Two of the articles in this month's issue illustrate just how difficult-albeit exciting-life can be for your average optical design engineer these days. On the one hand, our Editorial Extra on automated manufacturing quotes a product manager who has added design cycles to the list of things that are now accelerating faster than Moore's Law. "The cycle time is a fraction of what just a year or two ago would have been considered normal," he says. "Anyone that has a six-to-nine-month product-development cycle time is dead. If you're not cranking out new products with significant improvements every few months or so, you're not going to be able to keep up with the very few, very large players in components."
This design frenzy plays out against a backdrop of a demand curve that defies measurement. "I don't know of anybody that has come up with a forecast that has held together longer than it takes for the ink to dry," the manager told me in another part of our interview. "We're much, much more in the line of build it and they will come. In other words, when I put together the plan of how much capacity do I need, I don't do the traditional, conservative, bottom-up, 'here's how I'm going to sell every single unit of output.' Instead, I do, 'here's what I think I can sell, and I'm going to add a pretty large percentage of excess capacity,' in the belief that the market will continue to overperform."
On the other hand, playing against this requirement to accelerate product development, you have our news story at the top of page 1 that describes how the trailblazers in the field of passive optical networks (PONs) have pretty much had to go it alone when it came to developing their new systems, particularly if they wanted to transmit at speeds higher than 155 Mbits/sec.
"The 622-Mbit aspect of the PON required internal development of the optoelectronics; there is no commercial solution out there today," a technologist at one PON startup told me. Of course, anyone attempting to push the technological envelope has encountered the same problem, whether we're discussing switches, multiplexers, amplifiers, or any other optical communications system or subsystem.
Naturally, companies like JDS Uniphase and its competitors are making a very handsome living supplying off-the-shelf components to an eager customer base. But even at the rate that JDS is expanding its product lines, it can't keep up with every application out there.
Caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, what's a company to do if it wants to churn out technologically innovative products at an increasingly faster rate?
One solution, obviously, is to make do with what is available in the way of outside help. One PON manufacturer with whom I spoke has followed this path in hopes of quickly driving its stake into the ground. "What you end up with when you start with off-the-shelf components are not quite optimal designs," a spokesman revealed. "Some of them are expensive. The performance isn't always there, but they're adequate to get the job done." The company's philosophy is to get the system working and get it out in the field, then improve performance from there.
Yet, before designers look outside for too much of their component technology, they need to review what their company can provide that differentiates their product from others on the market. As one designer put it, "If you want a cutting-edge product, you have to pay the price for that, one way or the other. If you contract the core of your technology out, you're setting yourself up to get burnt. If you own it, you control your destiny."
Companies now have to balance how much control they want to maintain in the various elements of their product design against how much control the current rapacious market will allow. As our Editorial Extra makes clear, the speed with which a product can get out the door is now becoming a significant influence on product road maps and equipment design. For many companies, it seems logical to believe that internal resources will be focused on increasingly narrow areas. When it comes to today's optical communications market, control freaks will quickly become an endangered species.
Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director and