Fraunhofer Society turns 70: What’s next?

Sept. 27, 2019
Photonics Days, an annual event of the Fraunhofer IOF in cooperation with the local Max Planck School of Photonics, presents a vision of the Fraunhofer Society's future directions.

This year, the German Fraunhofer society turns 70 and celebrates this with a number of events throughout the year. One of these remarkable events took place in early September in Jena, Germany.

But before I turn to this event, I would like to shine a little more light on the Fraunhofer model and why it is so effective. Joseph von Fraunhofer was a successful researcher and entrepreneur (with a substantial influence on our subject of photonics). In my view, the idea of the Fraunhofer society is to bring together applied research with the needs of customers from industry and deliver a well-engineered solution. You could also call it the most successful technology-transfer scheme in the world.

When the Fraunhofer society was founded in 1949, Germany lay in ruins. The society's primary task was to help rebuild Germany’s economy by advancing applied science. In the 1970s, its members developed the so-called Fraunhofer model, where the institutes got 30% governmental funding and the remaining 70% of the budget was earned through contract research with industry or in special governmental projects. As an incentive, the governmental funding increased as the numbers of industry contract grew, which often comes from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Today, the Fraunhofer society unites 72 institutes with a staff of more than 26,600 and a budget of about € 2.6 billion. Out of this, € 2.2 billion are generated through contract research. The field of expertise is wide, and includes hot spots such as the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology in Aachen and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena.

Securing governmental funding is never easy. But in 2005, the German federal government together with the state authorities secured steadily increasing budgets for the four main nonacademic research associations in Germany, including the Fraunhofer society. In June 2019, the Merkel administration concluded to extend this program until 2030 with an annual budget growth rate of 3%.

Photonics Days in Jena

Joseph Fraunhofer's idea of connecting research with industrial applications became a success story in another German optics company: Carl Zeiss, actually an engineer, built the most precise microscope of his time, based on the calculations of physics professor Ernst Abbe. Today, both names are still present, the first in the company Carl Zeiss and its subsidiaries, the other in a basic law of optics that challenges microscopists as well as chip makers.

Photonics Days” in Jena, the town of Zeiss and Abbe, is an annual event of the Fraunhofer IOF in cooperation with the local Max Planck School of Photonics. I attended their public plenary lectures given by Michael Kaschke, the CEO of Zeiss, and last year’s Nobel prize winner Gérard Mourou.

Michael Kaschke, the president and CEO of the Zeiss group, has been on the executive board of Zeiss since 2000. He has shaped the company substantially as it stands today with revenues of € 5.8 billion and 30,000 employees. He will retire on the first of April, 2020 (his designated successor is Karl Lamprecht from Zeiss SMT). It is already clear that Kaschke oversaw one of the most successful periods of the company.

Kaschke spoke about the role of photonics in society and the interesting question of predicting its success. Taking the “Harnessing Lightreport from 1998, he showed some predictions that became reality: Fiber networks, optical storage (which has since been surpassed), and LED lighting were among them. For the future, he predicted advances in device miniaturization, such as OCT on a chip. This comes along with integration and convergence of optical and electronic functions. And, of course, EUV lithography will deliver more efficient and powerful chips than ever.

While Kaschke as a company leader is cautious in his predictions, the next speaker was a bit more ambitious in his predictions. Nobel prize winner Gérard Mourou sees all the pieces needed for exawatt laser pulses from the amplification of zeptosecond pulses on the table. A zeptosecond is the millionth part of a femtosecond, or 10-21 s, while one exawatt is a thousand petawatts, or 1018 W. Current systems in Europe and the U.S. are preparing to produce pulses of up to 10 petawattfor now.

Andreas Tünnermann, local host and director of the Fraunhofer IOF, thought about both plenaries: “This is where we stand at Fraunhofer and in the connected university groups: We work on industrial applications and scientific visions at once. It certainly takes time to commercialize a far reaching vision, but already now we have spun off a company making powerful femtosecond fiber lasers based on CPA.” CPA stands for chirped pulse amplification, the idea for which Donna Strickland and Mourou received the Nobel prize.

What’s next?

The motto of the Fraunhofer anniversary is, “What’s next?” Beside technology trend predictions, one may actually ask, “Who’s next?” Getting the next generation of Fraunhofer-minded talents on board is a hot topic. Even if the industrial-laser community faces some headwinds, photonics experts have become a scarce resource in Germany. Accordingly, Fraunhofer IOF conducted a series of networking events along with its Photonics Days.

At the same time, Aachen-based Fraunhofer institutes for laser technology ILT and for production technology IPT sponsored an event with more than 1000 students. In particular, they addressed female students, encouraging them to engage with engineering and natural sciences.

The future program of the Fraunhofer society will be exciting, that’s for sure. The society has named seven fields of Key Strategic Initiatives, ranging from battery-cell production and quantum technology to translational medicine. It seems that Fraunhofer is adapting to the 21st century and developing interdisciplinary forms of research and development. So whatever technological trends will come up next, Fraunhofer will hold its stake in it.

About the Author

Andreas Thoss | Contributing Editor, Germany

Andreas Thoss is the Managing Director of THOSS Media (Berlin) and has many years of experience in photonics-related research, publishing, marketing, and public relations. He worked with John Wiley & Sons until 2010, when he founded THOSS Media. In 2012, he founded the scientific journal Advanced Optical Technologies. His university research focused on ultrashort and ultra-intense laser pulses, and he holds several patents.

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