January 17, 2017

“Photonics 4.0 will play an important role at LASER 2017”

					Prof. Andreas Ostendorf

As the retiring president of the German Scientific Society for Laser Technology (WLT) and head of the Chair of Applied Laser Technologies at Bochum University in Germany, Prof. Andreas Ostendorf is very familiar with photonics and its innovation fields. In the interview, he explains why and how photonics can benefit from increasing digitization, where he sees market potential for laser applications and what he expects from LASER World of PHOTONICS 2017 in Munich from June 25 to 29.

Prof. Ostendorf, what do you understand by Photonics 4.0?

A smart combination of photonics and digitization that goes far beyond the traditional role of photonics as a pioneer of digitization. Without optical data transfer the Internet and modern communication would not be possible. This communication is the key to networking industrial production processes. With sensor networks, and by using cloud computing and big data, they can be monitored precisely, and continuously optimized and automated. Since they are massless, lasers are a very accurate tool in this production world. They do not introduce any dynamics into machines and guarantee precisely controllable heat input. Photonics is predestined to play a key role in Industry 4.0. But not only there. Camera systems and laser-based LiDAR sensors are also vital in networked, increasingly autonomous vehicles. Measurement technology, which is also based for the most part on optical methods, is a central interface of the networked systems.

A “Photonics 4.0 Alliance” is being set up in Germany. Your Scientific Society for Laser Technology is one of the founding members. What are the objectives?

It’s a joint line of approach by all the players in industry, science, politics and trade associations. We want to defend and extend our current lead in the area of laser systems and measurement technology as digitization progresses. Since innovation cycles will become increasingly shorter through digitization, the aim is to translate scientific findings even faster into innovative products. Alliances in other fields of technology have proven to be a success in this respect. We want to lead the digitization wave and not be swamped by it.

What does it take to be a leader in terms of PHOTONICS 4.0?

The major players in the digital world and the successful business models come from the U.S. and, to a certain extent, also Asia. These companies know how to use large volumes of data intelligently. And in terms of quantity they also have the data basis for big data applications. This is still lacking in Europe. However, we have some very innovative SMEs whose sovereignty over their own data has to be defended. There is a lot of concern that data ownership will be diluted through cloud processes and that key expertise will get into the wrong hands. Initiatives like Industrial Data Space are very important on the path to Photonics 4.0.

What challenges does a networked production world pose for photonics?

You have to think differently and in a networked manner. In the future, the aim will be to integrate intelligence into sensors and link them directly with superordinate networks. The cloud is also a way of storing and processing large volumes of data. A completely new level of sensor intelligence will be possible in the future. In addition to developing the individual sensors, which deliver higher resolution and, increasingly, three-dimensional data ever faster, the focus will be on networking, which requires standards. The latter is also a topic for our Photonics 4.0 Alliance.

What about growth potential in Photonics 4.0?

There definitely is such potential. Sensor and laser producers can benefit from a networked, highly automated and centrally controlled production world in the same way as providers of solutions at the network interfaces. I also see great market potential in 3D recording and presentation, which is still in its infancy. We have developed the basis and now need to develop marketable products from it.

As head of the Chair of Applied Laser Technologies at Bochum University you are in touch with the latest trends. What are currently the most exciting fields of innovation in laser applications?

One very important area is measurement sensor technology—from terahertz sensor technology to the many different possibilities of infrared technology where quantum cascade lasers and innovative sensors are extremely promising. Precision machining remains a highly innovative area. With ultrashort pulse lasers the pulse repetition frequencies are now in the range of many hundred kilohertz and into the megahertz range, combined with high pulse energies. This allows material to be removed extremely accurately with minimum thermal stress. We are talking about digital processing, since lasers in digital process chains carry out exactly those processes that were previously simulated. Unwanted melting and material spatter, which affect precision, are minimized. Metals and plastics can be removed almost pixel by pixel.

On the other hand, additive processes can more or less shape materials into components pixel by pixel. Another major field of application for lasers. What perspectives do you see in 3D printing?

This is a very interesting growth area in which key players come from Germany. The technology is still young and offers plenty of development potential—from the range of materials to the laser melting processes. As the installation space grows, existing mirror optics will be stretched to their limits. Ideas for direct exposure of the powder already exist. If they become reality, this could create a very interesting sales market for diode and fiber lasers.

What do you expect to see at LASER World of PHOTONICS 2017 and the accompanying World of PHOTONICS Congress from June 25 to 29?

I think Photonics 4.0 in all its facets will play a very big role. There’s huge momentum in this area. The topic is preoccupying the industry. This can also be seen in the number of startups in the areas of sensor technology, networking and 3D visualization. This is where I expect to see innovations and lots of exciting new products. And the congress will underpin the whole thing from a thematic aspect. Whether at our WLT conference Lasers in Manufacturing or at the SPIE Digital Optical Technologies conference, one thing is clear: The trend is toward digital process chains, digital manufacturing and digital processing. Lasers and optical processes are an absolute key technology in this regard.