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In this article, Jérémy Picot-Clémente, EPIC’s Photonics Technologies Program Manager, talks with Ralf Leutz, General Manager at LEOPIL, a consultancy in manufacturing, management and engineering of high end optical systems.

Early career

With aspirations of going into academia or becoming a consultant, in 1996 after graduating with a combined MSc in Engineering and MBA from the Technical University of Berlin, Ralf won a scholarship to do a PhD at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. Having always been interested in the optics of solar energy concentration, he worked mainly on Fresnel lenses for solar concentration and following his PhD, he worked for two years as a Post-doc researcher on Solar Concentration in Space. In 2002, he returned to Germany where he worked as a Scientific Assistant in the Physics Department of the Philipps University of Marburg. His main focus was on non-imaging solar optics/concentration, light sources & lighting.

After five years it became apparent that his background in Engineering and lack of experience of high-level mathematics would prevent him from becoming a professor. Rather that stay at the university, he decided on the more exiting alternative of co-founding his own company, Concentrator Optics GmbH as co-CEO/CTO. The idea was to commercialise the technology he’d been working on, namely, to offer a one-stop solution for optics in concentrator photovoltaics (CPV). At that time, concentrating photovoltaics was beginning to gather momentum and over the next seven years Ralf built up the company to a workforce of 50 focusing on the design, prototyping and mass manufacture of Fresnel lens parquets in PMMA and silicone-on-glass (SOG) for customers all over the world. But in 2009, due to the global financial crisis, the renewable energy market collapsed and overnight, all of the company’s projects were cancelled and revenues virtually evaporated. They soldiered on for a couple of years, but money for new projects was scarce and in 2011 Ralf and his partner bowed to the inevitable and filed for bankruptcy.

LEOPIL

Recognising the difficulty of being an employee after running his own company for so long, in 2013, Ralf set up his own consultancy, LEOPIL (Leutz Optics and Illumination) with the aim of helping companies develop engineering, management and manufacturing competences in the field of optics, light and energy innovations particularly solar concentration. He started by focusing on optical design mainly in relation to wave guides and then moved into the automotive market where he could apply what he’d learned in solar at Concentrator Optics particularly regarding longevity, strength, transmissivity and UV resistance. Later, he developed imaging systems based on non-imaging optics using silicone to carry refractive optical elements and his expertise in the required tooling.

Regarding the business model, after his experience with Concentrator Optics, the overriding aim was to minimise risk and maximise flexibility. This has meant working with fellow self-employed professionals, having no full-time employees and working purely on a project basis. A typical project starts with discussing an idea for a good business case with a prospective client. Ralf then approaches people he knows who can help develop the project like designers of diffractive optical elements and tooling suppliers. While LEOPIL has no in-house manufacturing facility except for a laboratory for small scale production, LEOPIL co-owns Anamoc, which manufactures optical elements in silicone-on-glass (SOG) technology for correcting form errors and chromatic aberrations (using DOEs) for imaging optics and solar concentrator applications. A white paper and conference paper are then produced, which can take anything up to nine months, and the business case then starts. In the implementation phase, the knowledge and the production process are given over entirely to the customer, who knows exactly how to minimise costs and maximise process efficiency.

Challenges

For Ralf, due to the fact that the technology he works with is so complex, having a reliable supply chain is more important than having reliable customers. The work is rarely straightforward, there is an element of secrecy and there are very limited fallbacks. In some cases, their suppliers have to be trained in certain operations and a lot of time has to be invested, for example, when suppliers change material.

LEOPIL’s future

Although the automotive market will continue to be important, Ralf hopes to see an increase in the solar sector where his main passion lies. As he points out, 15 years ago when he was at Concentrator Optics, he used to organize solar conferences and push his vision for a fully automated photovoltaics industry with nothing manual and everything controlled by robots to achieve good quality and high throughput. The Chinese understood this very well and using their low labor costs they were able to build a world photovoltaics market. Unfortunately, although Europe tried to do the same, they were unable to compete. But now, with the climate crisis, times have changed and there is a lot happening in the European photovoltaics industry both in terms of increased automaton and the use of semiconductors - due to the general recognition that in a decade or so photovoltaics it will govern the energy industry.

The future of Photonics

Today, it's complicated and difficult to see where photonics is going. In regard to the next big consumer thing, we’ve been talking about AR and VR for years but has there really been a breakthrough or was it just a bubble that will go the way of other fads like crypto currencies? The problem for Ralf is that the philosophy behind these things doesn’t seem to stand the test of time; it’s been difficult enough persuading people to get vaccinated for COVID 19, will human beings really want a future based on artificial vision?

Miniaturization and manufacturing optics will continue to be important in relation, for example, to surface qualities and printing. Although they may not be revolutionary, things like structuring surfaces will continue to play a major role in industry in overcoming band gap issues, increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Sensors will be a good growth area along with semiconductor optics and all the processes that go with it, which as we have seen are playing an important role in Europe’s resurgent photovoltaics industry.

What’s your advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?

“The attraction of starting your own company is that it gives you the opportunity to be your own boss and design your own life. But you need to take account of the need to find products that that will be relevant seven-ten years from now. For this reason, I would urge everybody not to choose a business model based on heritage and the old times but to opt for a model that’s compatible with a drastically changing environment and an unpredictable future. In the very near future, many of the things we take for granted may no longer exist. For example, as a result of the war in Ukraine and the climate crisis, the future of the oil-based economy and the decline of the combustion engine may come even quicker than we think. In the face of these large and sometimes insurmountable challenges, it’s crucial to adopt a flexible business model that will enable you to pivot when circumstances dictate. Fortunately, it’s probably a little easier to do this with photonics than with other industries as the market players are small, most things are customized and photonics companies almost never produce a final product.”

Written by Jérémy Picot-Clémente, EPIC’s Photonics Technologies Program Manager.

Labels: optical systems,concentrator photovoltaics,optics,LEOPIL

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