Harsh-environment fiber optics lead growth

April 1, 2003

While the consumption of fiber-optic components in telecommunications and other commercial applications is only now cautiously emerging from a major recession, fiber communications in harsh environments maintains strong growth and holds a significant share of total component market value.

The specifications for harsh-environment fiber-optic components vary widely. Designers typically start from a commercially available component, which meets or exceeds the electrical and lightwave performance requirements, then modify the design to satisfy one or more of the following severe environmental or operational requirements: wider temperature and/or pressure extremes, greater shock and vibration, immunity to high electromagnetic interference, immunity to atomic radiation, reduced electromagnetic radiation from optoelectronics, higher external moisture, reduced size and weight, and higher tensile strength and crush resistance of fiber cable.

Hybrid optoelectronic (OE) ICs, which may incorporate monolithic ICs, other semiconductors, and additional devices, will increasingly offer a solution for integrated components, including those products that must meet harsh-environment fiber-optic requirements. Integrated OE components enable size and weight reduction, plus greater tolerance of some environmental extremes. The cost of designing and qualifying the OEIC can be partially offset against the cost of alternative solutions.

OEIC consumption worldwide is expected to reach $1.93 billion in 2006, from $357 million in 2001, according to ElectroniCast forecasts. Telecom equipment will represent the highest application share, accounting for 57% or $1.09 billion of the total optoelectronic IC consumption worldwide in 2006, followed by military and aerospace applications with 36% ($690 million), private data network applications with 5% ($89 million), and specialty/instruments with 3% ($56 million).

Although telecom equipment will continue to represent the dominant application for OEIC consumption worldwide, it will account for a smaller percentage of the global market consumption in 2006 (57%) compared to 2000 (78%). During the same time period, OEIC consumption in military/aerospace applications will increase from 13% in 2000 to 36% in 2006.

Not surprisingly, most harsh-environment fiber-optic links are used in military/aerospace applications. The forecasted value trends of harsh-environment fiber-optic components used in various applications is shown in the Table. Harsh-environment fiber-optic components in military/aerospace applications typically are designed for use in a very specific "platform" (such as an attack fighter aircraft or submarine), and there is high commonality between system and component requirements. It is less expensive and faster for the system contractor to design and produce the components in-house, rather than subcontract the devices.

While military/aerospace fiber-optic links must perform in extreme environments, the requirements for commercial fiber-optic applications are less severe. Telecom equipment typically is installed inside central offices or controlled environment vaults, using conventional commercial-grade components. Submarine fiber cable systems use components designed, produced, and inspected for ultra high reliability and aimed at long life, but they are installed in a protected environment. The general system deployment approach is to protect all environmentally sensitive components within a protective enclosure, thus permitting use of commercial-grade components. Exceptions occur in some industrial/factory installations that involve corrosive atmosphere, temperature extremes, or other situations that would challenge commercial components but where installation of special enclosures is not feasible.

Private data networks like telecom installations typically are installed in benign environments. There are, however, numerous exceptions, for example, factory/foundry/refinery data systems, vehicular networks, off-highway vehicles, transportable rapid assemble/disassemble networks, and interconnect of emergency-response vans. Each of these applications requires unique, application-specific components to achieve an optimum solution.

Specialty/instrument harsh-environment fiber-optic applications are highly diverse. "Specialty" is a catchall term for any applications that do not fit into the other identified categories. "Instrumentation" refers to any observation/monitoring/measuring function not identified in other applications.

Harsh-environment components are application-specific, and further custom design revision is often required within a general application category. Quantities typically are small: a few dozen to a few hundred per contract. Thus, prices of these components are much higher than their high-volume commercial counterparts.

Jeff D. Montgomery is chairman and founder of ElectroniCast Corp. (San Mateo, CA), an optical technology market research and analysis firm.