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Q&A with Ian Lancaster



Ian Lancaster

Ian Lancaster, general secretary of the International Hologram Manufacturers Association (IHMA), is stepping down after more than 20 years of service. With retirement on the horizon, Lancaster provided insight into the recent history of the holography industry, and where the it is heading.

Question: Why was the IHMA put together in the first place?

Answer: There was significant growth in holography through the late 1980s, particularly after MasterCard first used a hologram for security in 1983. The market was growing rapidly and many new companies were set up to meet this growing demand, especially in the USA and Western Europe, while in Japan Dai Nippon and Toppan – two large print and print equipment companies – had both set up holography operations. By the early 1990s, there was an established if still young holography industry, so it was logical to start thinking about an industry association.

Wasy D’Cruz, then CEO of American Bank Note Holographics – one of the biggest companies – was very keen on the idea and wrote a call for action in Holography News®. Around the same time Steve McGrew, the founder of Light Impressions, identified the need for a register of security holograms because it was so easy for a company to make a hologram of a customer’s design without knowing that it was a counterfeit of one in use on the other side of the world.

At the second Holo-pack•Holo-print® conference in Geneva in November 1991, Lew Kontnik and I (Lew was my partner in Reconnaissance Holographics, as we then were) convened a meeting of around 20 companies, which agreed to establish a Working Group to look into setting up an industry association. That group reported back a year later, when the vote was taken to establish the International Hologram Manufacturers Association.

Question: Is there any one key development within holography since then that stands out?

Answer: For the IHMA and holography, the biggest thing was the launch of the euro banknotes with holograms as protection in 2002. There had been holograms on banknotes before this, but this was recognized as a very thoroughly researched banknote concept and design, which the IHMA played a small part in. With an initial requirement of around 15 billion holograms, this was not only the largest order for holograms to date, but it was a tremendous vote of confidence in security holograms, encouraging other central banks to use holograms.

In the other key security document market, the introduction of transparent surface relief (SR) holograms through the use of de-metallizing and high refractive index (HRI) coatings meant that holograms could be used for the security laminate on ID documents – which has become a very important market. These developments have allowed the invention of new optical and design techniques, but those innovations in material science have been key.

From a different perspective, another significant development has been the rapid growth of the hologram industry in China and India. From practically nothing when the IHMA was established, India now has more IHMA members than anywhere other than Western Europe, while China produces more holographic material than anywhere else.

Question: What have been the other successes and achievements of the IHMA over the last 20 years?

Answer: Introducing a Code of Practice for members was one of the first things the Association did. Over the years, we’ve improved the process of making members aware of and committed to this Code, which they must pledge to abide by. This has made a significant contribution to the business ethics of the industry. The Association has also got better at vetting membership applicants. There have been times when an application has been refused, telling the applicant to improve their business practices and re-apply, which they have done. The Association has also helped to improve the understanding and respect for intellectual property rights (IPR) in the industry, through its Guides on Hologram Patents and Copyright.

Saving the best till last, the IHMA’s Hologram Image Register has also helped enormously in preventing members from inadvertently infringing another company’s IP. The IHMA established the HIR in 1994 to meet the concerns first expressed by Steve McGrew, and it has done its job well. Unfortunately, it can’t “police” the activities of non-members, but for members it has proved its worth, contributing to the detection of copied holograms and even to the apprehension and prosecution of the criminals behind them.

Question: What challenges have you faced in the role?

Answer: Perhaps the biggest challenge is the one that the IHMA is focused on now – reaching out to Chinese hologram producers, to encourage them to become involved in the international industry and to help them better understand IPR and the damage that can be done if they don’t undertake due diligence on their customers.

Looking back over the past two decades, another big challenge for the IHMA has been to defend the reputation of holograms as a security feature. It’s not an accident that holograms are the single most-used add-on security feature on banknotes, passports, tax stamps and products; holograms are easy to recognize, they’re eye-catching and effective. But there’s been a lot of criticism of holograms – they’re easy to copy, they were good when there was only a handful of producers, track and trace is more effective, and so on.

Frankly, most of this is just competitor envy. Holograms can be copied, but a well-designed security hologram, as part of a properly conceived anti-counterfeiting programme, is extremely difficult to copy accurately. This has been proved time and time again. A counterfeit hologram may fool a lay-person; it may even fool, say, a bank clerk or supermarket checkout clerk, but it won’t fool a trained and equipped examiner. There have been numerous occasions when a customer has contacted the IHMA in panic because their hologram has been copied and every time without fail we’ve been able to show how easy it is to detect the copy by comparing it with a genuine hologram. Usually just by eye, very occasionally using a simple loupe magnifier.

The IHMA has tried to make sure that customers understand the difference between using a hologram to prevent copies and using it to detect copies, and to continue to promote the efficacy of holograms as a security feature.

Question: How do you see the holography industry now compared to 20 years ago?

Answer: It’s more professional, bigger, geographically more spread and more diverse. It’s indicative of that diversity that Reconnaissance (which provides the Secretariat to the IHMA) has changed the name of the annual holography event that it runs. From 1990 to 2012 this was called Holo-pack•Holo-print®, reflecting the dominance of holography for packaging and printing. In 2013 the name changed to simply The Holography Conference™ to better reflect and serve the industry, which is now so diverse, including holographic optical elements, display holograms, light-control films, mapping and visualization, nano-optics and more. It’s an exciting time for this industry!

Question: What challenges does the industry face in the future?

Answer: The failure of display holograms to make real impact on the market has allowed other 3D imaging systems to claim that they are holographic. There have been huge advances in display holograms, to give us true 3D, full parallax and full colour holograms, which I believe are the ultimate 3D imaging method. However, lighting remains a problem and is the big hold-back factor.

It will be a challenge for the industry to maintain the presence and momentum it gained in the 2000’s in the key secured document market. That’s the decade when the majority of banknotes, passports and ID cards had security holograms and when HOEs began to be used in significant numbers on display screens and in vehicular instrumentation and lighting.

Question: Where do you see the industry heading? And what will be the key technologies?

Answer: I’d love to see holography established as the 3D imaging medium used for advertising, illustration and so on. But it’ll only happen if holograms can break free of the need for a bright light set at a specific position.

That apart, security holography and holographic packaging is here to stay. HOE’s and nano-optical devices will become a big part of the industry, for lighting control, electro-optical devices, solar energy, visual displays and monitors and more. With Microsoft now involved in HOE-based vision systems, and Google exploring holography, who knows what they might achieve? But there are also significant innovations in holography coming from small companies or research institutions, not just big companies.

We have to start thinking of holograms as a means to capture, store and control light, not just as an imaging medium. Thinking that way opens up so much for holography’s future.

For more information about IHMA, visit www.ihma.org.