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The Photonics Spotlight

Doing Things Properly: It's the Economy, Stupid!

Dr. Rüdiger Paschotta

Well, I know that the phrase “It's the Economy, Stupid!” has been used in a different context (in Bill Clinton's campaign for presidency) and with a different meaning, but anyway it applies very nicely to issues which I encounter again and again in my job. The phrase is often exactly the right answer to the question: Why should we do certain things properly? Of course, explicitly asking that question would often be the first step toward a reasonable solution.

Example Case: a Fiber Manufacturer

Let's look at an example. A company is selling rare-earth-doped fibers for fiber lasers and amplifiers. They produce these fibers themselves, and are obviously experts in the fabrication. They believe, however, that they do not need to know much about how the fibers are used in amplifiers. For example, a customer may ask how long a certain fiber should be for some amplifier, and what gain would be achievable with a certain pump power. One may argue that it is the customer's job to find out such things. But obviously that attitude (don't care what the fibers can do, only want to sell them) will not help to expand business. Of course, it would cost some time and money to get some powerful software for simulating the performance of fibers in amplifiers and lasers. However, it is a tiny fraction of what it costs to set up the fiber fabrication, and may often be the key for transforming fabrication capabilities into sales. Clearly, it is a matter of economy and not a luxury to

Another Example: Resonator Design with Trial & Error

Another common case is related to resonator design for solid-state lasers. Quite a number of laser manufacturers appear to believe that you can get away without developing resonator designs based on a decent understanding of the underlying physics. They may have some basic ABCD matrix software, sufficient for calculating most of the basic properties of a given design, but not for taking into account issues like alignment sensitivity and particularly not for finding optimized designs. Still more importantly, they don't have anybody with sufficient expertise, so they don't even know what could be done. The likely results are that a lot of undirected trial & error experiments are done and non-optimum designs go into production. A proper laser development process could be much more efficient.

Admittedly, there is no easy way of acquiring not only the required software, but also the corresponding technical expertise. Particularly smaller companies may not be able to afford integrating into their team a technical guru, who's expertise couldn't be utilized all the time. However, why not get designs made by an external resonator design expert? Why not spend a fraction of the turn-over generated with a single laser system in order to get the design for many lasers right? It should be a no-brainer to realize that saving a little money there is stupid in economic terms, and not just unsatisfactory for a perfectionist.

Doing Things Properly – But How Properly?

Perfection is not always what one should aim for. Economically, it is entirely right not to drive everything to perfection. However, there are key issues where doing too little will either become too expensive (e.g. by wasting resources) or, what is often even more important, cripple the potential for generating income. There is often a long chain of achievements required for getting from a first idea to the generation of turnover: you must properly analyze the idea in technical terms, analyze its market potential, get the capital and the right people, have good designs worked out, set up the production and service infrastructure, and reach potential customers in effective ways. The worst one can do is often to create (or not fix) a bottleneck in that chain:

  • Invest into a nice looking new technology, but don't do a proper feasibility study and comparative assessment, and thus overlook some nasty problems.
  • Set up a nice production facility, but use non-optimized product designs.
  • Have a lot of marketing activities, but fail to prove competence when people start asking questions or look at the product documentation.
  • Hire a technical team but fail to keep them up to date and inspired by not providing continuing education, e.g. in the form of staff training courses.

Underinvestment at one single location may cripple the success of the whole project or company. It is thus essential to locate and fix such bottlenecks in order to unleash the business potential which would otherwise remain blocked.

I probably don't need to say much against the argument “… but the economic downturn forces us to minimize cost!” Well, if you are struggling against imminent shutdown and can no longer think about long-term efficiency, that may be right. But if you have a business with a potential for success, then the essential point will be to release any breaks.

See also the earlier article on time to market.

This article is a posting of the Photonics Spotlight, authored by Dr. Rüdiger Paschotta. You may link to this page, because its location is permanent. See also the Encyclopedia of Laser Physics and Technology.

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