The Department of Science and Technology (DST) is seeking to promote the growth and development of South Africa’s photonics industry. Photonics is the term for the science and technology of using, applying and manipulating light. To this end, the DST funded the 2016 Light-based Technologies Innovation Forum, which was held in Gauteng recently. It was jointly organised by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the National Science and Technology Forum.
Globally, the photonics industry is forecast to achieve revenues of €615-billion (R10 651-billion) by 2020, up from €350-billion (R6 062-billion) in 2011. The South African photonics sector is at present generating a little more than R2-billion in export revenues, which comes to only some 0.1% of the country’s gross domestic product and accounts for only a very small part of the global market.
The DST is currently developing an advanced photonics manufacturing roadmap. This is intended to help develop a globally-competitive photonics industry, including photonics-based processes and products, centred on niche areas in which South Africa is strong. It is believed that the country has great potential in the sector. Already, a Photonics Prototyping Facility has been set up, based at the CSIR National Laser Centre and cofunded by the DST and CSIR. This serves to assist in the development of prototypes, aimed at developing marketable products. It can provide expertise in, and infrastructure for, photonics and prototyping; undertake skills development, and assist in approaching business, funding institutions and industry.
As for the forum, its main focus areas included: developments in light technologies and light-based technologies, national strategies to support the development of photonics, infra- structure support and funding, and industry development and available opportunities. With regard to challenges facing the country, attention was given to additive manufacturing, solar energy and optical communications/fibre optics. Research presentations at the forum included such topics as luminescent nano materials and their application potential, biophotonics, fibre- optic communication and broadband Internet speed, and solar energy.
To take only one of these focus areas, light and light-based technologies, this category covers a wide range of applications. One of these is lighting, including everything from low-cost illumination to display lighting. Another area is sensor technology – such as barcode scanners. Yet another is fibre-optical systems, components and fibres, for use in telecommunications. Then there is the area of medical lasers and microscopes, ranging from laser surgery to sequencing genomes. Nor must high-powered lasers, used in manufacturing – including electronics production and metals processing – be forgotten.
The DST is not the only branch of government seeking to encourage the development of the country’s photonics industry. So, too, is the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The DTI is currently well advanced in the elaboration of its Technology Commercialisation Strategy. This is intended to help new technologies and innovations span the gap from research and deve- lopment (R&D) to commercial product. It stems from the Industrial Policy Action Plan 2013-2016, which identified innovation as the main force in creating jobs, reducing poverty and creating new businesses.
The DTI has recognised that, while there is public-sector funding available for R&D and private-sector funding for commercialisation, there is a financing gap between these two phases. The Technology Commercialisation Strategy will be centred on financing technology incubators and “techno-industrial clusters” to close this gap. Incubators will enable the development of new products, analyse the market, evaluate the intellectual property and carry out “venture assessment”. Techno-industrial clusters are sector-specific groups of enterprises, suppliers, service providers and associated agencies. The idea is that these clusters will provide the base from which to develop new industries.