Optoelectronics industry seeks manufacturing comeback

March 19, 2012

george.leopold-March 19, 2012

WASHINGTON – The telecom bust of the last decade only served to hasten the offshoring of U.S. optoelectronics manufacturing to Asian countries like Thailand. As with other technology sectors, industry leaders are becoming increasingly restive about a shrinking manufacturing base in an electronics sector that provides ever-increasing amounts of secure bandwidth over long distances.

Alarmed by this exodus, Ganesh Gopalakrishnan decided it was time to do something to stem the erosion of the optoelectronics manufacturing base. Gopalakrishnan, an engineer trained at Texas A&M University and executive technical director at the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association, based here, picked up the phone and started lining up a panel of speakers for a workshop highlighting the manufacturing decline at a recent industry conference in Los Angeles. The panel, made up of experts from industry, academia and government agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency concluded that “it was clear that something needs to be done” to reverse the decline in optoelectronics manufacturing, Gopalakrishnan said in an interview.

Some conference attendees remained dubious, he added, saying the effort to revive photonics manufacturing is five years too late.

Either way, Gopalakrishnan said, “We’re trying to be the squeaky wheel.”

Gopalakrishnan, who headed a successive optoelectronics manufacturing company in Columbia, Md., up until the telecom bust early in the last decade, estimates that about 200,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in North America over the last ten years. (Canadian telecom equipment makers like bankrupt Nortel Networks once accounted for about 40 percent of North American optoelectronics component manufacturing prior to the telecom decline.)

The manufacturing of network equipment such as silicon photonics circuits, fiber optic components, network interfaces, LEDs and accompanying packaging isn’t just about jobs, he argued. Secure, high-speed optical networks are the backbone of the nation’s communications infrastructure. Hence, domestic manufacturing is one way to ensure that optical networks remain shielded from hackers and cyber attacks, Gopalakrishnan said.

Beyond talk, the manufacturing effort appears to be gaining steam. A new photonics initiative in Ohio was unveiled during the association’s manufacturing workshop. Dan Slane, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, announced plans to create a cluster of photonics companies around Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Local governments are expected to fund the effort and allocate 70 acres of land for an R&D facility and a photonics assembly and packaging plant.

Several Ohio universities will work with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson to create a facility that will eventually be designated as a “trusted assembly/packaging plant” for photonics, Slane said.

Gopalakrishan stressed that the Ohio initiative along with a renewed push to promote optoelectronics standards are among the first steps toward reviving the domestic photonics industry.
Industry standards developed with the help of government referees would help reduce industry uncertainly and, with it, the cost of designing and manufacturing optoelectronics. “The ecosystem evolves around the strategy,” Gopalakrishnan said.

Moreover, continuing to assembly photonics components overseas stifles innovation. “If you lose your manufacturing capability you lose the ability to do the little things” needed to produce the next generation of products, Gopalakrishnan stressed. Merely generating intellectual property related to optoelectronics also isn’t enough to sustain a domestic industry. IP has become “just a numbers game,” Gopalakrishnan warned.

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