4Wave mixes with contract manufacturer

After 6 years as a supplier of manufacturing equipment for hard disk drive heads, 4Wave Inc. (www.4waveinc.com) succumbed to the temptation to use its expertise to make its own components-specifically, optical components. The move from hard disks to optics isn’t unprecedented; for example, Iolon, which made tunable lasers before Coherent picked up its assets, leveraged technology originally developed for disk drives in its design. Still, the transition from memory to photonics isn’t exactly intuitive. Recognizing they needed help to graduate from wafers to finished products, the management at 4Wave looked for a manufacturing partner that could also help with component design. The result is a product that is nearly ready for production.

Sami Antrazi, president of 4Wave, says that his company specialized in the development of manufacturing equipment that leveraged ion-beam deposition. As part of its R&D efforts, the company created a process that would enable it to deposit thin films, both magnetic and optical, with great efficiency. The optical capabilities showed promise for multiplexer/demultiplexer designs.

“With our technology and our equipment that we built, we’re able put down four discrete optical filters right next to each other on one piece of glass, and then you put a mirror on the back side. So that gives you a small bounce cavity,” Antrazi explains.

The four-filter design lent itself to 10GBase-LX4 applications, so 4Wave decided to develop a receive optical subassembly (ROSA) for such transceivers with its multiplexer/demultiplexer design at its heart. However, 4Wave management faced an immediate challenge, once it got past wafer design and development. “We have no expertise in the electronics behind the optics or how to put something like this together,” Antrazi admits.

So 4Wave’s management began networking to find a partner who did have this expertise. “We find that the best way to find partners is to talk to our vendors, because they’re in a lot of companies. So we talked to a couple of vendors and they gave us about three companies to reference,” Antrazi recalls.

The company eventually settled on Avo Photonics (www.avophotonics.com). Antrazi says that he liked the fact that Avo could provide design assistance as well as straight manufacturing at a price 4Wave could afford, since the company wasn’t using venture capital to create the new product. “Also, they were small enough that they were nimble-let’s put it that way,” he adds. “They were able to react quickly and we’re hoping that they will grow as we grow. So there is a joint benefit for both of us, compared to a big company that wants 10,000 units to be manufactured by them in a month or something.”

“It was typical because there were unique aspects of it,” says Matt Vinson, Avo Photonics’ vice president of business development, of the nascent relationship with 4Wave. “Almost every one of our customers has something different they want done and a different way that they want to do it in.”

Like many potential customers, Vinson explains, 4Wave came to Avo with a concept and a fundamental understanding of what its component could do and how it could be the keystone to a next-generation device-but the company needed help with designing the package from both the optical and electronic perspectives.

The two companies began discussions in June 2005. They completed initial design specifications by the end of that summer, with the first prototypes rolling out of Avo’s facility in January 2006.

The design featured extensive use of off-the-shelf components from suppliers that Avo uncovered. “We have a number of component suppliers that we have worked with over time, that understand our design criteria very well, that we can interface with and very quickly come up with solutions and that are likewise flexible,” Vinson says. “We also have a fairly extensive list of standard component manufacturers, so that when we need to go off and do a standard component, take something off the shelf-which is almost always the most cost-effective approach-we have a very broad knowledge of what’s available in that area.”

Both Avo and 4Wave tested the prototypes before the latter delivered them to customers. The initial reaction to the products was positive-with the usual caveats that the transceiver vendors would like something cheaper and smaller. That led 4Wave and Avo to huddle again.

“Some of the things we’re doing to make it smaller and more cost-effective will require some upfront configuration changes,” Vinson reveals.

“During the first iteration, we were also looking at other component manufacturers that we would provide for Avo to get the costs down,” Antrazi adds.

The new design may involve the use of customized components as well. “In this next generation, we may look more to the custom or exotic type of device since the volumes will be higher and we’ll be looking to get the cost down at the higher volumes,” Vinson explains. However, off-the-shelf components will remain a major part of the design.

Vinson and Antrazi expect to have prototypes of the new design ready by the end of this year. Both executives feel their partnership has been a success so far; soon, the market will have the ultimate verdict.

Stephen Hardy is the editorial director and associate publisher of Lightwave.

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