Innovation

InnovationBell Labs is involved in a huge number of research projects ranging from the study of astronomical dark matter through radio-telescopes, pushing the boundaries of chip manufacturing, and the development of key Internet technologies. Tom Foremski went along to see for himself What does the study of bird songs have to do with cutting edge communications technologies? Plenty, if you ask researchers at Bell Labs, one of the largest and oldest US research centres. With more than 25,000 staff, 4,000 of them PhDs, the research and development unit of Lucent Technologies has a heritage stretching back to the invention of the telephone, and a legacy of five Nobel winners and hundreds of leading researchers in a diverse number of disciplines. “Studying bird songs might seem to be far from our focus on communications,” says senior Bell Labs spokesman Dick Muldoon. “But it reveals insights into pattern recognition which can be directly applied to communications technologies.” Creator… Alan Huang one of the Bell Labs research scientists who helped develop the world’s first digital optical processor Bell Labs, located in New Jersey, is involved in a huge number of research projects. Ranging from the study of dark matter through radio-telescopes, pushing the boundaries of chip manufacturing, and the development of key Internet technologies. At Bell Labs, there is no such thing as bad research, only how can it be applied to Lucent’s core communications, semiconductors, and software businesses. Many innovations at Bell Labs come from unlikely sources. For example, its recent breakthrough in the development of chips for fingerprint identification came partly from its researchers studying distant galaxies. They needed efficient charge-coupled devices to capture faint images, and had to develop image processing systems, developments that were funnelled into the fingerprint identification chips. Cross-pollination of ideas is a key feature of Bell Labs. “Even the way our Murray Hill facility is designed, promotes the exchange of ideas.There is no chemistry department, as in a University, different research teams are scattered throughout the facility, forcing researchers to bump into each other in the hallways and at lunch,” says Muldoon. “Researchers at Bell Labs are also aware that they walk the same hallways as giants in their fields, the inventor of the transistor, satellite communications, and other major achievements,” Muldoon points out. Bell Labs used to be part of AT&T which was broken up in seven regional ‘Baby Bell’ phone companies. Then last year, AT&T spun off Lucent Technologies, which took most of Bell Labs with it. Lucent has turned into a much more aggressive company than its parent, pumping 11 per cent of its revenues, or about $3 billion annually, into Bell Labs. The importance of Bell Labs is key to Lucent’s success, which is clearly seen in its logo, which uses “Lucent Technologies-Bell Labs Innovations” as its tag line. In the past, Bell Labs was criticised for not making enough of its technologies. This has changed at Lucent. At the heart of Bell Labs are the ‘Core Laboratories’ which employ about 4,000 researchers. The rest of Bell Labs staff are assigned to development units at its various business units where the process of turning innovations into commercial products continues. “Our recent breakthroughs in optical fibre based communications technologies, which can transmit the entire bandwidth of the Internet over a single fibre, went from research to commercial product in just 18 months, it shows that we are moving at a much faster rate in commercialising our technologies,” says Muldoon. The pressure to further increase this rate of innovation is strong at Bell Labs, with Lucent trying to grow as fast as it can in already fast-growing markets. To help facilitate this process, late last year Lucent formed a business unit called the New Ventures Group. Its mission is to identify which Bell Labs discoveries can be turned into profitable products or ventures. The New Ventures Group evaluates technologies in several ways. If an innovation is applicable to one of its business units, that’s where it will go. If it is outside of its current business, it may create a new business unit internally. Or it will spin-off a new company, bringing in expert management and involving venture capital firms to fund the venture as a start-up company. And it will also license technologies to other companies or business partners. Bell Labs has also spurred its researchers to file more patents. Deciding that an average of one patent per day was laggardly, it now boasts more than three patents per business day. The research centre is involved in a large number of basic research projects that stand to benefit entire industries. For example, its pioneering work on chip lithography systems could help chip makers go beyond the limits of current optical lithography systems. After conducting research into X-ray, deep ultraviolet, and electron beam lithography systems, it has decided that electron beam lithography offers the best path forward. Its Scalpel electron beam lithography system has achieved some impressive initial results. Researchers have managed to produce chip feature sizes just 250 atoms wide, and late last year, Scalpel was used to demonstrate the first “step and scan” lithography using electron beams, an important milestone. “This is the breakthrough we needed to prove that projection electron beam technology can print chips. It’s a key step toward developing the technology for commercial semiconductor production,” said Lloyd Harriott, head of the Advanced Lithography Research Department at Bell Labs. Bell Labs has remained about the same size over the past four to five years, but it is expanding its overseas research facilities. It now has 3,500 researchers in 20 countries, an increase from 3,000 staff in 15 countries in 1996.
Last year, it doubled the size of its Swindon, UK based research centre which focuses on wireless communications technologies, primarily because of the wider use of wireless communications technologies in Europe.


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