in Germany. The difficulties of expanding a skilled technical workforce in the United States are considerably exacerbated by the declining performance of U.S. primary and secondary education.73,74 It is, of course, true that weaknesses in the quality and quantity of the skilled blue-collar workforce in the United States can be partially compensated for by expanded investment in automation. But even the intelligent deployment of more highly automated manufacturing processes will be hampered by weaknesses in the skilled workforce in U.S. manufacturing.


Finding: Production of many photonics applications—such as TFT displays, solar modules, and optoelectronic components for communications systems, most of which were first developed and commercialized by U.S. firms in the U.S. economy—now is dominated by foreign production sites, even when these production activities are still controlled by U.S.-based firms. The effects of this offshore movement of manufacturing on innovation in photonics, however, vary considerably among different sectors and technologies within photonics. Indeed, the United States remains the leading source of USPTO patents in two key sectors of photonics (solar and communications components) and is the leader in potential next-generation technologies, such as flexible displays, “paint-on” and other thin-film solar cells, and monolithically integrated optoelectronic devices.

Key Finding: To enable the United States to be productive in manufacturing photonics goods, a capable and fully trained workforce must exist at all levels, including shop floor associates, technicians, and engineers. Because photonics is not yet recognized as an industry and data are not tracked in a way that facilitates analysis, it is difficult to evaluate the extent of personnel shortages in photonics manufacturing and in applications of photonics elsewhere in the manufacturing industry in general. It seems that it would be beneficial if industry and government did more to increase training and employment opportunities in photonics manufacturing.

Key Finding: Additive manufacturing, which uses significant optics and photonics technologies, has become important in manufacturing, and its position is expected to increase. Additive manufacturing tends to require low labor use and is therefore advantageous in regions with high labor costs, such as the United States.


73 National Research Council. 2010. Standards for K-12 Engineering Education? Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

74 National Research Council. 2011. Successful STEM Education: A Workshop Summary. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement