Companies migrate established technologies to optical markets

TRENDS

By ROBERT PEASE

In an unfavorable climate for starting new companies and business ventures, entry into the fiber-optic telecommunications industry may not seem like a logical idea. But despite the downturned economy, there still appears to be room for a few new niche players, particularly if they embrace a novel, cost-saving technology and can enter without huge amounts of funding. A trend has slowly developed-perhaps a sign of the times-whereby many companies, both in and out of the telecommunications realm, are deciding to expand their business into other areas of the optical market.

For instance, at last July's National Fiber Optic Engineering Conference (NFOEC) in Baltimore, attendees were introduced to lots of unknown companies-not necessarily startups, but companies expanding their technologies and products to address needs in fiber-optic applications. Several companies were present that had added automated manufacturing and packaging to their existing business in an effort to take advantage of a market segment that is actually growing despite the economic slowdown.

These entrants into the optical market are actually finding ways to "make the most of a bad situation" by entering narrow segments of the market with products that offer substantial performance benefits over existing products-using proven technologies already available to them.

One company that exemplifies this trend is HoloTek LLC (Henrietta, NY). For more than 20 years, HoloTek has been developing laser scanning imaging components and subsystems for the graphic arts industry. Last July, the company grabbed a booth at NFOEC to tout its latest business focus-applying its expertise in the design, development, and manufacture of high-efficiency diffraction-grating components and subsystems to deliver what it considers innovative solutions for DWDM networks in the optical telecommunications industry.

"Approximately one year ago, we initiated an effort to evaluate new markets for our grating capability," says John Hart, president of HoloTek. "Our market research indicated that the telecom market, while at the time experiencing astronomical growth, was in a long-term medium- to high-growth curve. The fundamentals of today's business and future trends were supportive of a long-term growth market. Growth in the graphic arts market has been slow, so we believe telecom presents a large opportunity for us."

The company is developing its high-efficiency diffraction gratings for use in optical multiplexing/demultiplexing, wavelength channel monitoring, and tunable lasers. An optical power monitor (OPM) using a transmission grating was demonstrated at NFOEC. The relationship between graphics and telecommunications applications is not as obvious as one might think-and explaining that technological relationship isn't easy.

"This is a stretch, but in the graphics market, we design optical systems that image small spots on the photo-sensitive film and plates," says Hart. "We do this very rapidly. We are very skilled at optical design and imaging applications. Imaging an infrared spot on a 50x50-µm InGaAs array, or a 9-µm fiber, is not that far afield from imaging a flying spot on a film substrate."

HoloTek's gratings are manufactured using a photo-resist applied to glass. Gratings are produced holographically and cut to customer specifications. The company does not produce ruled gratings-the traditional approach to manufacturing gratings. The benefits include high efficiency, high dispersion, environmental stability/robustness, and equal polarization, says the company.

"The best example of a design actually in the marketplace is Lightchip's [Salem, NH] OPM, which uses a re flection grating," says Hart. "The basic concept is that a diffraction grating disperses light. If the light is in the telecom range, the grating separates it into wavelengths. Hence, it can be focused on the end of a fiber or onto an array. The visible light analogy is that a grating will cause a rainbow effect when white light is shone onto its surface. The light is dispersed into its components-the spectrum."

HoloTek also has competitors in this narrow market segment, such as Thermo RGL (Rochester, NY), Optometrics USA Inc. (Ayer, MA), and a handful of others. Hart says the company will focus on customers that manufacture DWDM equipment, OPMs, add/drop multiplexers, and possibly tunable lasers. HoloTek has been shipping sample product to potential customers and is currently ready to ship production quantities of telecom gratings.

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