German Photonics Come into Focus

Germany’s optics and photonics sector is growing vigorously and attracting major foreign investment. Its applications span from optical components for communications and medical technology to quantum computing and even space exploration.

April 2021

On October 20, 2020, German extraterrestrial technology made history. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft unfurled its robotic arm to collect rock from the ancient asteroid known as Bennu more than 320 million kilometers from Earth. The samples may hold primordial secrets, offering a glimpse into our solar system when it was first taking shape billions of years ago and hurling out material that could have helped seed life on our planet.

OSIRIS-REx is equipped with highly complex and sensitive optical measuring instruments (OCAMS), protected by Berghof Fluoroplastic Technology’s black optical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) material, which minimizes light interference.

Berghof is a leading German manufacturer of high-performance optical materials based on PTFE. One of Germany’s fastest-growing industries, photonics plays a key role in the field of semiconductors and sectors such as medical technology, photovoltaics, mechanical engineering and aviation. From computer tomography and automobile sensors to fiber-optic communications and barcode scanners, photonics has become an essential part of life in the 21st century.

The Bottom Line

Optics and photonics is an excit­ing, fast-growing, future-orient­ed sector in Germany with lots of room for foreign companies.

A thousand leading-edge companies

About 1,000 companies in Germany currently operate in the sector, including major names like Bosch, Jenoptik, Trumpf, Zeiss, Schott, Agfa-Gevaert, Osram and Laserline, and business has been booming. Between 2005 and 2019, revenue rose 220 percent, from EUR 17 billion to EUR 37.5 billion. Exports grew 1.6 percent last year to EUR 27.1 billion, with the greatest number of sales in the European Union, followed by Asia and North America.

“Photonics has been outperforming GDP growth in Germany for years, thus steadily increasing its importance,” says Max Milbredt, photonics senior manager at Germany Trade & Invest. “We have also seen growing interest in terms of foreign direct investment. The German market is shifting toward measurement and control, medical technology and production technology, largely due to Germany’s efforts to make the digital networking of industry a reality.”

The country also boasts its share of luminaries, among them Stefan W. Hell, director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 for his pioneering work in ultra-high-resolution fluorescence microscopy, which surpassed the limitations of the light microscope.

OsirisRex spacecraft © NASA

State support and resources

Germany’s photonics sector enjoys support from the national and regional state governments, research institutions, universities and industry associations, such as OptecNet, which represents eight regional Optical Technologies Innovation Networks across the country.

“Optical technologies have seen constant above-average economic growth in recent years, with new markets like AR/VR (augmented and virtual reality), autonomous driving, digital health, machine vision and indoor farming creating new business opportunities,” says Gerrit Rössler, cluster manager for optics and photonics at the Berlin Partner for Business and Technology.

Increasing public investment and R&D efforts in quantum communication and computing have increased the number of start-ups in the field and grown the market for optical components in quantum applications.

Bosch, for instance, is a global leader in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), a key technology in smartphones, cars, drones, robots and the Internet of Things (IoT). Bosch recently made its single biggest investment ever with its new EUR 1 billion semiconductor manufacturing facility in Dresden. It’s set to begin operation in 2021, producing MEMS-based light detection and ranging (Lidar) sensors in order to meet growing demand from mobility and IoT applications.

Facts & Figures

EUR 37.5bn

Total photonics industry revenue in Germany


Number of photonics companies in Germany


Number of employees in the photonics industry in Germany


Germany’s market share of the European photonics market

Gaining a foothold in Germany

International players are already getting involved. Canadian industrial camera manufacturer Emergent Vision Technologies opened a European subsidiary near Stuttgart in July. The new office offers closer proximity to the largest markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

ASML, a leading Dutch manufacturer of photolithography systems for the semiconductor sector, recently acquired Berliner Glas, which produces the ceramic and optical modules used in its lithography products. Berliner Glas has continued to grow in recent years and is, as Rössler puts it, “a great example of the German industry backbone – small to medium-sized enterprises.”

The Swiss-American technology company TE Connectivity acquired Berlin-based sensor system supplier First Sensor this year, accelerating its growth in the increasingly competitive global market. The company’s capabilities and products “strongly align with the markets we serve and create greater opportunity to serve our customers,” says John Mitchell, the senior VP and general manager of TE’s sensors business.

Investor’s Perspective

Swiss Engineering Group Invests in Solar

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, German optics and photonics have remained robust, attracting major investments from abroad in key areas such as photovoltaics. This year saw a significant boost to Germany’s lagging solar sector thanks in large part to Swiss mechanical engineering group Meyer Burger Technology. The company is establishing its own solar cell and module production facilities in the eastern German regional states of Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony, taking over the former sites of the now defunct firms Solarworld Industries and Sovello. Meyer Burger is investing some EUR 154 million in the new facilities, which are due to begin production in 2021 and will bring up to 3,000 new jobs.

“We are looking forward to revitalizing two of the most traditional solar locations in Europe and creating new jobs,” said Meyer Burger’s CEO Gunter Erfurt. “Using existing infrastructures and the high level of expertise in the regions is a conscious strategic decision that will enable us to achieve short ramp-up times and high product quality.”

Meyer Burger‘s Solar Cell Production in Bitterfeld © Meyer-Burger-Bitterfeld

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