Alliance steps up to improve integrated photonics manufacturing solutions

TRENDS

By ROBERT PEASE

Photonic- and optoelectronic-component manufacturers are faced with the daunting challenge of producing highly reliable, complex components at lower costs. To keep a step ahead of the competition, component providers must use whatever creative means is at their disposal to meet customer demand. Automated manufacturing equipment vendors are teaming to aid component suppliers in this quest.

For example, Palomar Technologies (Vista, CA), in an effort to be the first in photonic assembly to integrate multiple machines and processes into a complete assembly line, formed strategic alliances with three other companies. With its partners Axsys Technologies (Manchester, CT), Creative Automation (Hillside, IL), and ILX Lightwave (Bozeman, MT), Palomar demonstrated its automated line at OFC in March.

Through the use of automated equipment, photonic manufacturers not only eliminate manual processes but reduce manufacturing costs, increase yield and throughput, tightly couple test and assembly functions, and quantify cost-of-ownership metrics. Currently, few standards exist for photonic-component manufacturing, although organized efforts are underway. One such effort, the Photonics Manufacturing Association (PMA), is focused on promoting standards and practices that will lead to more automated assembly of low-cost, higher-yield photonic devices. Packaging and processing standardization will result in increased effectiveness and efficiency of manufacturing tools.

Although Palomar and its partners decided not to wait for complete standardization before forming the alliance to address some of the particular problems faced in their industry, the goals of both the alliance and the PMA are complimentary. "As with other industry consortia, the PMA provides an open framework to bring together equipment, material, and device manufacturers," says Bruce Hueners, vice president of marketing at Palomar. "The PMA's principle committees of roadmapping, standards, and industry metrics provide a vehicle for dialogue and consensus. One of the prime objectives of the PMA is to thoroughly identify and communicate relevant standards activities as they emerge, so that members can actively participate in areas they wish to influence."

The current lack of "standard" photonic packages does not daunt the members of Palomar's alliance. They plan to adopt automation standards from other industries and apply them to photonic manufacturing. In extending its experience with implementing proven semiconductor and surface-mount automation practices to its alliance partners, Palomar believes it can provide a total automated process solution to the photonics industry.

Each alliance partner brings its own expertise to the table. Axsys is a provider of micro-positioning and precision optical systems. Creative Automation develops automated fluid dispensing systems. ILX Lightwave manufactures photonic test and measurement equipment. With Palomar's know-how in automated high-precision assembly systems, the alliance believes it can provide equipment and process expertise in the critical processes of precision device assembly, optical align and attach, and test and measurement.

The economy is negatively affecting many areas of the optical technology industry and causing the failure of many startup companies. But in the case of component manufacturers, it has some positive aspects.

"The current economy has provided an environment as well as an impetus to build corporate competencies through alliances and acquisitions in anticipation of the next upturn in the optical space," says Hueners. "It is unlikely that these would have occurred during the 'gold rush' year 2000, as most equipment manufacturers were preoccupied with meeting very demanding customer ship schedules."

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