Automation systems increase production of fiber-optic components

TRENDS

BY ROBERT PEASE

Keeping the sometimes staggering cost of fiber-optic networking equipment down is a primary concern for everyone in the tele com munications industry, whet her they manufacture, market, or buy the products. More efficient and faster production is a key to achieving lower costs. Therefore, manufacturers are always on the lookout for automation equipment to accelerate manufacturing processes to meet growing demands while ensuring the same quality and performance required by their customers.

Automation equipment is designed to replace manual assembly with a range of precision, motorized systems that can speed the manufacturing of optical components used in optical and optoelectrical devices. Newport Corp. (Irvine, CA) and Aerotech Inc. (Pittsburgh) are two companies offering a variety of automated systems for manufacturing and testing fiber-optic components.

Newport's product line includes systems for automatic test and characterization of laser-diode bars prior to the packaging stage, testing of the laser diodes at the stage where they are mounted on the submount carriers, and attaching optical fibers to laser diodes. Other products can align and bond optical fibers to waveguide structures, provide lifetime testing and burn-in of fully packaged laser-diode modules, and characterize dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) components.

Aerotech's products align optical fibers to other fibers or fiber devices, couple multiple fibers, create fiber Bragg gratings, and aid in the manufacture of planar waveguides.

The precision required to perform some of these automated functions made manual operations both time-consuming and costly. New motion systems can perform functions such as fiber alignment much more quickly, which increases production of optical components.

"In fiber-alignment applications, for example, it is critical to position one fiber very accurately with respect to the other device, such as a laser-diode source," says Michael Formica, director of product marketing at Aerotech. "Every one of these applications is aided by the use of an extremely precise, automated motion platform. Motorized stages allow the operator to load the device and basically hit 'go.'"

According to Formica, there is very little automation in the marketplace and many fiber-optic components are still being manufactured manually. How ever, automating these processes can improve throughput, quality, and performance in the production processes.

"Much as the semiconductor industry has invested enormous capital in creating highly automated wafer fabs, the fiber-optic telecommunications industry will need to do the same," says Formica. "While the investment will be large, so will the gains."

The potential for building a huge customer base for these products is ap parent, as demand grows for more and better fiber-optic devices. Customers reside in both the research and industry segments of the market. Newport's Kamran Mobarhan, marketing manager for technology and applications in the company's fiber-optic and photonics division, says the company is finding customers from small startup firms to the major fiber-optic component manufacturers. The key is making the manufacturing process more efficient.

"We help our customers save time," says Mobarhan. "They save time at the design stage, at the development stage, at the prototyping stage, at the high-volume production stage, and, in general, they save time by reducing the overall time-to-market cycle of their products."

Mobarhan views the rapid expansion of DWDM telecommunications networks as a primary catalyst for worldwide demand of optoelectronic devices. The explosive demand is becoming increasingly more difficult to meet with yesterday's manual-assembly techniques for optical components.

"This stems primarily from the limitations related to the production capacity of the manufacturing facilities that are not fully automated," says Mobarhan. "Automated fiber-optic-component man u facturing systems offer the solution of choice for ramping up the overall component manufacturing capacity of this industry by taking it to a new level of automation."

The market for products that automate the assembly of optical components is rapidly expanding as manufacturers seek to ramp up production capacities to meet growing demand. Customers are asking for fully automated machines, more complete solutions, better reliability, and support services. Vendors that offer complete solutions rather than very specific products may fare better in the long run. Newport offers turnkey systems, while Aerotech prefers to focus on providing a core technology-motion stages and controllers. Both companies insist they are "keeping their eyes and ears" on customer requirements.

"To keep up with the demands of the telecommunications industry, our customers have had to increase their production capabilities significantly," says Formica. "This means not only more automation, but also systems that are capable of truly full-scale production. Issues such as MTBF [meantime between failure], cost of ownership, and maintenance schedules are discussed as often as accuracy, repeatability, and speed."

Newport bases its products on a variety of technologies. They include optoelectronic-device packaging, motion control systems, optical power measurement, software engineering, mechanical engineering, electronic instrumentation, and vibration isolation technology.

Aerotech believes one of the most important technological advancements for this industry in recent years is the linear motor. The company uses a slotless, brushless servomotor design that has no cogs and produces no friction. A linear motor-based stage, says Formica, is faster, more accurate, repeatable has no friction or hysteresis, and is maintenance-free.

"These are pretty compelling advantages for any application, but particularly for fiber-optic automation," says Formica. "For example, if you are trying to manufacture a 1.2-m fiber Bragg grating with an operational resolution of 0.3 nm, there is no solution other than a linear motor that is capable of that level of performance."

With precision and speed in mind for the production of optical components, companies like Newport and Aerotech are enabling manufacturers to significantly decrease their time to market.

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