Optical technology with its national and international recognition belongs to one of the most dynamic growth sectors in the Free State of Thuringia. After German reunification in 1990, the optical industry has, with its traditional domicile in Jena since the time of Zeiss, Abbe and Schott, undergone a renaissance of research and development – a continual process, which for the time being has no end in sight. Since then about 160 new organizations have emerged in the technology region around the cities of Jena, Weimar, Erfurt, Ilmenau and also Gera. 12,500 highly qualified employees work in research, development and production, with an upward-pointing trend. In 2006 the turnover of the organizations reached around two billion euros. Thereof 59 per cent was allotted to export trade.
The drive of the industry is sustained mainly by small and medium-sized enterprises with an average of 72 employees. To a great extent these enterprises influence the world market. The optical industry functions as an impulse generator for many other industrial sectors and with its impulses significantly contributes towards the economic development of the Free State of Thuringia.
84 of the most successful enterprises and research institutions are members of the OptoNet competence network. The network supports and promotes exchange and co-operation between members, thereby concentrating strengths and the many facets of optical technology. Thus there is a constant emergence of new developments and innovative products. And so a turnover gain of ten per cent and an industry-linked increase in the employment rate of five per cent is anticipated annually up to 2010. The turnover level could at this point lie at three million euros.
80 per cent of the enterprises in the industry estimated the current business situation for 2007 as good or even very good, while just less than five per cent assessed the situation as bad to very bad. This is an improvement on the previous year. The mood trend has been unshakeably positive since 2003 and currently actually exceeds the previous maximum value for the beginning of 2002. The negative effects of the 2003/2004 semi-conductor crisis have been completely overcome.
The most optimistic enterprises are those of the micro- and fibre optic sector, which count on an annual growth rate of more than 20 per cent until 2010. The measurement techniques/sensoric, optical and mechanics areas also lie well above the average with expected annual growth rates of twelve per cent.
According to a current survey, 25 per cent of the enterprises of Thuringia’s optical industry count themselves with their products as the sole technology leaders and 46 per cent see themselves in the upper levels on equal footing with other leading enterprises. To maintain this level or rather to further expand it, a good deal is invested in research and development. Ten per cent of the total turnover flows into this enterprise domain.
Network building and co-operation are highly valued in Thuringia. As a result of their own experiences, according to a current survey, 85 per cent of the OptoNet members recommend other representatives within the industry for membership. The most utilized aspects of the networking process of OptoNet are: public relations, the possibility of making personal contacts with other enterprise and institutional representatives in the industry as well as professional workshops.
With its optical technology enterprises in the technology region around the Erfurt, Weimar, Jena and Ilmenau cities, Thuringia has become a veritable Optics Valley, in which not only the large industry representatives like Carl Zeiss and Jenoptik, but especially also the small and medium-sized enterprises can through the networking process develop, establish and grow in their niches.
The author is a physicist who was employed as a scientist at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena between 1976 and 1998. In 1981 he also received his doctorate in Laser Physics there. After a few years at the Bergakademie Technical University in Freiberg, he has been the Managing Director of the competence network “OptoNet eV” (a registered association) since 2001.