Tsunami Joins Tunable Party
Irish startup Tsunami Photonics Ltd. -- not to be confused with Tsunami Optics, a startup bought by Stratos Lightwave Inc. (Nasdaq: STLW) -- is introducing some software that can "characterize" Tunable Lasers faster than any competing product, according to Monica Flanagan, the startup's sales manager. And it should be available in time for the show.
In order to adjust the wavelength in a laser -- that is, make it "tunable" -- multiple inputs of drive current and voltage need to be adjusted. Each laser is different when it rolls off the production line and requires a unique combination of input parameters, one set for each wavelength that the laser will tune to. Characterizing the laser manually takes hours. Tsunami's software brings this process down to under two minutes, Flanagan claims.
Tsunami will be going head to head with another Irish startup Intune Technologies, which arose from the same font of learning. Intune was founded first, in 1999 (see Intune Technologies Ltd.). Intune's founders, John Dunne and Tom Farrell, developed their tunable laser ideas while working in the research team of Ronan O'Dowd, a professor of electronic engineering at University College Dublin, who later became the founder of Tsunami in 2001.
Tsunami will also compete with Tunable Photonics Corp. in the U.S.
Intune and Tunable are the only two competitors -- but the market is probably not big enough to support all three, says John Kelly, director of marketing and business development at Tunable Photonics.
"You probably only need three units per tunable laser production line," he says. "The market is not going to be large. There's only room for one or possibly two players."
So how will the vendors differentiate themselves? Tsunami's Flanagan says the company differs from its competitors in several important ways. For starters, Tsunami is only selling software, whereas Intune and Tunable make standalone test instruments and also have plans to make their own tunable lasers (see Intune to Demo Tunable Lasers).
"We use the term 'hardware agnostic'," says Flanagan. "It doesn't matter what the test platform actually is, it works with all of them."
The other key differentiator, she says, is the algorithm used to create the lookup table -- a listing of the laser inputs for each wavelength. This is the key to reducing the testing time to under two minutes.
But competitors don't believe this is as fast as it sounds. "All three companies will focus on time -- it's the biggest single competitive parameter," says Tunable's Kelly. "But the thing is, the definitions are not the same."
Tunable's laser mapper, called TrueMap, takes 5 to 7 minutes to complete its task, he claims. But in this time it measures a bunch of other things as well as generating the lookup table, including plots of power output, frequency, and optical modes -- information that can be used to check the performance of the laser and improve its design.
Tsunami's kit also measures these other parameters, says Flanagan, but the time it takes is not included in the test time of "under two minutes". A separate test, giving a simple pass or fail result in 30 seconds, can be performed at the chip-on-carrier stage (before the laser is packaged) to eliminate dud devices. A third test is available, which performs a detailed profile of the optical properties.
Kelly says that where his company's gear really shines is in the reliability of its measurements. Tunable started out thinking that it could map tunable lasers using algorithms to home in on each channel -- the same way as Tsunami -- but found that the algorithms were not always guessing the mode correctly and weren't pinpointing every single channel.
"If you can't pinpoint all the channels accurately, then the kit is no use," he says. "In the long term, it's a piece of production equipment, and it needs to do the job right every time." The implication is that Tsunami's approach runs the risk of not being sufficiently accurate for production purposes.
Now Tunable uses a brute-force approach, scanning every single combination of input parameters and detecting the laser's output using a high-speed optical spectrum analyzer coupled with a wavelength locker.
The reliability of its kit was a key factor in securing a sale to a Tier 1 customer, Kelly claims. He declined to give the customer's name. However, the current version of the kit is targeted at a specific type of tunable laser called the Sampled Grating Distributed Bragg Reflector (SG-DBR), which is made by Agility Communications Inc. and Marconi Optical Components (now part of Bookham Technology plc [Nasdaq: BKHM; London: BHM]). (See Tune In!, page 5.)
Tunable has been the subject of rumors over the last few days, which suggest that a life-changing event for the company is about to take place. Kelly says the company is in discussions over a potential merger or acquisition which, if it's approved, could be announced in the next few days. "When it comes," he says, "it will be positive news."
— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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