AIM Photonics

New institute is US platform for manufacturing integrated photonics.

01 April 2016
Kathy Kincade

The US photonics industry got a major boost last year with the funding of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics). Since being awarded more than $600 million in public-private funds in July 2015, the institute has already approved numerous research proposals, set up manufacturing centers and areas, and begun efforts through the AIM Photonics Academy to develop workforce-training programs.

AIM Photonics officially opened in New York state in January as a first-of-its-kind collaboration among government, academia, and industry to put American manufacturing at the forefront of what many believe will be the next big thing in consumer electronics, telecom/datacom, defense, and biomedical devices: integrated photonics.

The Department of Defense is investing $110 million over five years, and a consortium of hundreds of companies, nonprofits, and universities, including SPIE, has pledged an additional $500 million for AIM Photonics to be the sixth of nine public-private partnerships in the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) program. The program is intended to boost manufacturing and innovation and create new job opportunities in the US.

The primary AIM Photonics team, led by State University of New York Polytechnic Institute (SUNY Poly) in New York, includes faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), University of Arizona (UA), and University of Rochester (UR). Industry partners include Intel, HP, IBM, Cisco, Infinera, Corning, Mentor Graphics, Synopsys, Cadence, GE, United Technologies, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

Michael Liehr, AIM Photonics CEO and SUNY Poly executive vice president of Innovation and Technology, says the team is member-led and focused on manufacturing. In a plenary talk at SPIE Photonics West in February, Liehr described the institute’s focus on photonic integrated circuits (PICs), in which optical systems are miniaturized and fabricated on semiconductor chips that can route and process information with reduced size and power.

Integrated photonics encompasses an array of applications, but Liehr said the consortium focuses on a few specific areas: very high-speed digital-data and communication links; LIDAR, which has applications in everything from aerospace to self-driving cars; and new sensors, which Liehr describes as the least well defined, but perhaps the most significant.

As technology becomes increasingly interconnected, sensing devices will become ubiquitous, but only if they are cheap enough, he said. Integrated photonics will enable gadgets that track and measure pollutants, detect trace materials, and help prevent and diagnose diseases.

Michael Liehr
Photo: Adam Resnick

Liehr said AIM Photonics has set up four Manufacturing Centers of Excellence for this: Electronics & Photonics Design Automation; MultiProject Wafer & Assembly; Inline Control & Test; and Test, Assembly & Packaging.


It took many years and multiple lobbying efforts to realize a photonics-specific NNMI in America. A key turning point came in August 2012 when the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies released its report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation.” That report assessed the current state of optics, photonics, and optical engineering in the US, prioritized research grand-challenge questions to fill technological gaps, and recommended actions to support global leadership in photonics-driven industry.

It also led to the creation of the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) to raise general awareness of photonics and its role in our everyday lives; increase coordination among industry, government, and academia; and drive US funding and investment. SPIE is a founding sponsor of the NPI (See below).

“It is a good time to make this kind of investment,” said Tom Koch, dean of the College of Optical Sciences at UA and chair of AIM Photonics’ Technical Review Board. “Some really interesting advances in optics and photonics technologies have emerged in recent years, and they are continuing to leverage more and more the huge investments that go into microelectronics manufacturing.”

Too often the breakthrough research at US universities ends up getting made outside the US, says John Bowers, professor of electrical and computer engineering and materials at UCSB, which is overseeing the West Coast hub of AIM Photonics. “So that’s what the NPI and AIM Photonics are trying to fix. We want to use American ingenuity and inventions to benefit American industry.”


The decision to focus on PICs also had its roots in the 2012 NRC report.

“In that report, one of the top five bullets was integrated photonics,” said Rod Alferness, dean of UCSB’s College of Engineering and head of government and industry outreach for AIM Photonics. “We realized the ability to integrate together multiple functions and devices to get larger functionality was going to be critical to the continued advancement and application of optics in a number of areas. We also believed it would be critically important to provide the interconnect technologies inside of large data centers, and that large data centers would be at the heart of economic growth.”

Integrated photonics is “an unbelievable game changer,” said Tom Battley, executive director of the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster and New York Photonics, a key player in the efforts that helped make AIM Photonics a reality. “It’s like going from buggy whips to motorized cars. It’s going to radically transform our lives, without question.”


The integrated photonics foundry infrastructure is immature in the USA, and establishing a strong one will enable broader access to PIC technology and design and manufacturing resources for companies of all sizes, Liehr notes.

“The idea is to build something that is modeled after the Fraunhofer program in Germany, which is serving the local German economy by providing a path, especially for smaller companies, that have a demand for, say, very small production runs for research that they couldn’t afford because they can’t afford the infrastructure,” he said.

Each AIM Photonics partner brings its own unique expertise to the effort. SUNY Poly, for example, is well known for its fabrication capabilities, while MIT and UCSB are national R&D leaders in silicon photonics and integrating lasers into silicon. Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), UR, UA, and Columbia University will contribute packaging, assembly, and test solutions for PICs, while all partners will pursue applications advances.

On the industry side, Intel and HP both have very advanced photonics platforms, Bowers noted, while Infinera has developed some of the most complex PICs currently available.

“The role of photonics in so many aspects of our lives has become increasingly difficult to ignore when you begin to realize how dependent we are on the Internet, our smart phones, displays, … so many things that are optical,” Koch said. In Arizona, “we’re now getting engaged by all the IT companies because they all realize that the human interface into smart systems involves a lot of optics. We even signed a deal with Uber because they realize that their cars, interfacing with the world, require a lot of optics.”

The AIM Photonics team is already looking at ways to address the design, packaging, and assembly challenges that must be resolved before PIC technology is ready for broad-based commercialization and volume manufacturing. AIM Photonics believes its collaborative approach is just what the industry needs at this point.

The goal is to put in place an end-to-end photonics “ecosystem:” domestic foundry access; integrated design tools; automated packaging, assembly and testing; workforce development; and a standardized platform to make it easier to scale the technology across multiple markets for companies of all sizes.

“If you look at the model for AIM Photonics, it is really about building a complete ecosystem for this industry,” Alferness said. “It’s about leveraging federal dollars to do that, but also leveraging cost-share dollars from companies that will become members of the institute in order to share technology and build up this ecosystem.

“The more companies we have with a broad set of skills and capabilities, the more powerful the institute will become and the better the value proposition. We believe that is especially true for the small- to medium-sized enterprises. The ecosystem becomes complete because they have the opportunity to make integrated photonics devices without having to invest in all the infrastructure,” he said.


SPIE member Lionel Kimerling, the MIT professor in charge of education and workforce development for AIM Photonics, says the AIM Photonics Academy will provide a unified learning, training, knowledge, technology, and workforce deployment platform.

The goal is to attract and retain community college, undergraduate, graduate students, and veterans and help them prepare for careers in the photonics industry.

Through the academy, these students will have access to internships, apprenticeships and classes on photonic system modeling; design automation; materials and processing, metrology and testing, integrated photonics packaging and integrated photonics applications.

For example, Columbia University hosted a weeklong PIC training workshop in October 2015 that introduced attendees to the critical aspects of producing integrated optical components.

“There is a substantial effort going into this,” Alferness said. “At UCSB, we have an organization that has focused on outreach in general in helping to make sure we are training people in technology areas, starting in high school.

“If you look at what will be the products coming out of AIM Photonics, part of how we will keep products in the US is that instead of using low-cost labor to put devices together and build modules, we are focusing on integrated devices using technology that will require advanced, bachelor, and associates degrees with technical capability.

“The result will be more high-paying and education-based jobs in lieu of what we typically think of as assembly line jobs,” he said.


One priority project area for AIM Photonics involves using complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) processing to move photonics onto silicon to eliminate the data bottleneck that advanced silicon chips are facing during the next decade. Thus, high-port-count switches is one of the institute’s first projects. Another area of interest is 3D stacking of electronics with optics.

“The ability to co-manufacture these as a single-chip subassembly on a wafer scale rather than chip by chip. This is an example of one of the most game-changing capabilities of PICs,” Koch said. “It will take a few years to see it emerge in commercial solutions. But when it does, it will be very powerful.”

The real test of success will be whether AIM Photonics can become self-sustaining and what kind of commercial value it can bring to its members in the process, Koch emphasized.

“The big milestone for us is we know we need to be self-sufficient in five years, and the only way you do that is by bringing value,” he said.


There are several ways to become a member of AIM Photonics.

The institute offers tiered membership pricing for industry, academia, and nonprofits. Each tier offers varying levels of engagement with the program, other participants, and the technology and services that are developed.

Tier 1 participants, which contribute $1 million annually to join with a five-year commitment, are expected to provide more support and will have more opportunities to work with one another and the resulting intellectual property, noted Rod Alferness, head of government and industry outreach for AIM Photonics.

Tier 2 and 3 participants, which annually contribute $500,000 and $100,000, respectively, for a three-year commitment, are more limited in their access to the program and its products and services.

Early Tier 1 academic partners include the University of Rochester, SUNY Polytechnic, RIT, MIT, Columbia, UCSB, UC Davis and University of Arizona. Early Tier 1 industry partners include Intel, HP, United Technologies, Raytheon, and Cisco.


The US NPI is a collaborative alliance among industry, academia, and government to raise awareness of photonics and the impact of photonics on our everyday lives.

By increasing cooperation and coordination among these groups, the NPI advances photonics-driven fields and strives to drive US funding and investment in photonics in order to maintain US economic competitiveness and national security.

AIM Photonics is one of results of that collaboration.

SPIE is a founding sponsor of the NPI and is leading the initiative along with the American Physical Society (APS), IEEE Photonics Society, Laser Institute of America (LIA), and the Optical Society (OSA).

  • Read details about AIM Photonics, including its structure, projects, goals, and membership requirements
  • See slides from a November 2015 NPI webinar on AIM Photonics

author photo –Kathy Kincade is a freelance science and technology writer based in California (USA). A version of this article appeared in the Photonics West Show Daily in February.

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