A week in Baltimore at SPIE’s Defense Security and Sensing conference on behalf of Optics.org produced a few published things.
Among them, coverage of an address from Bruce Carlson, director (possibly former, by now) of the National Reconnaissance Office. Viewed by a visiting European, the back-and-forth over funding and priorities within the US intelligence community is endlessly fascinating. But I hadn’t realized that the NRO also tracks orbiting satellites and takes action when there’s an imminent collision among all the circling hardware. A man who can say “Every other week or so I manoeuver a satellite around”, is one with an interesting desk. As you might expect when the holder of this post addresses an open meeting of international delegates, there was a certain amount of frostiness in the air; forty-two minutes in, someone asked a question about the potential usefulness of the NRO’s info to human rights organizations, and Carlson more or less adjourned the meeting on the spot.
Also a keynote from Franca Jones of the White House science policy office, who made the point that there’s room for much more joined-up thinking when it comes to gathering data on climate and habitat, and a clear connection between having that kind of info on hand and the ability to predict things like cholera outbreaks. Biosurveillance still has an almighty image problem though, starting with the word; expect “biosensing” to feature in a larger font.
And a discussion between military strategists and venture capitalists about why the military needs new kinds of infrared sensing technologies. It is still jarring, nearly eleven years after the game most visibly changed, to hear a man from DARPA comment that “our mission is changing, but our sensor technology is not,” although here too you wonder if the discussion would have been quite the same behind closed doors and away from international observers. None the less, the sentiment that changes in warfare can be good for the progress of technology and the balance sheets of private companies is hard to argue with, even while quietly wishing for a different kind of world.
A while ago I asked a market analyst if he could identify the magic ingredient that changed camera phones from a niche technology into ubiquitous consumables, assuming he’d say it happened when engineers worked out how to get enough megapixels into the things to make the photographs actually worth looking at.
His answer was Facebook. That and consumer willingness to embrace data plans that let people successfully send pictures without going bankrupt or expiring from boredom while they were about it.
This fact came up while researching an article on camera phone optics for The Optical Society. Another nugget was that one of the foremost developers of a particular technology that seemed tailor-made to suit the camera phone sector, a company I’ve been writing about in one way or another for years, had withdrawn from the fray while I wasn’t looking, brought low by a licensing strategy that looked like exactly the right idea on paper.
Point being: becoming ubiquitous is a bruising business. But it certainly pushes technology forwards.
My feature about some of the optics technology built into camera phones is the cover story of the February issue of the OSA’s Optics and Photonics News, and is also currently an open-access article on their web site.
Three months ago the US laser sector was pondering the need to stock up on canned food and shotguns, but the sky remains un-fallen for the only reason that matters: on the whole demand has failed to collapse.
There’s a large pile of caveats. Concentrating on the year-on-year figures helps avoid the headache that reading the sequential numbers causes; heavy industry is still more inclined to put money on the table than the technology sector; exporters will fret that the Eurozone and US economies are heading in different directions again, although probably not as much as Europeans will. But most vendors are still optimistic, the latest stage of the ride that’s as unrelenting for them as it is for the analysts asking about it.
So I asked an analyst about it. The latest of my regular chats with Mark Douglass of Longbow Research about what’s going on is now posted online at Optics.org.
So the unalloyed good news didn’t stay pure for long. In April the US optics and laser sector was not only happy to find itself recovering, but daring to use words like “optimistic” and “robust.” Since then: complete mayhem.
I spoke to Mark Douglass of Longbow Research for Optics.org, and discussed why the clouds were gathering in July even before the storm broke in August. This time it includes words like “clear as mud.”
Skepticism dies hard, but not many folks in the US laser industry are still prepared to frown in public about the economy. For the first time in a long time, not a single vendor asked about their current fortunes by Longbow Research felt that demand was worse than it was twelve months ago.
Which is not the same thing as everyone actually being better off, but still. My regular chats with Mark Douglass of Longbow for Optics.org have been on an upward swing of optimism lately, and the latest one is pretty much unalloyed good news. Especially if you happen to manufacture fiber lasers for a living.
The unanimous view from Photonics West in San Francisco was that the bad times for US photonics vendors are over. Not a single one of them polled by Longbow Research felt negatively about 2011, and an uptick in GDP of 3.2% seems to have resolved the manufacturing sector’s traditional end-of-tunnel vs. oncoming-train dilemma. Longbow’s Mark Douglass expressed the relief of a grateful sector to me for Optics.org.
Meanwhile, Britain’s manufacturing sector hit its fastest expansion rate for a couple of decades. Since manufacturing counts for little in the UK economy, GDP duly confounded expectations that it might be stagnant and managed to go backwards instead. Anyone who remembers how MONIAC used to leave economists standing in a puddle of unexpected deficit might not be too surprised.
At Optics.org: Reasons to be cheerful if you’re in the lasers business. Some decent growth lately looks like it might get you back to where you were five years ago.
A lot of it is simply uncertainty, but I also think [there is] an unwillingness to look too optimistic since there are several areas that do look depressed through 2011. An element too, I think, is people looking at 2007-2008 sales, and even with strong growth this year many are only up to 2005 or 2006 levels.
For Optics.org, I asked Mark Douglass of Longbow Research about the health of the lasers and optics markets in the US. Cautious optimism with a sizeable list of possible banana skins would be the best description.
The return of business uncertainty over a ‘double dip’ recession, continued weakness in housing markets, falling consumer confidence, higher taxes, sharp escalations in health care costs due to the recent health care bill in the US, weakening of China’s economy, and of course the sovereign debt crisis in Europe will all greatly limit further investments in 2010. Lasers and photonics should still be able to outperform GDP in the long term, but that does require GDP numbers to begin moving again.
And three days later, the official US GDP estimate for April-June moved in the wrong direction, back to 2.4%.
The post-recession rebound is history. We don’t foresee a double-dip, but we do expect growth to slow even more markedly, to a 1.6% annualized rate in the second half of the year,” said Bart van Ark, chief economist at the Conference Board, a New York-based research group, in a statement Friday. “Such a slower pace is unlikely to sustain strong profit growth, and would also weigh on employment and wages.
Meanwhile Newport shares soar on increased guidance and a recovery that looks good into 2011, and Coherent follows up with record “nearly everything.”
And no one is sure what will happen when the US stimulus tap is turned off.
An outtake from Europe’s Photonics Investment:
You can buy a lot of research for €4 billion. But how much is enough? Each year for the last four years, European companies working in the photonics sector have invested that sum in research and development of new optics-based devices and technologies, to keep up with – and overtake – competitors based elsewhere. But statistically speaking, most photonics companies are small companies, and small companies are incentivized by public funding. And public funding has to dance to a different tune, obeying the more slippery requirement of value for taxpayers’ money. There is scope for friction.
“Public funding for photonics in the EU member states has not improved significantly. Only three countries have meaningful photonics programmes, namely Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. This is not a satisfactory situation.”
My article is in the July 2010 issue of SPIE Professional, the membership magazine of SPIE.