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Photons Could Be Game Changer for U.S. Manufacturing

Electrons, even in the most miniaturized circuits and chips, are not fast enough for us anymore. Now, the photon’s speed is being harnessed and technology is moving from the lab to the factory. How quickly that happens and how big an industry sector can be created depends on how effectively practical technology is developed, leveraged and transferred to manufacturing from the laboratory.

Factory Floore

Integrated photonics cut size, weight, power usage, and ultimately, costs. They offer better performance and reliability and are expected to result in new applications beyond simply replacing electronics. Photonics technology is being used to speed up technologies like laser radar, telecommunications, and the internet. And, who doesn’t want a faster, cheaper, internet that consumes less energy?


Available photonic components are not truly integrated, however. Integrated photonics put photonic and electronic components like lasers, modulators, electronic controls, and optical interconnects on a single platform. Developing such a platform for practical use demands standardization, shared knowledge, and consistency across the industries expected to use it. So far, progress in photonics standardization has been fragmented. U.S. academia, DOD, and companies currently have only limited access to any U.S.-based integrated photonics platform for systems design.


When it comes to manufacturing photonics’ components and systems and incorporating them into next-generation technology products, there are a number of difficult problems.


The Challenges with Photonics


First of all, the U.S. faces the challenge of building its own industry in this area. Europe and Asia are already taking large scale approaches to the opportunity at Germany’s Fraunhofer Gesellschaft and Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute. European photonics manufacturing is being supported by the ePIXfab silicon photonics R&D foundry initiative and JePPIX for indium phosphide photonics. EUROPRACTICE provides discounted software tools for photonics design and coordinates silicon photonics R&D for universities and research centers. The DoD and companies like Boeing and Raytheon are already worried by the fact that so much electronics manufacturing has moved offshore. They must source critical parts from places that could be cut off in the case of conflict or unrest. That’s a real motivator for developing a domestic photonics manufacturing base and not riding the coattails of Asia or Europe.


The Manufacturing Benefit


Although the equipment and techniques used in making electronic integrated circuits can be leveraged for the manufacturing of integrated photonics, real advances in large-scale manufacturing and innovation will require new methods, technologies, and tools. Furthermore, these integration techniques, equipment, automation, and processes for packaging and assembly must be available at competitive costs and achieve competitive performance.


Now, such problems are being addressed by the establishment of the Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation (IP-IMI) that was just announced in July. The lead institution will be the Research Foundation for the State University of New York, and the Institute’s hub will be in Western New York. With a promised cost sharing of $502M from the lead and dozens of other sources, another $110M in Federal funding was provided. The project will be overseen by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Manufacturing Technology Office.


A core purpose of the IP-IMI, with its network of other partners in government, industry and academia, is to facilitate this organized approach to developing that standardized integrated photonics platform that is so necessary. It will take a cross-disciplinary effort of development, design, manufacturing, and scaled-up factory floor technologies. The wide coordinated effort will be aimed at coming up with common optical chip, electronics, packaging, interconnect, design and test solutions.


Some of the Institute’s specific goals will be to develop and demonstrate manufacturing technologies for:


  • Ultra-high-speed transmission of signals for the internet and telecommunications.
  • New high-performance information-processing systems and computing.
  • Compact sensor applications for medical diagnostics and treatment applications.
  • Multi-sensor applications for such uses as urban navigation, free space optical communications, and quantum information sciences.
  • Other military applications including electronic warfare, analog RF sensing, communications, and chemical/biological detection.


Innovation and commercialization in similar industries has come overwhelmingly from small and medium-sized enterprises. They are currently hampered by a lack of access to research and production facilities, however. They also lack design and testing tools. The IP-IMI will open doors to participation and access to the design, fabrication, and testing of integrated photonics for US companies of all sizes, academia, and government labs.


Because any growth in the industry will require a capable workforce, the Institute will develop programs and resources for education and training, from trade schools to universities.


This is the latest Manufacturing Institute, or hub as the President likes to call them, being added to others on digital manufacturing, lightweight metals, advanced electronics, and clean energy. We need the broad range of basic scientific knowledge being generated by the research community, but bringing ideas from the lab to the marketplace is the tough part. If the Manufacturing Institutes do their job, and connect R&D islands into a whole as well as carry out their own work, we’ll be better off for it.


Key facts:


Established: July 2015


Lead: Research Foundation for The State University of New York (RF SUNY)


Hub location: New York


Members: 96


Federal Funding: $110M


Cost Share: $502M


Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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