At LASER World of PHOTONICS 2023, the SPECTARIS and VDMA associations presented the latest economic figures for the photonics industry. The outlook is positive – but there is a big question mark.

By 2025, the global photonics market will grow by at least six percent annually. In the core area of photonics (lasers, LEDs, sensors, etc.), double-digit growth was even expected, as the Managing Director of SPECTARIS, Jörg Mayer, explained at LASER 2023 in Munich. By comparison: The global market volume in 2021 stood at 830 billion US dollars.

According to Mayer, the German photonics industry is also doing well: The 1,000 or more photonics companies generated over €50 billion in sales in 2022 with 191,000 employees. Once it had quickly overcome the coronavirus crisis, the industry had enjoyed double-digit growth in the last two years. That was driven by strong demand from other EU countries and the two most important export countries, China and the U.S. On average, the export quota for German providers was 73 percent. The largest importers of photonics systems and components in the German market, according to SPECTARIS, were once again China and the U.S.

Positive outlook

By 2027, the association expects annual growth rates here in Germany of seven percent, which equates to an increase in sales of €50 to €67 billion in just five years. But there is a question mark: To be able to cope with this growth in terms of personnel, the industry needs an additional 60,000 skilled workers by 2027, according to SPECTARIS. Given the intensive competition for scientific and technical talent, and the demographic shift, that is a challenge. To support the industry in recruiting skilled workers, the association has launched a web portalon which interested parties can obtain information about career options in photonics, and find specific training and job offers.

In addition to SPECTARIS, the VDMA lasers and laser systems for material processing working group also updated itself at LASER 2023 on the latest market developments and their technology drivers. Managing Director Dr. Sven Breitung reported a positive mood among the member companies. Whether it’s new orders from home or abroad, or sales expectations for 2023, most of the companies expect growth that is likely, in some cases, to be in the double-digit range. The supply chain problems that resulted in particular in a shortage of electronics components have been overcome, according to a current member survey. The majority of companies have solved the problem; a further 40 percent expect the situation to ease in the second half of 2023 at the latest. However, the members of the VDMA working group likewise see no swift solution to the biggest challenge in the industry – the shortage of skilled workers.

Growth potential everywhere, but the shortage of skilled worker is an urgent issue

SPECTARIS sees growth potential for photonics in sustainable agriculture, and has presented that in a current study with Messe München and TEMATYS. In Munich, members of the VDMA working group presented other applications that harbor market potential and, at the same time, make important contributions to environmental and resource protection. Dr. Hagen Zimer, Managing Director of TRUMPF Laser GmbH in Schramberg, focused on innovative laser applications: the use of short pulse lasers for cleaning surfaces, and laser-based drying of freshly coated battery electrodes in the automotive industry. Short light pulses are more frequently replacing etching processes with aggressive chemicals, for example, to prepare bonded joints for the so-called cold body-in-white phase. They prepare the surfaces exactly where necessary, and contribute to better bonded joints by introducing microstructures into the surfaces. Because the short pulse processes are becoming increasingly efficient, they can help save chemicals and water on a large scale. And using diode lasers instead of meter-long drying ovens to dry the electrodes of lithium-ion batteries coated with active materials not only significantly reduces energy consumption but also means that the drying takes up far less space in the battery factories.

The photonic coating of brake disks through laser metal deposition (LMD) also offers great benefits. With the new Euro 7 standard, the EU will expand the regulatory requirements starting in 2025 from solely combustion engine emissions to also include particulate emissions. Braking systems are a main source of these emissions. According to Nikolas Meyer, Head of the Sales and Application Business Unit at EMAG LaserTec GmbH, the search for manufacturing solutions for low-emission brake pads that can be mass produced led to the LMD process, since it allows pads to be built up layer by layer in a variety of material combinations. Consistent process optimization made it possible to increase its surface efficiency to around five square meters per hour, achieving layer thicknesses in some cases of less than 0.01 millimeters with very smooth surfaces and minimum roughness.

Sustainable and efficient

Laserline Managing Director Dr. Christoph Ullmann and Dr. Stefan Ruppik, Vice President and Managing Director of High Power CO2 Lasers & Profile Welding Systems at Coherent, presented other applications in Munich that combine market success and sustainability with lasers. Ullmann pointed out the high levels of efficiency and long service lives of diode lasers, saying that direct diode laser beam sources, with 55 percent electrical efficiency, were the most efficient technology for converting electricity into light, and would run for hundreds of thousands of hours. He said that some diode lasers had been in use in industrial three-shift operation for more than a decade. With refurbishing concepts, used diode lasers could be restored to like-new condition, reusing 70 to 80 percent of their components. The technology demonstrated these benefits in hardening, additive manufacturing, or in the targeted repair of wear surfaces. That significantly extended the service life of the rollers, gears or tools handled in this way – and reduced energy consumption in the case of hardening by up to 90 percent compared to alternative induction processes. Ruppik showed how lasers make cutting corrugated cardboard boxes and cardboard cutouts more flexible. Instead of packaging different sized products into boxes of one standard size, and filling the excess space with bubble wrap or foam flakes, custom-fit boxes could be produced, making optimum use of cargo holds and energy consumption for shipment. The digitally controlled cutting via CO2 slab laser would contribute to more flexibility in packaging design, while reducing the ecological footprint at the same time.