Companies looking into the future and realigning their strategies for the markets to come have to base their actions on their current knowledge of technology trends and research results. Technology foresights play a strategically important role in analyzing how the market is changing mid- to long-term. But obtaining access to this information can tie up many SME resources and actually hamstring innovation. For the last three years, the Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (SEZ) has been offering technology foresight support, especially in the area of optical technologies.
Some industries will definitively be shaped by scientific insights into optics and nanophotonic developments and technologies during the next decade. But there is often a huge gap between scientific and technical findings and tangible market success. To close this gap, the European Commission is stepping up efforts to involve SMEs in promising areas. One area is optical technologies. An analysis of medium to long-term market changes in all their complexity can dictate whether a whole company will be successful or not.
As part of a European study entitled “PhotonicRoadSME: Trends in Photonics Research and Development, Product and Application visions” SEZ wrote four industry-specific roadmaps and another three roadmaps especially for SMEs. The EU project takes into account the increasingly international nature of opportunities available to SMEs, both in the marketplace and for partnerships. As a result, the roadmaps were written by nine partners in five countries, with SEZ acting as a coordinator. The project received funding for two and a half years from the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission.
To look at technological trends, the PhotonicRoadSME team focused on how the market is developing for nanophotonic materials, new photonic parts and components, and important manufacturing technologies. The trends point to a number of potential products and corresponding application areas. Many could very well solve some of society’s pressing challenges. The aim of the roadmaps is to keep SMEs up to speed on new scientific findings in photonics and industry needs in this area. To this end, the team investigated key requirements to be met in the market and in terms of technological innovation.
To provide an overview of the current status of photonics, the team looked at research findings from the last five to ten years. This was based on the results of 300 national and international projects, 800 scientific publications, nearly 100 patents and 20 interviews with scientists. This body of data spans nine separate material categories and four separate sectors of industry: information and communication technologies (ICT), the environment, health and safety. At the same time, the team questioned SMEs on their needs and market demands. The team also carried out SWOT analyses with the SMEs. The aim was to help companies understand the technological and commercial challenges they face and identify opportunities that pave the way for new nanophotonic materials, parts, components and production technologies.
With the help of a technology road map, companies can make plans that include medium and long-term goals. Anticipating potential technological solutions helps companies achieve their goals. Roadmaps culminate in the roll-out of a new product, technology or process – with the top priority being the needs of the companies.
All the results of the technological and market study were used to design the roadmap. The analysis of international photonics research and SME requirements revealed that it is chiefly product and application areas of photonic technology that are relevant to ICT, the environment, health and safety. Since SMEs have different needs, the industry-specific roadmaps were adjusted to each type of SME: “developers,” “manufacturers” and “users.” This created three more roadmaps.
Over the course of ten workshops, the separate technology roadmaps were presented to selected SMEs and put into practice. The chief aim was to disseminate project findings and translate them into an industrial context. Twelve case studies emerged from these workshops. With the companies’ support, product development strategies were worked out to help SMEs sharpen their competitive edge in the global marketplace. The workshops also helped the SMEs work more effectively with research institutions. Finally, training activities for SMEs across Europe lay the groundwork for further support of specialist training in photonics.
Thanks to the PhotonicRoadSME project, SMEs are now in a position to identify tomorrow’s photonic products early in the process. Strategic planning also enjoys a boost. SMEs are supported as they work out successful, mid-term business models and investment decisions. All work from the project – the market study, research reports, the nine categories of nanophotonic materials, the guide and the roadmaps – are available for free at the PhotonicRoadSME website. A web-based tool (a wiki) was also set up to showcase the results. Access to the public area is also free.