.
Will lasers be a winner in Industry 4.0?
Because of their unique properties, lasers have been a winner in many areas for decades. They began to take over many areas of industrial production more than ten years ago. They are especially used as a tool to cut and weld metal sheets and steel. Lasers are also used for inspection and quality control; for instance, to check shapes and surfaces. But the drivers for this are more their special properties rather than Industry 4.0.
Optical assemblies, image processing, and lasers pave the way for advances in medicine. What are the growth potentials for optical technologies in medical technology and biophotonics?
Based on sales revenue, medical technology and life sciences make up almost twelve percent of the German photonics industry. Here, too, light can demonstrate its unique properties. In biophotonics and the life sciences many analyses and diagnoses would not be possible without light. In medicine, light and lasers stand for gentle processes. Think about minimally invasive surgery and the various types of eye operations. When we consider the aging population, photonics will continue to have great opportunities in this area. Growth rates fluctuate depending on the area of application. On average, market observers expect annual growth rates of five to six percent.
The Berliner Glas Group has a wide range of technologies but its markets are very specialized. So far, it has stayed out of the automotive industry. Will this change with the growing demand for optical environment sensors for autonomous driving?
About ten years ago, we decided to cover specific market segments within the Berliner Glas Group with products and services. We are involved in the automotive industry only indirectly. We supply customers that manufacture test equipment. Therefore, autonomous driving is not important for us at present, since we assume that the key expertise for this area is more in the software rather than the hardware.
3D printing, 3D chips, 3D imaging—all need optical technologies. To what extent do you see growth potentials for photonics in general?
3D technologies offer enormous opportunities. There are many drivers. 3D printing will play an important role within the scope of Industry 4.0. The trends toward individualized products and business-on-demand are also important factors. 3D chips are an approach to further increase the efficiency of chips. Additional demand comes also from the Internet of Things, in which chips continuously have to process and store increasing volumes of data. 3D imaging is an important element for augmented and virtual reality. Although Google Glass was not the expected success, augmented reality has long been accepted in the industry. For example, for service technicians who maintain machinery. Mark Zuckerberg is convinced that in the future friends will “meet” in a virtual environment rather than sharing photos and videos.
In your opinion, how mature are these markets?
In all three of the developments that I mentioned, we are only at the very beginning and have a fascinating time ahead of us. The photonics industry will continue to grow. Perhaps the applications will change somewhat, but light will remain an “enabler” with unique properties. The Berliner Glas Group will be part of this in individual, selected areas. We are looking to the future with optimism.
Berliner Glas Group
The Berliner Glas Group is one of the world's leading providers of optical key components, assemblies and systems as well as high-quality refined technical glass. With its understanding of optical systems and optical production technology, the company develops, produces and integrates optics, mechanics and electronics into innovative system solutions. These solutions are used in the semiconductor industry, in laser and aerospace technologies, medical technology, metrology and the display industry. Over the last ten years, the Berliner Glas Group has grown from 700 to 1,100 employees worldwide, who work at five locations in Germany, Switzerland, and China. Dr. Andreas Nitze worked as a student trainee in the company's glass processing unit while he was studying economic and social sciences. After earning his doctor's degree, he began his career 25 years ago as a management assistant. Today, he is an executive partner and the CEO of the owner-managed Berliner Glas Group. He is involved in associations such as SPECTARIS, clusters such as OpTec-Berlin-Brandenburg, and is member of the advisory board of LASER World of PHOTONICS.