The Industry Perspective series of discussions this year at SPIE Photonics West demonstrated an overall trend of optimism about the future of photonics, even with global financial troubles looming overhead. The reasoning: hard times often provide the breeding grounds for the most innovative products and methods.
The Executive Perspectives on the World of Optics and Photonics included representatives from Edmund Optics, Hamamatsu, Newport, Coherent, CVI Melles Griot, TRUMPF, and Bookham discussing the trends they're seeing during these changing times. While there was some disagreement about where future markets and funding would stem from, the group was generally upbeat about the possibilities.
Members of the Executive Perspective panel, left to right: Robert Edmund, Stuart Shoenmann, Kenneth Kaufman, Randy Heyler, Timothy Morris, Mark Sobey, Kenneth Ibbs, and moderator Tom Hausken. Photo by Beth Kelley.
According to the panel, some of the bright spots where the industry is remaining strong were solar and "green" technologies, such as LEDs, and biomedical research. Ken Ibbs of Bookham Inc. believed the only dark spot in the current photonics industry trends were semiconductors, although Ken Kaufman, vice president of marketing at Hamamatsu, mentioned that the large biomedical machines are also beginning to see a downturn. And Mark Sobey of Coherent was certain the telecommunications industry in general is going to see a contraction.
The consensus among the panel was that companies would have to work collaboratively and partner by sharing information and innovation in order to weather the recession. Randy Heyler of Newport, now starting his own company, warned that companies will have to work together if they want to push innovation further.
Sobey pointed to the telecommunications industry as a prime candidate for consolidation. "Consolidation does not mean merely merging companies," Sobey explained, "but includes sharing information or even sharing facilities," and is an important aspect to surviving. He also recommended that companies choose a few programs to fund and not just cut funding across the board. Heyler warned that cutting spending is not just a concern in the private sector, but with government-funded labs and schools as well, particularly in cash-strapped states like California.
At the executive panel on Applications of High-Power Solid-State Lasers, officials from IPG Photonics, TRUMPF, Coherent, Spectra-Physics/Newport, and ROFIN-SINAR Laser GmbH discussed the state of their business and future prospects. They also believed that economic slowdowns can lead to innovation.
"Downturns provide a lot of opportunities," said Sri Venkat of Coherent. Venkat said that customers who may not be able to afford new equipment right now are instead investing in upgrades to push performance and reduce costs. The theme of efficiency was emphasized by Bill Shiner of IPG, who said that now is a time to carefully "invest for the right reasons," and that his company is "very optimistic" for the coming year.
In response to an audience question about how the industry was addressing the green revolution, most panelists agreed that while these lasers had improved efficiency from 2% to around 30% in just the last few years, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Ulrich Hefter of ROFIN-SINAR said there are gains to be made by "making lasers more efficient and using lasers more efficiently." Several mentioned new markets, such as in solar panel production and potential use of high-power lasers in the energy industry.
Panel on Silicon Photonics
A distinguished panel of industry experts including Mario Paniccia of Intel Corp., Bert Jan Offrein of IBM Zurich Research Lab, Ray Beausoleil of Hewlett-Packard Labs, Eugene Fitzgerald of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ashok Krishnamoorthy of Sun Corp. talked about advantages, current applications, and future opportunities for silicon photonics devices in the executive panel Silicon Photonics and Optical Interconnects.
Panel members discussed the current state of development of silicon photonics - seen by many as the next revolution in computing - given predicted demands for both bandwidth and computing power.
The power consumption of the current transistor architecture will eventually limit computing growth, especially at the data center level, but chip-level optics can solve this power issue, they said. Panelists warned that the full migration to chip-level optics faces challenges, such as creating reliable silicon lasers, reducing the number of total light sources, creating multi-wavelength sources for signal multiplexing, and dealing with the heat issues likely to result.
VCSELs, vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers that are currently used as connections, are not scalable solutions to optical computing, so efforts at miniaturization and integration with CMOS may not produce mass market solutions for seven to 10 years.
One of the industries mentioned by all the panelists was solar energy and photovoltaic technologies. Eric Wesoff of Greentech Media lead an entertaining and informative presentation on Hot Markets in Photonics: Solar. Wesoff discussed "who is doing what" right now in the industry as far as venture capital, startups, development, and manufacturing. The $20 billion industry, he said, has been growing faster than 30% a year for the past decade and is not expected to drop off any time soon, driven by German, Spanish, and now American demand.