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North Wales photonic hub prospering

OpTIC is an ‘industry reaching technology centre, geared to be a hub’

North Wales has converted a heritage in manufacturing specialist glass into a thriving industry focused on photonics and optoelectronic technology.

North Wales isn’t an area of the UK which comes immediately to mind when talking about technology innovation. Yet it supports a highly successful cluster based around optoelectronics which can trace its roots back to glass making.

John Blomfield, development manager with optronics specialist Qioptiq and chair of the Welsh Optoelectronics Forum (WOF), said a cluster of companies specialising in optoelectronics developed out of Pilkington’s glass manufacturing operations. “There were three sites involved in manufacturing optical quality glass,” he noted, “and the company thought it would be a good idea to set up some companies which used it. And that was the start of the optronics industry in North Wales.”

At the same time, the erstwhile Welsh Development Authority (WDA) took the same view as Pilkington management and thought something could be created, including setting up WOF. “However,” Blomfield noted, “things have moved on since then.”

According to Blomfield, WDA had bigger ideas. “The intention was to develop a pan Wales organisation. At the time, there was a lot of related developments in the Swansea area, as well as some medical work.”

Science and technology support
However, that plan didn’t come to fruition; instead, the WDA created a number of Techniums with the intention of supporting science and technology businesses. Since then, six of the 10 have closed, but one of the remaining four is OpTIC – the Optoelectronic Technology Incubation Centre – based in St Asaph, which first opened its doors in September 2004.

Since its inception, OpTIC has had something of a chequered history. Caroline Gray is OpTIC’s director. “Everyone thought OpTIC was a good idea, but nobody wanted to put money into it. The Welsh Government did fund it for two years, after which Glyndwr University bought it in 2009 to use as a technology and research centre.”

Now, the focus has moved from Glyndwr supporting all of OpTIC’s activities towards it being a technology hub, with the facility shared between other universities. “We have Swansea and Huddersfield Universities on site,” Gray noted, “and 17 incubator business across science and technology. We also supply services to local businesses and, last year, around 30,000 people came to the centre.”

Along with the change in focus, there has also been a change in branding, with OpTIC’s formal trading name being Glyndwr Innovations.

WOF is working in conjunction with OpTIC. Blomfield said: “WOF is a networking organisation, supporting technology transfer, including universities.” However, he contrasts how OpTIC has developed with other clusters. “While other clusters around the UK have tended to appear around universities, in North Wales, industry was at the core and universities were more peripheral. The original idea was that if you could set up a research centre where a university could have a presence, as well as incubation facilities, then it would be a good way of promoting the area.”

Gray said OpTIC is an ‘industry reaching technology centre, geared to be a hub’. “Government is looking for collaboration between universities and industry. Both sides need to reach out to each other and get the best value for money in order to deliver what industry needs. And we have links to universities in Wales and the North West to bring those technologies together. We’re also looking to link with other technology centres,” Gray continued, “including working with Catapults. But it’s not reinventing the wheel.”

Compound semiconductors
And the launch of the Compound Semiconductor Application Catapult could provide a new avenue for OpTIC to pursue. Although the new Catapult is likely to be based in South Wales, close to the Compound Semiconductor Centre recently established by Cardiff University and IQE, the applications which it will develop align strongly with the photonics and optoelectronics interests of the North Wales cluster.

While there is support for local business, Gray said OpTIC has a global focus. And it could be said that OpTIC has more than global ambitions; recently, it has received funding from the UK Space Agency allowing it to become part of the space business incubator network. “All space activities have some kind of opto or signal processing chain,” Gray highlighted.

“There are many benefits to companies being based here and we now have the funding to help launch the spark of an idea and support it through technology, design, metrology and incubation, tailoring these services to deliver what companies need.

“We are at the heart of this new UKSA project and proud to be a part of it.”

A further activity being undertaken by WOF is the North Wales Photonics Launchpad, in association with InnovateUK. “It’s intended to help companies move to the next stage in their development,” Blomfield said.

The competition aims to stimulate photonics, electro-optics and opto-electronics businesses in North Wales. Projects eligible for the Launchpad are those which may be too risky for companies to take forward without any support, or which may take them into new innovative areas. The majority of the project activities must be carried out in North Wales.

WOF is also reaching out to the next generation. Blomfield said: “We have a photonics academy, which goes out to primary schools to introduce children to the concept of photonics. And we’re running summer schools.”

A dedicated research centre – the Centre for Solar Energy Research – carries out fundamental and applied research in the area of photovoltaic materials for solar power

Speaking at a recent meeting, Professor Maria Hinfelaar, vice chancellor of Glyndwr University said: “What happens here at OpTIC is so exciting, it’s a prime example of how a successful research and design cluster should operate.”

Qioptiq remains the largest company in the area. It designs and manufactures photonic products and solutions for applications in the medicine, life science, industrial manufacturing, defence and aerospace, and research and development sectors.

Other companies based nearby include Microvisk Technologies, which has developed a MEMS based microviscometer to perform the prothrombin time test, which measures how long it takes blood to clot. Microvisk is collaborating with The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospital Trust, undertaking clinical trials to verify and validate device performance.

Precision engineering
Glyndwr Innovations is a leading provider of product development engineering and technology consulting. It specialises in designing and manufacturing prototype hardware for a range of markets. Amongst services on offer are: precision engineering design; mechanical and optomechanical assembly; predictive modelling; precision polishing; and optical micro-structured/patterned drums.

SmartKem delivers what it calls world class ‘organic’ semiconductor materials for the manufacture of flexible and plastic electronic displays used in such devices as e-readers, smartphones, tablets and TVs. The company provides customised solutions involving molecule synthesis, formulation and electronic prototyping.

Times change, however, and the St Asaph cluster looks somewhat different today than it did in its earlier days. “While most companies were manufacturers,” Blomfield said, “today, it’s all about applications, so the spread is much broader and companies are now looking to use photonics, rather than develop the technology.

“But North Wales still acts as a magnet to the optoelectronics sector.”

He believes that Qioptiq provides ‘critical mass’ to the area. “It attracts new graduates to work in engineering and design. Many of these graduates will develop their own ideas and move on to do something of their own,” Blomfield concluded. “And the North Wales cluster is there to support them.”

Graham Pitcher

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