Moving out of the cottage

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The dot.com companies are discovering something as they watch their market values plummet: You can only get so far on a good story. Eventually, you have to produce. The optical-communications industry has begun to face a similar scenario-not in terms of revenue generation, for there's plenty of that right now. But gathering orders has come to seem like the easy part. The hard part is producing the components, subsystems, and systems necessary to fill them.

The problems associated with production threaten to put a significant damper on the optical-networking boom. Everyone, it seems, is struggling with a shortage of parts (we'll ignore engineering talent for the moment). As the article on page 189 points out, the problem lies in the "hand-tooled" nature of the traditional optical production process. A senior-management veteran once described fiber optics as a cottage industry, where individual products are assembled by hand as if you were knitting afghans or performing arts and crafts. It has become obvious to all that major optical-communications vendors can no longer assemble their products as if they were gluing together Popsicle-stick ashtrays.

The most popular answer to the problem is automation. I recently toured Lucent Technologies' new manufacturing facilities at its Optoelectronics Center in Breinigsville, PA. What I saw exemplified both the potential and the problems the drive for automation currently poses.

On the plus side, automation can knit a lot of optical afghans. Lucent can currently produce as many components in a week as it used to in a year. The company demonstrated a series of bonding, testing, and sorting stations that required little human intervention. The company encapsulated each station in its own "mini-cleanroom," which enabled the same shop floor to accommodate a variety of production environments. The components were passed from station to station in waffle packs, each carrying up to 50 parts. A standard optical subassembly that can fulfill similar roles in a variety of products represents the keystone of this newly automated assembly process. The use of such generic parts enables the same station to support multiple product lines and also eases the increase of production levels or the addition of new products to the assembly process.

However, Lucent's experience with automation reveals that optical-communications manufacturers face several hurdles as they attempt to make their production processes as modern as their products. First, automation is expensive; Lucent sunk $30 million into the facilities expansion of which this new automated manufacturing gear is a part. Second, automation requires a fair amount of ingenuity. Besides coming up with such clever ideas as the mini-cleanrooms and optical subassemblies, the company technicians also found they had to design and develop much of the automated manufacturing gear themselves. While other industries certainly use similar equipment-and automated equipment providers have begun to target optical manufacturing applications-there isn't a lot of generic automated manufacturing equipment that could be readily applied to all of Lucent's requirements, sources at the company revealed.

Third, there's the eternal question of time-to-market-or make that time-to-manufacturing. As I walked the shop floor with other journalists, we found ourselves stepping over the taped outlines of manufacturing stations that had yet to arrive. How long would the new facility meet Lucent's requirements once it was fully equipped?, we asked. No time at all, we were told; an additional facility was being readied for occupancy as soon as the one through which we walked reached completion.

It appears that automation will help ease the production dilemma but will not remove it entirely. At the very least, companies will find themselves in a continuing race between the development of new facilities and the demands of their customers. Manufacturing houses that can install similar kinds of automated manufacturing equipment should find no shortage of optical companies seeking their services.

The cottage is no longer big enough to hold optical communications. But the factory of tomorrow will be hard-pressed to keep up, as well.

Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director and Associate Publisher
stephenh@pennwell.com

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