Collaboration is the key in fiberoptic training

0501bottleneck Logo
0501bottleneck Logo


Manufacturing fiberoptic components is more than just knowing how to make connections. Terminations, cleaving, polishing, precise placement or alignment of components and fiber, plus testing of final products or subassemblies, all go hand in hand in the manufacturing process. Technicians with incomplete skills in any of these operations can waste time and cost thousands of dollars in rework costs. Manufacturers and service providers scrambling to build new optical networks screech into a brick wall when they hit these factory management issues.

The all-optical network is a chain of numerous components—the sum of its parts—and if even the smallest element is not robustly fabricated, then nothing goes forward. Reliability issues and parts shortages create the backups that network engineers, designers, and managers struggle to deal with or eliminate.

Accelerating demand forces rapid development of strategies to overcome these inefficiencies. One method of doing so is integration; another is automation. But an often overlooked method to help fast-growing companies keep up to speed is a very human one: training. And sometimes help with training can be found right in a company's own backyard.

A major concern expressed by WDM-related employers is that the number of skilled workers is not keeping pace with demand. The problem is made worse because many skilled workers in the industry are aging and retiring.

Nortel Networks expects its overall number of employees to remain unchanged in 2001 despite company estimates that approximately 4000 regular full-time positions will be eliminated in the near term through streamlining and realignment activities. Nortel's regular full-time workforce on Dec. 31, 2000, was approximately 94,500, up from approximately 83,500 at the end of 1999. According to Nortel, hiring to address high-growth markets will remain a priority.0501bottlenecks1

One of the high-demand products Nortel produces in Wilmington, MA, is an integrated, tunable laser that incorporates a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser (VCSEL) with a broadbank locker and pump source, three components that previously had to be connected separately. The processes involved in producing these precisely integrated components on a large scale require very advanced, automated manufacturing techniques—with qualified operators.0501bottlenecks2

In a cooperative effort aimed at training workers for Nortel Network's nearby facility, MassBay Community College designed a course that includes work in the classroom and hands-on experience in a lab outfitted by Nortel. At left, student Don Yu works on an XYZ/three-dimensional tool used to connect fiberoptic cables. (Photo courtesy of MassBay Community College)

How does Nortel achieve its high growth rates for this new technology, despite difficult, industry-wide hiring challenges?

"It's a combination of integrated product development and process development, both going on simultaneously, hand in hand," says Tom Dudley, vice president of marketing for Nortel's facility in Wilmington (formerly known as CoreTek before being acquired by Nortel). Dudley was the 35th employee to join the company two years ago—today 350 people work there. There are lessons for the industry in examining this ten-fold increase.

A key component to this dramatic ramp-up is finding the right people and helping them gain the required skills. "We have a very aggressive recruitment program and we train people once we have them on board to enhance their skills," says Claude Briere, Nortel's director of human resources.

Briere is a veteran of Nortel's previous acquisition of Aptis and its subsequent rapid ramp-up. That company grew from 50 employees in 1998, when Nortel bought it, to 180 today. He was brought in to the former CoreTek in July last year, about two months after the Nortel purchase was announced, when the employee head count totaled 175. Since then it has doubled to 350. "We brought in a talented Nortel team dedicated to recruiting. One-third of that increase was referrals, part of our 'Go Hire' program," says Briere. Aggressive reward bonuses of $3,000 for each referral hired were boosted to $10,000 if an employee referred three new hires, plus the employee went into a raffle for free trips and other prizes.

Meanwhile, the CoreTek-Nortel tunable VCSEL was gaining further innovation and integration while new assembly and testing processes were being developed. The new hires needed to gain skills for fabricating these products, and one part of the answer has been training.

"We look for people with skills in manufacturing processes. A good automation engineer, regardless of his or her background, can adapt to our optical work with some training," says Dudley.

As Nortel geared up to advance its products and processes, there was already a combination of skills and efforts under way in the operation. "To shortcut development time we brought all our teams of engineers together, so progress was being made in both the process and the products simultaneously," said Dudley.

Although these informal methods of knowledge exchange were working, slow-downs due to skill gaps existed. Some training in basic optical skills was delivered through Nortel in Canada, but certain gaps still threatened to slow production.

"We had a pressing need for several test technicians last summer, for example, but the candidates I was interviewing had no optical engineering experience," says Guy Anderson, supervisor of the VCSEL test and measurement group. Six or seven engineers who were hired did have optical skills, however, and Anderson discovered they had attended Massachusetts Bay Community College's fiberoptic and laser certification program. "These workers had really good skills, so I got the idea that maybe we could set something up with the college."

The idea turned out to be an easy fit. MassBay not only already had an optical engineering laboratory, it had a history of collaboration with area industries.

"As one of 15 community colleges supported by the state, we have an important role in working side by side with area businesses to improve the workforce," says Tony Vieira, dean of the college's continuing and professional education. While Mass Bay had worked with corporations in the region, such as EMC, Intel, and IBM, the new collaboration with Nortel has some unique qualities. "Here we were developing a class specifically focused on Nortel's needs," says Vieira.

A 15-day intensive class was created. "The first week is a refresher on basic computing and electronics," says Matthew O'Connor, MassBay's director of business and industry, who set up the program. "The second week focuses on digital transport, signal processing, and high-level digital technologies. Then we move into the optical theory in the third week, SONET, semiconductors, lasers, and theory."

All this classroom time is only half the program, however. "The afternoon sessions are all hands-on work in the labs," says O'Connor. Nortel helped supply the equipment for labs that are specifically dedicated to the company's requirements. "They even brought in a splicer and a tester for the lab."

The new collaboration—the first class was completed in February 2001—has yielded positive results for all involved. The college has gained new equipment and access to the latest optical manufacturing techniques. In addition, says Dean Vieira, "The program really helps our faculty keep current on this technology." The students add to their understanding and skill levels, making them more valuable to employers. And Nortel is able to chip away at one of the many bottlenecks that impede the accelerating pace of optical component manufacturing.

The Fiber Optic Association Inc. is an international nonprofit professional society for the fiberoptic industry. It maintains a training curriculum and certification program, participates in standards activities, and gets involved in other programs to promote fiberoptics. The site provides links to other organizations focused on the optics industry. This page lists training courses and educational institutions run by FOA sponsors that meet its approval guidelines;

The Light Brigade, located in Kent, WA, develops and delivers fiberoptic training, products, and services. Courses are scheduled in 50 cities around the United States each year and custom classes can be brought to individual locations;

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