Opto-electronics-- high-volume, low-cost devices needed
George V. Kotelly
Systems get the glory; components do the work. Like most high-technology businesses, the lightwave industry receives the most attention from the trade and commercial press based on the final results. Numerous publications dote on such clichés as "millions of bits of information buzzing through a strand of fiber no wider than a human hair," as well as on photos of glowing lightwaves and blinking equipment.
But buried within the equipment are rudimentary devices that merge, steer, split, transfer and process optical signals and get the job done. Performing "out of sight" reflects the lack of publicity and appreciation for the skills and expertise of optical component manufacturers. Relatively unnoticed, they have steadily improved the performance, reliability and quality of their devices. (See Special Report section, page 53.) And they have decreased prices, also, albeit at a slow rate.
These product and pricing improvements are reflected in current industry market forecasts. According to Washington, DC-based Optoelectronics Industry Development Association, a consortium of leading industry, academia and national laboratories, the market for opto-electronic communications equipment, including applications in telecommunications, computing, cable TV and automobiles, is expected to grow from approximately $3 billion in 1993 to more than $30 billion by the year 2003.
To achieve that market jump, however, the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association advises that the development of higher volume, lower cost opto-electronic manufacturing technologies must take place to enhance the competitiveness of United States companies in the key high-volume segments of the opto-electronics market. For example, lower costs will accelerate the installation of opto-electronics components in lower speed and shorter distance networks, including telecommunications, computer and video applications for both consumers and businesses.
To that end, the association has formulated a dual approach for the lightwave industry to lower costs--develo¥manufacturing technologies to allow high-performance opto-electronics components to be produced less expensively, and develo¥inherently low-cost opto-electronic technologies similar to those of the consumer and industrial sectors into high-performance new technologies specifically aimed at communications usage.
In fact, the lightwave industry would be better served by a coordinated team approach, declares the association. Team efforts should be supported to address areas primarily applicable to low-cost telecommunications and high-performance data communications.
Some private companies, though, are moving boldly ahead on their own. For example, Scott Roper, Texas Instruments` business development manager, states that enterprise, telephone and cable-TV lightwave networks need high-volume, low-cost semiconductor devices to meet future cost, speed, bandwidth and service requirements (Lightwave, December 1994, page 52).
To achieve the switching speeds and cost goals required by emerging network technologies, such as synchronous optical network and asynchronous transfer mode, says Roper, large-scale integrated semiconductor-type opto-electronic devices will have to be manufactured in mass quantities. In addition to their hardware functions, these devices must be able to run real-time software algorithms.
Whether opto-electronics vendors work in partnerships or alone, high-volume, low-cost opto-electronic semiconductor devices are mandatory to build cost-effective information superhighways of the future.