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Swiss photonics – anything but neutral

Optical switches conposed of 4 layers of microlenses and 8 micro-machined chips from Colibrys.

About a dozen Swiss firms that supply the optical networking segment of the telecommunications industry are descending on Anaheim next week to attend the Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) 2002 exhibition.

The OFC (March 17-22) is a classic event in the optical networking and telecommunications sector. To stand out from the crowd of 1,000 or so fellow exhibitors, the young Swiss vendors of “things optical” will have to have an edge.

GigaTera (Dietikon), Colibrys (Neuchatel), Avalon Photonics (Zurich), Helix (Zurich), Microcut (Langnau), Dr Tresky (Thalwil), and Luciol (Geneva) are some of the names that will represent Swiss innovation.

The winning edge these days in the increasingly cost-conscious optical networking market is cost saving and efficiency.

The entire telecommunications industry is re-assessing itself in light of a tight capital market. “Everyone is asking ‘how does this drive my costs down, not necessarily just capital expenditure costs, but also operating expenditure and lifetime costs’,” says Dr Vivek Tandon, a venture capital investor at Viventures.

Automation in demand

“Companies that can deliver assembly automation, new packaging, testing, or processes that can decrease the price by an order of magnitude are of interest,” says Guiseppe Zocco, General Partner, Index Ventures.

Two of the firms travelling from Switzerland, Dr Tresky and Microcut can deliver some of the automation required.

Knowing how to automate and put together very small systems with high precision is a Swiss strength. “It is a pool of know-how, experience, and skills that has evolved from a centuries old watchmaking industry,” says Gian-Luca Bona, Manager of Photonic Networks Science and Technology at IBM Research.

Microcut is a watchmaking industry spinoff. It intends to commercialize a new optical ferrule and sleeve production technology. It offers a simple production process with “fully automated production lines” and a “functional design of the ferrule”.

Ferrules are tiny cylinders with a center hole of 100 micrometers into which optical fibers are inserted, and are a key component of the optical connector used to hold the optical strands of glass.

Hummingbird sized devices

Colibrys SA can also trace its roots to the watchmaking past of Switzerland’s French-speaking region. Until recently, it was the manufacturing unit of the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM), a busy research and development lab, specialized in microtechnology and photonics. The CSEM itself evolved from a cooperative research lab that watchmakers set up in the sixties. It produced and developed the world’s first digital timepiece.

Venture capital funded, Colibrys has an edge with its experience in manufacturing very tiny, customized sensors and actuators for global clients. It is using some techniques adapted from the semiconductor industry that deliver cost savings, but at the same time deliver higher yields and reliability.

The Neuchatel-based firm employs some 120 people. Its end customers, from the satellite communications, defense, and automotive industries, represent its current market base, but Colibrys clearly has its eye and resources focused on telecommunications.

It will show tilting mirror arrays that can be used in optical switches, the result of an active collaboration between Colibrys and Coventor, a US firm that makes standard, integrated software for micro-electromechanical systems.

Big blue’s photonics development on display

Efficiency increases, such as reduced size, energy consumption, and enhanced reliability are also desirable in 2002, as is innovation that delivers improvements in performance, say the experts.

“Optical transparency”, an industry buzzword, is one of the needs in the field of optical networking. Manufacturers still have way to go to develop the necessary building blocks that meet the requirements an all-optical network.

IBM is hoping that its latest development of “high refractive index contrast planar waveguide technology” will enable manufacturers to take a big step in that direction.

The planar waveguide technology comes out of the IBM Research Laboratory in Ruschlikon. It is the same lab that spun off the firm that later became JDS Uniphase Laser Enterprise (now owned by Nortel Networks Switzerland).

IBM’s planar waveguide technology is a versatile platform technology and can be used to make a range of components for a range of applications. Its planar waveguide technology uses compound silicon materials fabricated using processes from the semiconductor industry to make integrated optical planar lightwave circuits.

IBM researchers see it as enabling higher functionality while enabling substantial cost savings in production.

Investors agree. “The manufacturing of discrete devices is not sustainable over the long term. That is why planar technology is attractive, permitting savings on material and labor costs,” says Tandon.

IBM’s new circuits enable optical multiplexers, as opposed to optoelectronic multiplexers, switches with more ports, and compact, novel adaptive optical filter components, says IBM Research.

The Photonics group will be showing dynamically reconfigurable gain equalizers and tunable chromatic dispersion compensators at OFC.

IBM’s will have to do some major promotion to sell its technology. The equipment used to deposit the chemicals on the silicon and prepare the wafers for the optical industry’s needs is expensive and requires a substantial capital expenditure.

Many telecommunications equipment manufacturers still do not have easy access to capital these days so they will need some convincing of the benefits.

Tools to measure light

Glass fiber, because of its chemical composition, can slow down certain light frequencies. The specialists call this dispersion. The speed and dispersion of light influence, or control, the number of channels that can be carried in a fiber optic cable. Since everyone wants more channels, tools that enable channel optimization are “hot”.

“Overcoming the limitations posed by chromatic dispersion is a key challenge for long-haul equipment makers in their quest for the ultimate low-cost, high-capacity fiber-optic network,” points out Zocco.

Before they can overcome the limitations of dispersion, manufacturers have to be able to measure chromatic dispersion. And that is where Luciol Instruments comes in.

The young but profitable Geneva-based startup, sells test and measurement instrumentation for optical fibers.

“Our previous system measures optical links, up to 150-200 km. The new system goes through optical amplifiers, measuring from 1000 to 2000 km, even with the amplifiers on,” says Luciol’s Dr. Bruno Huttner.

Luciol is aware of its competition. There is the new system from Perkins Elmer, which has more features, but is “more complicated and costly”, according to Huttner.

Large, established players, such as EXFO and Acterna will also be attending OFC with new products, but the Huttner is optimistic. “We will show that our product is competitive,” says the Luciol man.

Efficiencies drive demand

GigaTera Inc., will be showing off a device that moves the industry one step closer to optical transparency. It is a venture-funded spinoff from the ETH Zurich, and it will be showing its product for the first time to the public at OFC this year.

GigaTera has developed a laser that creates ultra-high frequency (10 and 40 GHz) pulses without a pulse modulator, and without modulator drivers. “This all-optical approach is a radical simplification to the way high performance transmitters are currently built,” says GigaTera CEO, Andros Payne.

Efficiency increases, such as reduced size, energy consumption, and reliability are also desirable, as is innovation that delivers improvements in performance, say the experts.

The thinking these days is all about ways to reduce costs in every area of the optical network, from the manufacturing of devices and components to lifetime costs of capital equipment for operators, says Tandon.

Also attending the OFC are Avalon Photonics Ltd and Helix AG both make semiconductor based optoelectronics that enable high data rate communications in a small package. Helix will show its existing products that deliver 2.5 to 5 Gbit/s performance, along with a prototype of its new 10 Gbit/s products.

Opto Speed, a seven year old spinoff from the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) develops and markets active components, light sources or lasers for high-speed applications. It just raised 20 million dollars in venture capital to expand its sales reach in the US and manufacturing plants in Germany and Switzerland.

Opto Speed’s supplies many next generation optical subsystems vendors, as well as test and measurement companies such as Agilent, Perkin Elmer and Acterna. Main field of growth is the world of 10-Gbit/s and 40-Gbit/s. It will be showing 10-Gbit/s lasers and high-speed photo-detectors and receivers at OFC.

Other, more established, Swiss firms who supply the optical networking industry are on the road to Anaheim this month, including Leister Technologies, Leica Microsystems, and Unaxis.

by Valerie Thompson

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