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US gives photonics manufacturing a shot in the arm

By Pauline Rigby

June will be a defining month for photonic integration in the United States. The US government is expected to announce the winners of its $110 million integrated photonics manufacturing initiative.

Up to now, Europe has lead the way in photonic integration. Over the past decade, academic research funding from both European and national governments has flowed into a number of multi-project wafer (MPW) programmes - which allow organisations to cut the cost of prototyping optical chips by sharing semiconductor wafers. This has allowed an ecosystem of coordinating bodies, optical foundries, optical chip design and simulation services, and photonic testing and packaging companies to develop and flourish. That environment supports both start-ups and established optical components developers alike (see, for example Effect Photonics banks optical integration expertise).

Meanwhile in 2014 the US decided to cease funding for OpSIS, its only optical foundry service, running out of the University of Delaware, which was forced to close. At a stroke, US photonics start-ups and smaller companies lost access to optical foundries at BAE Systems, the Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore, and others.

Now it looks like the US wants to get back in the game. Last year President Obama announced his administration's intent to form an Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation (IP-IMI), the sixth institute to be created under his National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). Under this initiative, the US Department of Defense (DOD) will award $110 million to the winning proposal for a photonics manufacturing institute, which must be matched by at least the same amount again in investment from industry, academia and local government.

The NNMI really is a game changer. The $220-million-plus to be invested in US photonics manufacturing over the next five years – equivalent to $40 million annually – will dwarf European spending on similar projects, says Michael Lebby, a serial entrepreneur and former board member of the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA), now part of the Optical Society of America (OSA). There is a requirement for state and industry match funding, and multipliers of four to five times have been reported, he adds. This means the value of the five-year program could exceed $110 million significantly.

Lebby has been acting as consultant to the bid from a consortium led by University of Southern California (USC). “Even though this is led by academia, it has to be governed by industry and run by industry. My job is to bring in industrial partners to the consortium and create roadmaps, so that the products on the roadmap are what the industry needs,” he explained. Industrial collaboration will be an essential ingredient for the successful bid, he asserts.

The selection process started in November 2014 with a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) issued by the DOD through the Air Force Research Laboratory, inviting concept papers for the establishment of such a manufacturing institute. Finalists were invited to submit full proposals by the end of March, with the DOD carrying out site visits in May.

They must choose from three shortlisted bids from consortia in California, Florida and New York. The three bids have a number of things in common: they are led by universities with enormous prestige, a strong track record in photonics disciplines, and in regions that are home to photonics industry clusters. The three proposals are quite different, however.

The proposal led by University of Central Florida has four founding university partners – Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Alabama-Huntsville, Clemson University, and the University of Illinois – and cites 70 supporting industry partners from across the supply chain of the commercial photonics industry, from materials producers to end users. The consortium calls itself the Photonics Research Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing (PRISM).

PRISM is anchored by the International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research (ICAMR), a non-profit consortium that is building a 100,000- square-foot advanced manufacturing research facility in Osceola County. Investments totalling $120 million have already been committed to this facility by the University of Central Florida, Osceola County, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council and Enterprise Florida. The facility will support the design, manufacturing, test, assembly, packaging, and prototyping of integrated photonics platforms.

The New York team’s proposal focuses on resources in University of Rochester and at the State University of New York (SUNY) Polytechnic Institute, which operates a major silicon fabrication facility that it describes as “the most advanced 200mm/300mm wafer facilities in the academic world”. The proposal would also use non-federal matching funding from New York State and the various industry partners to create a new open-access photonic assembly and packaging facility in Rochester. So far at least 40 industry, academic, government and trade organisations have committed as partners to the proposal.

The third proposal from California, named the Integrated Photonics Institute and Center for Design and Manufacturing Services (IPI-CDMS), is led by the USC Information Sciences Institute at the Viterbi School of Engineering. If successful, IPI-CDMS would be headquartered in Los Angeles and have regional hubs in Berkeley at the University of California-Berkeley; in San Diego at the University of California-San Diego; in Tempe at Arizona State University; in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico; and in Columbus at the Ohio State University. The headquarters and hubs would each focus on specific market segments and would work closely with the regional industry. The group also notes that “California is home to most of the companies in the United States that provide photonics products”.

The California team has approached the task in a very different way, according to Lebby. Rather than build its own fabrication facility, it aims to establish a broker model, similar to the MOSIS integrated circuit fabrication service for microelectronic semiconductors – and incidentally the model that inspired OpSIS. “That model is self-sufficient, profitable and has been around for 35 years. What we’re doing is extending it to photonics,” he said.

Announcement of the winner is expected any day now. Lebby is very calm about the outcome. “If we lose this, then is the proposal dead? No, we know it works commercially,” he said, implying that the California proposal could potentially go ahead even without the injection of federal funds.  

Whatever the outcome of the competitive bidding process for the individual finalists, it looks like the real winner of this competition will be the photonics manufacturing capability in the US.


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