May 31, 2013    Volume 20, No. 7

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Photonics Industry Looks To Federal Government To Get Back Into The Game -- Introducing the National Photonics Initiative


By Richard A. McCormack
editor@manufacturingnews.com

All of the country's major photonics and optical trade associations and technical societies have allied behind a new "National Photonics Initiative" aimed at saving one of the country's most important technology industries. Photonics and optical high-tech products -- ubiquitous throughout the industrial economy -- are now being produced primarily overseas due to a lack of strategic vision and investment in the United States, say organizers. The intent of the National Photonics Initiative is to make sure the United States overcomes its strategic blunder and is on the forefront of developing, commercializing and manufacturing the next generation of photonics.

"The rest of the world has caught up with us and we are in a competitive situation," says Tom Baer of Stanford University's Photonics Research Center and Chair of the National Photonics Initiative Advisory Committee. "There is significant pressure both on our industry and on basic research due to the fact that foreign researchers are developing new technology and approaches at a rate that is comparable to that in the United States."

The result has been a dramatic loss of American jobs in the optics and photonics sectors -- making such things as optical telecommunications switches, medical imaging devices, integrated circuits, photovoltaics, light emitting diodes, lasers, sensors and a variety of military products such as night vision systems.

One of the primary missions of the initiative is to raise awareness among members of Congress of the importance of the industry and the need for greater federal funds for research and the transition of research into commercial products manufactured in the United States.

The initiative has involved 100 experts from academia, industry and federal agencies that formed committees focusing on five of the biggest impact areas for optics and photonics in the U.S. economy: advanced manufacturing; communications and information technology; defense and national security; energy; and health and medicine.

"The main message we're trying to convey is that investments in these areas will increase U.S. industrial competitiveness and will also lead to increased employment in the United States and improve our homeland security and defense position as well," says Baer.

Of those involved in developing the plan, half were from the private sector representing companies with a total market cap of more than $1.4 trillion.

The common theme among the five subject area committees: "The U.S. has excelled in investment in basic research but has not invested in manufacturing science and how to employ photonics technologies to make things cost effectively and cheaply to be competitive with foreign competition where labor costs are less," says Baer. "It is felt that we can respond to that challenge by developing the next generation of advanced manufacturing technologies."

The initiative hopes to work with federal funding agencies to get them to better coordinate their research efforts and to help them focus on areas that will have the greatest impact on the U.S. economy. "An overall increase in funding is critical to the U.S. competitiveness and we feel this is a recommendation that should be given to all the federal funding agencies," says Baer. "The U.S. has the best higher education system in the world, the best R&D universities in the world and it has the best free-market system and industry complex, but what we don't have is focused government programs that allow these two to have a good interface to collaborate and develop new technologies and innovations. Germany and China have this better in place, with Germany and the Fraunhofer in particular. It may not be that the Fraunhofer program is perfectly suitable, but comparable programs [need to be established] to encourage funding for this academic and industry interface. This was a common theme in all five [subject area] committees."

In the advanced manufacturing area, the use of lasers and optical sensors has already revolutionized production of such things as GE's aircraft engines, Intel's chips, Apple's consumer electronics and Ford's automobiles. The use of photonics in advanced manufacturing has improved many of the key competitive factors of products such as size, weight, performance and cost, says Mark Taggert of Laser Mechanisms Inc. "Strategic investment in the development of next generation photonics manufacturing technology will help secure our strategic future in the United States."

High powered dye lasers and fiber lasers are relatively new. They are compact, reliable, affordable and efficient. They increase precision, reduce scap and improve margins. But many of America's smaller industrial companies are not using these systems because their workers do not have the skills and training required to utilize them. Optical systems are also the driving force behind additive manufacturing, but a great deal more research and development needs to be done before that technology becomes commonplace in American industry.

In the area of telecommunications, virtually all of the data cascading through the Internet, data centers and computers is based on optical systems. The five-fold increase in traffic in the Internet between 1995 to 2010 was enabled by technologies developed in the early 1990s, says Steve Grubb of Infinera Corp. "In order to maintain even the most conservative growth in Internet traffic we need to develop a new disruptive technology this decade," he says. "Everyone agrees that we have harvested the benefits of the technologies pretty fully and we are going to need disruptive technologies" -- such as photonic integrated circuits, photonic crystal fibers and broadband optical amplifiers.

Without new photonics technology manufacturing capabilities, the United States will not be able "to take advantage of this growth," says Grubb. "Without improvements to address cost, power consumption and data rates demand will soon outstrip capacity and this may lead to higher communications cost and could possible constrain the U.S. and global economy."

As data traffic continues to grow, capacity has to increase by between 30 and 50 percent per year and the cost-per-bit must come down simultaneously. "The service providers' revenue is not increasing at a rate sufficient to cover the increase in traffic, so everyone is constrained," says Grubb.

Integrated photonic circuits will be a "critical competitive differentiator," says Grubb. The U.S. has a strong R&D base in photonic ICs, but manufacturing needs to be addressed with a focused initiative. "Leaders of this revolution will gain substantial advantage in national security and in advancing the infrastructure that enables our Internet-based society," Grubb adds. "U.S. leadership in the IT sector will drive high-value services and manufacturing jobs for years and decades to come and will launch new spinoff technologies."

The photonics telecommunications sector started losing a "tremendous amount of jobs starting in 2000," says Grubb. "None of us believe we will get those jobs back, but we do believe that if we are able to leapfrog this technology and take advantage of this disruptive technology at an early state that we can create a lot of photonics jobs in the U.S."

The group feels there is some positive momentum in Congress, with the creation of a Telecom Supply Chain Caucus being created by Rep. Mike Rodgers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

In the defense sector, photonics has become the basis of modern warfare, with night vision, laser targeting, sensors, imaging and optical data transmission being used to determine the specific location of targets. The ability to transfer and gather information can be a deciding factor during conflict, all of which is "entirely dependent on photonics technology," says James Horkovich of the Directed Energy Professional Society. The National Photonics Initiative defense committee consisted of members from across industry "from large companies -- Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Boeing -- and smaller companies," says Horkovich. "All agreed that we need to significant increase investment" in photonics.

A new generation of laser weapons that can precisely target threats can be low cost, lightweight and provide warfighters with an unlimited magazine. "One of the crucial aspects of current and future conflicts is the ability of adversaries to swarm -- overwhelm our defenses with cheap threats," says Horkovich. "We have very well developed kinetic rocket missile defensive systems, but the cost of intercepting a $500 incoming rocket with a $100,000 missile is neither a good cost trade nor effective in having the inventory in the magazine."

The military "needs strong industrial capability across the board," says Horkovich. "We do not have a secure foundry service in the United States that can produce the volume of equipment that is needed. Many of the specific technologies required are limited. It takes a long time to manufacture. A lot of the items we need for implementation in national defense have gone overseas and some things can only be manufactured in foreign countries. That is simply an untenable position for our national defense." Again, there is one positive sign in that a Directed Energy Caucus in the House of Representatives has become more active under the stewardship of Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and James Langevin (D-R.I.).

In the area of energy, photonics will play an important role in energy efficiency, solar power and in sensors that can be used in harsh production conditions to monitor industrial processes and the environment. On a percentage basis, solar power is the fastest growing energy source in the United States and it has the potential to provide up to 30 percent of U.S. energy needs. "Right now it's well below 1 percent," says Baer. Only about 5 percent of total global photovoltaics production is taking place in the United States even though the U.S. developed the technology. "Where we have lagged behind is in the development of manufacturing strategies for making low-cost versions of the technology," says Baer.

It is projected that in two to three years photovoltaics will achieve "grid parity" with other electric-generating technologies without any subsidies from the federal government. "It is a big opportunity and the U.S. needs to step forward with investments in advanced manufacturing in order to be competitive in this area," says Baer.

There are other equally large opportunities in LED lighting, but the United States has no strategy to compete with foreign nations that are strengthening their manufacturing and supply chain capabilities. "If the U.S. wants to play a role in this area, we will need to make comparable investments in basic research in materials and manufacturing," says Baer.

The group recommends the creation of a permanent industry advisory committee to help the federal government steer funding to critical needs in photonics energy development. It recommends an ongoing roadmapping activity similar to what the semiconductor industry does, and to provide those plans to the government as a means for targeting investment. "If the United States is going to participate in the new generation of lighting technologies, then new manufacturing methods are needed because the primary barrier is cost, not performance," says Baer. "Federal support for new manufacturing methods will be a critical."

The "founding sponsors" of the National Photonics Initiative are the Optical Society and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. "Sponsors" include the American Physical Society, the IEEE Photonics Society and the Laser Institute of America. "Collaborators" include the Directed Energy Professional Society, Infinera Corp., Laser Mechanisms, the National Academy of Sciences, Optoelectronics Industry Development Association and the Stanford Photonics Research Center.

The initiative's website is www.lightourfuture.org/. A white paper, "Lighting the Path to a Competitive, Secure Future," is located at www.lightourfuture.org/files/8213/6943/4583/Lighting_the_Path_to_a_Competitive_Secure_Future_052413.pdf.


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