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The Photonics Spotlight

Far From Maturity: The Photonics Industry

Dr. Rüdiger Paschotta

Ref.: encyclopedia articles on photonics, lasers, optical fibers

The world saw the first laser about 50 years ago, and since then a laser industry with multi-billion yearly turnover has been developed, which is considered a major innovation driver. One would such an industry expect to have developed a fair degree of maturity, but surprisingly, in some sense it has not, or at least not in many sectors. This came to my mind when walking through the many aisles of the exhibition at Photonics West in San Francisco, which ended today.

Complete and Correct Specifications – a Dispensable Luxury?

Can you imagine the following: someone wants to procure a kind of electronic integrated circuit, for example, and asks the manufacturer about various vital technical details, such as some switching speeds and the stability of some output voltages. The manufacturer replies that the switching is rather fast, and the output is stable, but he cannot give any numbers. He would be delighted, however, if the customer buys the chips, does the measurements and tells him the results. I think one would be rather surprised about such a reply.

This, however, is exactly what is quite typical in the photonics industry. People are selling rare-earth doped fibers, for example, while not completely knowing themselves their parameters. They also do not know whether the performance of their fibers matches theoretical expectations, as they are not able to produce such theoretical predictions. For example, they do not have suitable modeling software for doing such calculations, and maybe not even the expertise for that. So they are selling products for which they are unable to predict how they would perform in the fiber lasers and amplifiers for which they are made. I guess that any electronics expert would be rather surprised to learn how people in the photonics industry operate.

Making Life Easier

Admittedly, maturity of our industry should not be the only goal, and overly pedantic expectations might slow down innovation. Still, one should expect the industry as a whole to work much better if manufacturers generally did their homework more carefully before throwing things on the market. It would be less tedious then to procure some number of components and put them together to obtain a device (some laser source, for example) with predictable performance – just as developers of electronic devices can do it.

At least in some sectors, this has been achieved to quite some extent. In particular, the telecom business has gone through some substantial standardization of components, as system builders require it, and by the way, this hasn't put an end to innovation in this sector.

Where to Improve Things

It may be instructive to consider some reasons for a lack of maturity in certain sectors of photonics, or say some related phenomena. Education is certainly an important aspect. You can study electrical engineering at many places worldwide, where you can expect to get to some standard level of expertise. In contrast, few places offer the same in areas like laser technology or optical fibers. Actually, there is not even a consensus on what exactly should belong to such courses; professors often just focus on their particular area of interest.

Another thing is setting standards. Sure, we do have some important technical standards, such as the ITU standards for telecom fibers, or the ISO Standard 11146 for the beam quality M2 factor. Take the latter: some very competent people have worked out very reasonable guidelines for measuring beam quality. Only, I wonder how many people in our business care to learn at least the basic rules to be observed in order to produce meaningful M2 values.

A sometimes incredible level of sloppiness is found even in scientific research. Some researchers should be reminded that the essence of science is to create reliable objective knowledge by investigating and communicating things with great care, excluding errors as much as possible. If you look at the scientific literature, however, you regularly find papers where lots of uncertainties are totally unnecessarily introduced, just because of a blatant lack of care. For example, people regularly specify values for a “beam size” (radius or diameter???), report measurement results from largely unspecified experiments, or abuse scientific terms in ways that destroy all clarity. Some even consider issues like semantics largely irrelevant – as if it wouldn't matter in science what exactly words or technical terms mean. Such habits are then taken over by those making data sheets of laser products which say more about the author's competence than about the product.

So it seems to me that have to fight the mentioned problems at many fronts. This begins with senior researchers, who should give young people a good example in being reasonably precise and careful. Then we definitely need to establish more systematically high-quality degree courses for subjects like laser technology or optical fibers. In companies, the leading figures could put some more emphasis on continuing education, for example in the form of training courses (see also the Spotlight article of 2006-12-09). And generally, it wouldn't hurt to occasionally compare the habits in our industry with those in others.

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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