Components: Measure Once, Cut Better

A handful of companies aim to bring optical component manufacturing out of the 1970s

February 15, 2002

5 Min Read
Components: Measure Once, Cut Better

The optical component industry may be in a slump, but the upcoming Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exhibit (OFC) next month will reveal that a small group of companies sees a new age dawning, one in which the tiny parts used to make next-gen telecom gear will be more in demand than ever before.

Here's the scoop: Today, making the lenses used in MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) components, fiber arrays, and optical switches requires a ton of human intervention. Tools exist to cut and assemble the parts, but the process must be stopped frequently, as technicians use separate devices to check that specifications are being met. This creates a bottleneck in the manufacturing process.

Enter the handful of companies seeking next-generation solutions. "The goal is to measure inside the tool, even though no one's doing that now," says John Roth, product manager in the metrology group at Zygo Corp. (Nasdaq: ZIGO).

Zygo is among the firms working on test gear that scans components for defects as they're being made, cutting down on the number of bad parts and increasing the volume of good ones. The goal is to combine manufacturing tools with existing devices that perform non-contact metrology, a scanning process that is so named because it doesn't involve touching the components in question.

At OFC, Zygo plans to unveil a product called ZOBAS (short for Zygo Optical Bench Assembly System). This will combine some functions of the company's metrology instruments with a fabrication platform for optical components. It will be Zygo's first crack at packing measurement with manufacturing tools for photonic parts.

Zygo has other metrology products that it plans to show at OFC as well. The rather comically named "MicroLUPI" doesn't work inside manufacturing tools just yet, but it does the next best thing, Roth says, by measuring components rapidly enough to avoid bottlenecks during fabrication.

The MicroLUPI, Roth asserts, cuts out the time taken by a human technician to aim a metrology instrument at an optical lens. "We have hardware and software algorithms that automatically align and measure a lens for inspection." Instead of taking two minutes to scope the lens manually, the MicroLUPI checks it in 15 seconds or less, he says. Links to quality-control software help track the progress of production.

The company also has a product called the NewView Optical Profiler that scans MEMS components specifically.

Zygo will be marketing the MicroLUPI and NewView tools to the likes of Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A), Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW), Digital Optics Corp., and JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU).

Another metrology player, Veeco Instruments Inc. (Nasdaq: VECO), will also be active at OFC, showing its metrology system called the Wyko Optical Profiler, which competes with Zygo's. Veeco also plans to give a seminar on metrology midweek at the show (see their Website for detials). And it's planning to release new manufacturing tools for use in component design and fabrication.

Veeco spokespeople say efforts to combine metrology and manufacturing are underway, but no products have been announced yet.

Startups also are at work. Katsina Optics, a newly funded company in Milpitas, Calif., plans to unveil at OFC what it calls "a new product line featuring passivecomponent test technology integrated with semi-automated tools."

According to spokespeople, Katsina's line, also aimed at R&D, will include a "sub-micron optical fiber alignment systemand an automated fiber stripper," both of which cut the time required to check out devices in the manufacturing process.

One startup in this space, which won't be exhibiting at OFC but will probably be in attendance, is Nano-Or Technologies, based in Israel, which hopes to launch its product in the third quarter 2002. Cofounded by Eyal Shekel, who also cofounded Chiaro Networks, Nano-Or offers a tiny camera capable of recording the dimensions of components either from within microscopes used by technicians or within manufacturing gear -- or in situ, as it's termed.

"We're already talking to various instrument vendors," says David Banitt, Nano-Or's CEO. He says Nano-Or would like to OEM its cameras to vendors of so-called "machine vision" equipment, which combines sensitive instruments for assembling optical components with algorithms and software that automate the manufacturing process. This pairing would result in tools that automatically check and measure parts as they are made, cutting down on duds, increasing automation and output, and streamlining the overall production process.

Banitt says he's feeling out a range of vendors and he says a couple of deals are imminent, but he won't be specific. Vendors who make machine vision systems for use in optical component fabrication include the likes of Applied Materials Inc. and KLA-Tencor Corp.

Banitt anticipates the market for optical components will represent 30 to 40 percent of revenues for Nano-Or's tiny cameras in the future. Other markets include semiconductor fabrication. The startup, founded in October 2000 with $3.5 million in funding from Jerusalem Global Ventures, STI Ventures, and Dellet Ventures is putting its second funding round together now, Banitt says.

Vendors such as Veeco and Zygo might be potential partners, from Nano-Or's perspective. Apparently, the ideas involved in measuring optical parts in fabrication are so new that any combination of possibilities is open.

So is the question as to when the market will take off. "I'd like it to be tomorrow," quips Banitt, though he acknowledges the photonics manufacturing industry is "still embryonic." Still, he says, "Things are starting to roll now."

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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