Last week the New York Photonics & Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster held their annual meeting. The Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster has been around for a long time and its predecessor the Institute for Optics was founded in Rochester in 1929. The photonics industry has been around a long time in Rochester. We haven’t been talking about it very much for all that time, in fact hardly at all until recently. Now it’s a big deal. Chuck Schumer, Louise Slaughter and Dr. Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of the Department of Energy himself, came to Rochester to attend the meeting. It was held with a great deal of pomp and ceremony at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. It was no doubt the largest attendance at an annual meeting ever, so large in fact that the event was “sold out.”
So what has changed after all these years? What has changed is that finally, after all these years of working in the trenches growing their little photonics companies and creating value for the industry, the photonics industry in Rochester has finally been recognized. It has been selected as a leading research, development and commercialization group compared to any others in the United States and perhaps the entire world. Rochester is now a recognized center of the photonics universe, and justifiably so.
Many in the community and even in the press ask what photonics is anyway. By definition photonics is the use of photons in devices and applications. And photons are nothing more than light. So devices that use light to operate are photonic. Rochester has a strong legacy in optics. Optics were researched, developed and utilized heavily by Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. And supporting these companies there grew a multitude of smaller entrepreneurial companies providing services and tangential technologies. It is many of these companies today that make up the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster. There are nearly 150 members in the cluster. But in spite of this there are a lot of naysayers in the Rochester community. There are politicians and radio commentators who belittle the photonics funding and the effort to support it with research grants and industrial support. They and many others challenge the investment because they don’t understand the big picture and the future value of the technology. They don’t recognize the roughly 17,000 photonics jobs that presently exist in New York.
Let’s take a simple example, the LED light. Six or eight years ago, when the technology was first commercialized, few purchased them. The price was so high that return on investment was too long to justify the investment. As the manufacturing process was improved the price dropped. Today we can all buy LED bulbs at Walmart for a couple dollars and benefit from the huge savings. LED light bulbs generate far more light and far less heat. It’s about generating light not heat.
Now take another example, your cell phone or computer. Today these run on chips using electrons to transmit the signals. Electrons move at a much slower speed than light (that would be photons). They consume a lot more heat, and they use a lot more power. Imagine the day when our cell phones and computers run on photons. They will be much faster, battery life will be amazing and we won’t be catching airplanes on fire from exploding batteries.
There are hundreds of other applications, applications that will be developed by Rochester companies. And when we look at the jobs created, many of which will be in the photonics companies, let’s not forget the multiplication impact of these new research and manufacturing jobs. For every job in manufacturing there are other jobs from vendors selling equipment to them, several more in service companies like insurance and accounting, and even more in restaurants and stores selling services to photonics employees. Based on other studies, photonics can multiply direct employment by a factor of three or more.
All of this has been going on at a steady pace in Rochester for a century and more. Now we have a catalyst to accelerate the growth of the industry. It is indeed something to celebrate. Photonics in Rochester is a big deal. At Optimation we are not directly engaged in photonics. But we are engaged in designing, fabricating and installing manufacturing equipment for photonics companies. We welcome this new accelerated growth in the industry and will do our part to create even more technical and skilled trades jobs because of the opportunities presented to us.