Optical harvest

Optical harvestThe market opportunities for optoelectronics is huge, from communications to car engine testing, but is the UK ready to reap the massive benefits to be gained from this technology? Roy Rubenstein reports
If sharing in two revolutions is living to some purpose then Bookham Technology does not need to justify its existence.
The Oxfordshire-based company has spent the best part of a decade developing optical microcircuits – the next technological revolution – using silicon technology which has brought about the digital revolution.
The market opportunities for optical microcircuits are ‘colossus’, claims Dr Andrew Rickman, Bookham’s president and CEO. BOOKMAN TECH AT A GLANCE  
  Bookham was started in 1990. Its strategy has been to use silicon as a way of tackling the key impediment to the use of optoelectronics in a variety of markets, namely its high cost of manufacturing. “The one rule Bookham has stuck to is to stay faithful to the manufacturing tolerances of silicon technology,” says Dr Andrew Rickman, Bookham’s CEO. Otherwise to develop a high volume production process would require “climbing a hill steeper than [the one] silicon technology has climbed”. The approach is beginning to bear fruit. Bookham’s recently opened wafer and assembly facility in Abingdon can produce 500,000 optical microcircuits a year. Shipments in the last financial quarter raised $1m in revenues, Rickman expects the year as a whole to generate $10m.
It is a view shared by venture capitalist Diosdado Bonatao, founder of US firms S3 and Acclaim which he sold to Level One (since acquired itself by Intel), and who is now a vice-president at Mayfield Trust. When asked by Electronics Weekly where he is putting his money, he replied: “Optical networking and optical telecoms. Optics is going to be the eventual winner.”
The most prominent current market driver is the Internet: “The number of users is doubling every year and capacity is increasing sixteen times each year,” says Rickman.
Moreover, the use of optoelectronics is not confined to communications. Working with a car manufacturer, Bookham is using its generic optical microcircuit sensing device to measure in real time the pressure inside a car engine’s cylinder. “The result is five per cent greater fuel efficiency. The key is to make the sensor for a few tens of dollars and we’ve done this,” says Rickman.
If Rickman is bullish about his company’s prospects, he is less so about the UK’s ability to exploit an evident strength in optoelectronics.
“The nation’s [optoelectronic] R&D is fantastic, second to none,” says Rickman. This is also the assessment of John Hughes, president of Lucent Technologies’ microelectronics group, Europe. “The UK has established itself as one of the pre-eminent centres of the world in terms of optoelectronic research,” Hughes recently told Electronics Weekly.
Hughes cites the University of East Anglia and the “outstanding work” being done at Southampton as examples. To this Rickman adds the UK’s ‘clusters’ of manufacturing expertise such as Hewlett-Packard at Ipswich and Northern Telecom in Devon.
To ensure that the UK does not spurn a major technological opportunity, Rickman wants the government to create an environment which spurs optoelectronics on two fronts.
First, he wants to see the creation of a strong home demand for the technology through government investment in high speed Internet connection for schools and public sector organisations such as hospitals.
Second, he wants support for local manufacturers to meet this demand. Rickman points to the success of government policies in attracting multinational manufacturers to the UK. “Why not invest in British companies instead of attracting overseas players, and bring the UK companies to their level?” asks Rickman.
Bookham is looking to transfer its volume manufacturing know-how to firms as it concentrates on developing more advanced devices. The transfer has already started except that the first beneficiary is an overseas company.”We have transferred one product line to the Philippines with a US partner,” said Rickman.
Rickman’s belief is that the birth of optical microcircuits will be as disruptive and enabling as that of the silicon chip. “If you look at the businesses of Microsoft, Intel and Cisco, their total market capitalisation is some three quarters of a trillion dollars,” says Rickman. “All [three businesses] are down to the integrated circuit.”
Could a similar sized UK player emerge as a result of the upcoming optical revolution? Rickman certainly likes to thing so. “In the UK we’ve got tremendous expertise – the key is to unleash this.”

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