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Optical Design & Engineering

Optical Testing Adapts to a Changing World

Telecom testing matures as optical testing turns its attention to nanotechnology, digital imaging, and LED lighting.

From oemagazine August 2004
31 August 2004, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200408.0003

The descent of the telecom industry and global economy, subsequent consolidation among the broader optical community, and the ascent of nanotechnology are changing the field of optical test and measurement (T&M). These factors have combined to morph the types of T&M systems that end users want and the strategies that T&M companies are using to fill those needs.

As late as 2000, the telecommunications industry dominated optical T&M development. Companies and systems that tackled scalar analysis of narrow wavebands flourished, leading to new broadband, multi-parameter scanning vector analysis systems. Like the telecommunications industry itself, optical T&M was governed by pushing the technology rather than business cases. After the economic downturn of 2000, however, reality returned with a vengeance, bringing with it end users' concerns about return on investment (ROI) and restraining bottom-line growth. This led to demand for more flexible optical T&M systems, increased competition for fewer T&M sales, and the inevitable consolidation among both end user companies and T&M suppliers in areas from network analysis to optics testing.

Fiber optics T&M is a good example. According to one U.S. government official involved in optoelectronic standards, four or five years ago if you wanted to measure insertion loss, chromatic dispersion, polarization loss, and polarization dispersion, you had to break the fiber into five different parts and use five different test systems, which drove up the cost and time associated with that testing. Now, he says, there are laser and interferometric techniques that make it possible to measure all of these things at once.

As a result, end users need fewer pieces of optical T&M equipment. Jessy Cavazos, Frost & Sullivan (San Antonio, TX) industry analyst for communications testing, says the total network analyzer market fell by 25.9% in 2002 to $262.3 million, and reduced unit sales will constrain growth to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5% through 2009. Cavazos predicts roughly the same growth for fiber optics test equipment, with revenues of $596.8 million in 2003, and a CAGR of 5.3% through 2010. Test equipment that targets high growth areas of the telecommunications network, such as metro and access segments, can expect better growth rates, according to Cavazos.

Increased demand for flexible, turnkey T&M solutions continues to constrain not only network and fiber T&M equipment sales, but also traditional optics T&M equipment, according to Fritz Tiede, director of worldwide sales for Thorlabs Instruments (Karlsfeld, Germany). "Customers are trying to outsource more test equipment, and want turnkey solutions that include several test parameters," Tiede says. "It's not always possible for small companies to provide all the equipment [for optics testing] that a particular customer needs. Good advice has been for companies to team up with systems integrators whenever possible."

Consolidation also has fed the used T&M equipment market, creating a sizeable market and demand for used equipment with less functionality and no service contracts, but at fire-sale prices. At the other end of the market, Tiede adds that new optical designs are pushing the specification for optical T&M such as interferometry and scanning wavelength systems for optics characterization.

As in all things, however, when something goes down, something else emerges. As optical test solutions reach maturity in traditional optical industries, other industries are driving the development of new optical T&M systems, such as biotech and pharmaceuticals, and nanotechnology.

Chemical and material analysis equipment will soon benefit from supercontinuum laser sources that take ultrashort laser pulses and pass them through a nonlinear fiber, stretching 10 nm of bandwidth into 1000 nm of bandwidth to create frequency comb filters with wavelength spacing determined by the repetition rate of the source. Under development today (see Product Innovations, p. 54), these lasers will make it easier to spot fine spectral features across a broader spectral range for chemical and material analysis.

Digital imaging, displays, and LED lighting are also driving the development of colorimetry and radiometric T&M equipment. "LED radiation patterns are different than standard light sources, not only in spectral distribution, but spatial distribution as well," says Al Parr, optical technology division chief at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST; Gaithersburg, MD). "You have to characterize the light in order to design the light fixture properly."

Ongoing advances in microlithography and nanolithography are driving interferometric systems to measure localized strain for nanostructures rather than macrostructures, while new pyrometer-based systems monitor the temperature of silicon micro- and nanostructures in real-time during annealing. "There's demanding needs for optical metrology of nanoscale materials beyond electronics too," adds Parr. "We're developing fluorescence and confocal microscopy for single molecule detection in chemical and biological systems as part of our efforts to support the pharmaceutical industry, and rapid testing of new drugs."

As the examples listed above show, optical T&M will continue to adapt and change in its supporting role to a multitude of growing industries. "Some say optical testing is tesing an optical element," Parr says, "but here [at NIST] we define it loosely: optical test is when you use optics to test something, and that's always changing." oe