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Photonics Manufacturing
1998 Focused Program Paper
Focused Program Competition (98-02)

NOTE: From 1994-1998, the bulk of ATP funding was applied to specific focused program areas—multi-year efforts aimed at achieving specific technology and business goals as defined by industry. ATP revised its competition model in 1999 and opened Competitions to all areas of technology. For more information on previously funded ATP Focused Programs, visit our website at

Prepared by:
Michael Schen
Program Manager
Tel. (301) 975-6741
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Carlos Grinspon
Business Manager
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For a proposal kit or further information please see our web page at or Email to or telephone 1-800-287-3863 (1-800-ATP-FUND) or fax to 1-301-926-9524 or 301-590-3053


Photonics, also called opto-electronics, is the marriage of optics and electronics. It comprises the technologies for generating, modulating, guiding, amplifying, and detecting optical radiation. Photonics is an enabling technology, with broad implications for the future growth of such industrial applications as telecommunications, imaging, transportation, medicine, manufacturing, entertainment and information technology. For example, experts generally agree that information technology will not reach its full potential until photonics technology, i.e., optical fiber, brings high bandwidth communications to every home, business, and desktop. This is being realized in Japan, NTT, the major Japanese telephone company, is committed to having fiber in the homes (or sites) of all of their customers by 2010. The technology for fiber to the home or desk (FTTH or FTTD) exists, but it cannot proliferate unless costs are reduced substantially, especially the costs of the opto-electronic network units (ONUs) that connect a customer's electronic equipment to the optical network. This requires the development of efficient, high-volume manufacturing.

The economic stakes are substantial. A recent AT&T annual report indicates that the current economic impact of information technology is in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion annually, and it could grow dramatically.

The U.S. has a strong base of fundamental research and basic technology in photonics. Indeed, for almost any category of photonics component for which appropriate performance comparisons can be made, U.S. technology is comparable to or better than that of the rest of the world. U.S. companies have done well in those fields where performance is critical but volumes are low, for example, military applications.

With few exceptions, U.S. companies have not been successful in the areas of photonics where product volumes are high and efficient manufacturing is the key to competitiveness -- e.g., consumer products. This result is caused, in part, by historic patterns in government funding. While U.S. funding for photonics research has been relatively strong, it is largely expended on military applications. Generally, these are high performance, low-volume applications. In contrast, government funding in the rest of the world has been more targeted toward commercial applications.

The U.S. photonics industry has studied these issues in a series of workshops over the last several years. It has concluded that the growth of photonics manufacturing in the United States can be accelerated. The industry believes that the NIST Advanced Technology Program can support U.S. companies' needs to meet foreign government-supported competition, and help restore the capability to manufacture high volume products, including consumer products, in the United States.

The main opportunities for impact are in new and emerging applications, rather than in fields where U.S. companies have already been outdistanced. Four general areas where the U.S. photonics industry believes opportunities exist are imaging, new information age applications, medical technology, and transportation. U.S. companies have positions in all of these areas and a desire to maintain leadership therein as products evolve toward greater dependence on photonics. The industry believes that all of these fields are ripe for the development of high-volume products within five to seven years. However, to do so, the industry must begin to establish the ability to manufacture in volume now.


The goal of the Photonics Manufacturing Focused Program is to promote U.S. economic growth by supporting sustained, high-risk technology development, which will improve U.S. competitiveness in the photonics industry. Improvements to the U.S. photonics manufacturing infrastructure can be made by increasing the availability of cost-reducing technologies to U.S. producers of photonics components and equipment. Technology areas of interest include advanced photonics packaging, simulation and modeling tools, photonics materials, processing methods andequipment, and instrumentation.

System applications that may be addressed include imaging, medical technology, transportation, manufacturing, telecommunications and other information age technology. This program should help improve the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers of photonics components and systems for commercial products. This includes consumer products, where cost is at least as important a factor as performance, and efficient manufacturing is critical.


During industry-sponsored workshops, four areas of technological underpinnings needing accelerated attention and government support were identified, as follows:

  • Photonics packaging and assembly
  • Simulation and modeling
  • Photonics processing equipment and materials
  • Metrology and standards

The first three of these are ripe for assistance through the Advanced Technology Program and are described below. The fourth needs to be addressed separately, in part through the NIST laboratories, and is not discussed further here.

  • Photonics packaging and assembly

    For a wide range of photonics components, 60 to 80% of the cost of manufacturing is in the assembly and packaging. Changing this situation is an essential step in reducing manufacturing costs. One major assembly cost is the alignment of optical elements to each other, and to the optical fiber through which light is either transmitted or received. Tolerances often are in the sub-micrometer range.

    There exist several possibilities for improvement -- automated high accuracy alignment, improved accuracy of passive alignment techniques, or modification of component designs to reduce required tolerances.

    Another major packaging cost is the integration of photonics with electronic components. Hybrid devices, including both optical and electronic components, have been demonstrated in research laboratories, but have yet not reached commercialization. Such devices will have a major impact on the ability of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to easily and inexpensively incorporate the advanced capabilities of photonics into their products.

    Certain types of subsystems are inherently difficult to manufacture in large volume because they incorporate a very wide range of components requiring labor-intensive operations. For example, optical fiber amplifiers, which are critical in optical communications networks, are manufactured from specialty fiber, lasers, couplers, isolators, and a wide range of electronic components.

    Technical ideas for photonics packaging and assembly

    Automated active alignment between lasers and optical fibers has been demonstrated and is in use in some manufacturing lines. However, the equipment needed to get good performance is often custom-designed and very costly. Several methods of reducing the cost of alignment have been explored in research laboratories. Where tolerances are not extreme, passive alignment techniques, such as arrays of etched V-grooves in silicon, have been used. Other approaches including various methods of reducing the requirements by spatially expanding the modal characteristics of active devices or optical fiber, show great promise but need significant additional work in order to become practical for high-volume manufacturing.

    Ultimately, the key to achieving higher volume use of these components is to be able to package them more conveniently with their associated electronics components. Several approaches have been explored, but little have been commercialized. Interconnection of optical components using waveguide technologies, analogous to electrical interconnection, can be done, but needs new approaches to alignment, materials design, and assembly technology. The commercial impact could be significant. Packaging of any of these integrated products is largely an unexplored area, and will require new methods of alignment of fiber with the internal components, among other issues.

    Hermetic sealing of components to meet environmental requirements is currently a source of considerable manufacturing cost and complexity. As integrated components evolve, it will become an even more difficult problem. New materials for packaging or new device designs, or both, show promise for simplifying or eliminating the need for hermeticity.

    Encapsulants that are capable of meeting optical requirements, while at the same time providing components protection, are one approach. Another is developing special coatings on the devices to allow them to be used in non-hermetic environments. The importance of resolving this problem is heightened when one thinks of the application of photonics in the automotive industry. This is an enormous potential market, but the costs of hermetic packaging using traditional designs are untenable.

    Spatial light modulators are being targeted for application in optical interconnects, correlators and optical data processing. One example is machine vision. A large and growing industry is supplying machine vision products for a variety of industrial applications. Spatial light modulators are used as EO input devices, and CCD or CMOS imagers are used as detectors. This requires three-dimensional assemblies of optics and electronics that have an extremely high level of long-term dimensional stability. However, to bring this technology successfully to market, a substantial amount of work needs to be done to achieve levels of integration and manufacturing simplicity analogous to what has been achieved by the electronics industry. Smart pixel arrays will be used in imaging sensors, laser arrays and optical processors. Manufacturing issues revolve around maintaining high yield and performance while achieving low cost.

  • Simulation and Modeling

    The development of new photonics products is expensive. In a competitive economic environment, manufacturers are cautious about making such investments without the confidence that their planned product designs are sound. The availability of improved tools for simulation, modeling, and computer-aided design (CAD) will greatly reduce these risks by allowing component developers to more thoroughly test designs prior to making manufacturing investments. Most silicon integrated circuits are designed with standardized computer-aided design tools. No such capability exists within the photonics industry today, and this capability is not likely to exist without a concerted industry-wide effort. A goal of this focused program is to create a set of tools with which electronics designers can seamlessly and easily incorporate photonics solutions into their designs. These tools are needed at both the apparatus level and at the device level.

    Suitable simulation and modeling tools will also help in the design of manufacturing processes. The investment required should be reduced and more efficient processes should be developed by providing tools for a scientific, model-based approach to the design and fabrication of photonics components. Additionally, improved processing models should reduce production costs by reducing the number of required inspections and by improving the overall effectiveness of the manufacturing process.

    Technical ideas for simulation and modeling

    Computer-aided design tools for photonics components do not approach the sophistication of silicon design tools. While applications engineers not deeply familiar with IC manufacturing can develop application-specific integrated circuits quite easily using commercial modeling tools, the use of photonics solutions is difficult to employ for those individuals not directly involved with the industry. Developing modeling tools for photonics that can be integrated with the popular silicon tools would stimulate powerful new solutions to challenging applications via photonics.

    Beyond design, however, simulation tools can greatly help in improving the efficiency of manufacturing. For example, being able to accurately simulate the performance of a device over a temperature range eliminates lengthy temperature testing of devices in manufacturing. Good models of the process of epitaxial growth can maximize wafer yields. These problems are good candidates for precompetitive cooperation, as rapid software development requires the contributions and ideas of many participants to provide the greatest gain.

  • Photonics Processing Equipment and Materials

    Many of the key components in photonics systems -- diode lasers, light emitting diodes (LEDs), detectors, and some types of amplifiers and modulators -- are manufactured from compound semiconductors (GaAs, GaP, InP) using complex processes and very expensive equipment. Compound semiconductor manufacturing is roughly at a stage comparable to the early days of micro-electronic integrated circuits produced with silicon. Improved technologies for photonics device manufacturing will have an enormous impact on commercial markets.

    Much of the equipment used to turn compound semiconductor wafers into devices is equipment once used in the processing of earlier generations of silicon micro-electronic devices. However, compound semiconductor wafers are more difficult to handle, and there is no specialized equipment available to meet these specific needs. As was demonstrated by SEMATECH for silicon manufacturing, the availability of high quality equipment would greatly strengthen the position of U.S. photonics manufacturers and U.S. equipment makers.

    Improved management and control of the complex processes and equipment used in compound semiconductor growth will yield significant reductions in manufacturing costs. This requires reliable and precise measurements using the proper instrumentation, preferably in situ, which either are not presently possible, or require custom equipment. The availability of reasonably priced instrumentation for processing will lead to substantial savings.

    Finally, source materials used for the epitaxial growth of compound semiconductor materials are extremely toxic. Safety is a concern and hazard mitigation is a major component of manufacturing costs. Purity of starting materials is another. The effects of impurities are subtle and poorly understood. The development of alternate or improved source materials could reduce the complexity of the processes and improve their safety, reducing costs. Developing reliable domestic sources for suitable substrate materials would also be beneficial.

    Technical ideas for processing equipment and materials

    Materials used in the fabrication of compound semiconductors are particularly toxic. Several manufacturers have indicated an interest in developing either safer source materials or safer processes for the epitaxial growth of compound semiconductors. Strategies may include shifting from gas to solid sources and the development of methods whereby the toxic starting materials are produced in situ, as needed. Safer manufacturing is a particularly high-risk undertaking for a single company, but would have the effect of reducing capital costs (for handling dangerous materials) as well as the clear benefit of reducing the risk of a mishap to society at large.

    Relatively few examples exist of automated handling of photonics components during manufacture. One impediment is the lack of standardized photonics component configurations and connections. However, robotic manufacturing is widely used in other industries, including those for which high dimensional precision is required, and it seems reasonable that many of these techniques can be applied. This is a case where the marriage of manufacturing equipment makers and components makers would be of particular value to address these issues on an industry-wide basis, making available new kinds of automated handling equipment to improve the competitiveness of domestic manufacture.

    Entirely new approaches may be needed for automated manufacturing of modules containing fiber pigtails. Several approaches have been tried. Eliminating fiber pigtails in favor of one-time attachment techniques is one. Another is using inexpensive plastic waveguides and suitable waveguide to fiber connectors. These approaches have potential, but require substantial development work. Where significant lengths of fiber must be incorporated into a package, as with a fiber amplifier, techniques developed for optical fiber gyroscope manufacturing, wherein fiber coils become an integral part of the package, may be considered.


This proposed focused program would allow U.S. photonics manufacturers to compete internationally in high-volume, low-cost photonics products. One metric of success for the program would be the availability of new technologies and products for manufacturers of photonics components -- better materials, processing methods, equipment, instrumentation, packaging technologies, simulation and modeling tools. These should be widely available to manufacturers, preferably from domestic sources.

To meet the projected cost requirements for future products, components manufacturers suggest that the capital cost for a compound semiconductor fabrication line will need to decrease by a factor of four. In addition, the testing time for communications modules will have to be reduced by a factor of ten. Manufacturers believe the cost associated with photonics packaging should be reduced by a factor of four. Another objective is a reduction, by a factor of five, in the cost associated with design through the use of improved and integrated CAD tools. Process times, in general, must decrease and yields must greatly improve. Manufacturers believe such dramatic improvements are feasible, if the necessary tools are available.

Another important business objective is the reduction of technology development costs and cycle time through effective collaboration among photonics industry firms, universities and government. ATP can foster strong technology development alliances between photonics companies, universities, and government laboratories. Such joint ventures can increase economic efficiency and productivity within development efforts.

Ultimately, the business goal is improved market share for U.S. manufacturers in commercial, nonmilitary, photonics and photonics-related applications.


Photonics is an important factor for international competitiveness. It is a critical enabling technology for such a broad range of industries as communications, industrial manufacturing, consumer appliances, medical technology, and transportation. The global market for information technology products and services is becoming immense. At present, this market represents an investment of $1.5 trillion, and it shows every prospect of doubling in size by early in the next century. Improving the photonics component-manufacturing base within the U.S. is intended to help U.S. companies gain market share. Optoelectronic Component Production:  1994

Even a modest one percent increase in market share would have a significant impact on the US economy. The world market for photonics components is estimated at $16 billion in 1994, the most recent year for which reliable data is available. Geographically, that is distributed as shown. The U.S. market share of photonics component manufacturing is only 9%, but U.S. consumption of photonics components is about 40% of the worldwide total. Restoring balance between these factions will create high-paying jobs in the United States.

Studies of individual components suggest that revenues derived from photonics components are growing at 15-20% per year, doubling about every four years. This increase in market size is in concert with price erosion occurring at least at the same 15-20% annual rate, which is a reflection of the great volume increases. One particular example is the semiconductor laser diode, a workhorse of the industry. From 1995 to 1996, worldwide production grew from $346M to $411M, a 19% increase. Unfortunately, since most of the storage and imaging devices are produced in Japan, this was a significant loss for the United States. If this trend is reversed for new applications, it will have an immediate impact within this country.

The ultimate economic benefit of this program will accrue through the technologies enabled by low-cost photonics components. This are a number of historical examples of this. Compact-disk-based audio systems and computer storage devices would not have been possible without inexpensive lasers. The dramatic improvements in telephone technology would not have been possible without inexpensive optical fiber. In the near future broadband information services at the desk and in the home will not be widely available without inexpensive optical network units, and inexpensive advanced multimedia entertainment systems will not be possible without new types of lasers.


In the course of several topical workshops, there emerged a consensus that the lack of manufacturing infrastructure is a primary limitation on the ability of American photonics companies to sustain internationally competitive positions. Consequently, the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA) formed a manufacturing alliance of members and others to identify the key areas of need as noted above.

As a part of the process of identifying sources of support for improving the situation, OIDA sent a letter to all members asking them to identify the critical areas of need and also to indicate what level of matching funds they would be willing to provide should ATP agree to hold a focused program competition on this topic.

Almost all OIDA manufacturers responded. Should ATP grants be awarded to these companies as a result of this competition, thirteen companies identified a total $18M in matching funds. Most of the large U.S. companies in the photonics field are members of OIDA, and a considerable number of smaller companies are associate members. Many of these companies are interested in preparing proposals and have recognized that joint ventures are likely to be the best way to bring together the necessary resources and share the associated risks.

There is major support at the state level for this focused program. State Photonics clusters and organizations that have given their support include, the Connecticut Photonics Industry Cluster, the Colorado Photonics Cluster, the Arizona Optics Cluster, the New Mexico Alliance for Photonics Technology, and the Florida Electro-Optics Industry Association. These organizations account for well more than 350 photonics and photonics related businesses. The state local clusters work closely with state-sponsored business development efforts, wherein companies work together in noncompetitive ways to address common needs. Many proposals will come from companies within these state clusters.

Other photonics organizations and companies have indicated they will participate either as single applicants or as members of joint ventures. Indeed, many potential proposers have already recognized that joint ventures will be most effective if they involve their traditional suppliers, which are typically not counted as part of the photonics community.

Photonics companies that are interested in this focused program represent a range of sizes from significant, vertically integrated, global players to small companies targeting a particular technology or product set. Unarguably, the industry recognizes the importance of the infrastructure on the viability of the entire domestic manufacturing community.

As such, the photonics community believes that improving the U.S. manufacturing infrastructure is the essential element of this focused program. Based on this, there is a broad willingness to make new intellectual property arising from this competition available across the industry, with reasonable licensing arrangements.


The development of new manufacturing technology is inherently risky. It is never certain that the resulting capabilities will lead to products that will be commercially successful There is a natural barrier to forming alliances with competitors to undertake joint projects, although this would result in sharing of the risks. It is also important to note that most of the automated photonics equipment manufacturers are small to mid-range companies that cannot afford to do much research themselves. Further, large photonics companies are reluctant to support these suppliers out of the fear that doing so would also help their competitors. Thus, an ATP focused program in photonics can provide an ideal solution to this dilemma.

ATP funding will stimulate the formation of consortia between companies and their suppliers, universities, and government laboratories, to undertake projects that can have a very substantial impact on the long-term health of the U.S. photonics industry. Moreover, ATP funding will help level the playing field against international competition. In the U.S., government support of the photonics industry has focused primarily on military applications, leading to excellent technical capabilities in the U.S. industry, but a deficiency in manufacturing capability. By contrast, in other countries, government funding has effectively encouraged the development of efficient manufacturing capabilities.

ATP funds will benefit from compound leverage. Investments in manufacturing infrastructure are typically leveraged such that relatively small investments can enable the development of a range of products. In the photonics industry, this normal compounding is greatly enhanced by the unusual degree to which photonics products enable the development of other products.

Date created: December 1997
Last updated: April 8, 2005

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