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Startups Tackle Optical Manufacturing

Light Reading
OFC/NFOEC News Analysis
Light Reading
3/25/2003
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ATLANTA -- OFC 2003 -- A new breed of photonic startup was in view at the OFC tradeshow this week -- one that's not pushing products.

A growing roster of startups view the manufacturing process, not the end product, as key to the future of optical components. Demand may have fallen after the boom, they reason, but expensive and manually intensive manufacturing techniques also helped shovel the dirt over many young firms last year (see Components Casualty Count Climbing). These failures, along with the move by big companies away from the business (see Components Overboard! and Agere's Exit From Opto: Sad but Sensible), are leaving the way open for a few good players to make money manufacturing optical parts for others.

Solutions fall into several categories: Some startups are selling processes or software that others can license for use in their own plants. Others specialize in packaging optical parts for use as subsystems by other manufacturers. Still others will take over the making of optical parts on an outsourced basis.

Here's a list of examples from this week's show:

Manufacturing Processes and Software

Packaging

Outsourced Manufacturing

  • kSaria Corp. made headlines before the show (see KSaria Changes Faces) by revamping itself from a maker of its own components, based on automated manufacturing techniques, to a maker of pigtail attachments for a range of third-party customers. kSaria also offers packaging services.

Developments in optical manufacturing aren't limited to the show. There are signs that other companies see an opportunity in streamlining optical component manufacturing. Last week, for example, DuPont Photonics Technologies LLC opened in Wilmington, Mass., in order to apply to telecom techniques its famous parent company has established in other areas (see DuPont Opens Photonics Shop).

The move reflects activity by others, such as 3M Company (NYSE: MMM), which appears to have defied the downturn in its own optics business (see 3M Opens Optoelectronics Lab and Corning Taps 3M for 850M). Like the startups, these larger firms see an opportunity in the industry consolidation.

But challenges remain, most notably reduced demand. There's still a market for optical parts, but how sizeable is it? "Automation is good... but you can't have efficient mass production without any volume," says Dan Yang, CEO and founder of Dowslake Microsystems, which makes optical subsystems. Like many optical companies, Dowslake has moved its manufacturing to China and eschews outsourcing as "just impossible" for its particular products, which are software-intensive.

The startups are undeterred. They insist the demand is growing for what they can offer. Perhaps by next year's OFC, they'll have the evidence to back this up.

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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