OIDA/SPIE hope message “resonates” in Congress

WASHINGTON, DC--Representatives from SPIE (Bellingham, WA) and the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA; Washington, DC) who were invited to testify in front of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on March 24th called for more aggressive action and increased government support of commercial R&D in order to revive U.S. innovation and competitiveness in the photonics industry

Apr 15th, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC--Representatives from SPIE (Bellingham, WA) and the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association (OIDA; Washington, DC) who were invited to testify in front of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on March 24th called for more aggressive action and increased government support of commercial R&D in order to revive U.S. innovation and competitiveness in the photonics industry (see www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/356951). The commission reports to Congress annually on the bilateral trade and economic relationship between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China, focusing on China’s industrial policy and its impact on U.S. companies, workers, and the American economy.

The testimony

OIDA president Michael Lebby pointed out to the Commission (with the help of over 300 industry leaders that provided input prior to his testimony) that the majority of U.S.-based start-ups, public, and trans-national companies use predominantly Chinese manufacturing sites for packaging and assembly of their ‘commodity’ optoelectronic products. To generate, maintain, and retain skilled optoelectronics jobs in the U.S., Lebby recommends direct, focused government support for commercial R&D in new innovative technology areas, saying that such support in the optoelectronics industry had waned significantly over the last two decades. “Glass manufacturing for display panels is already owned by Asia--the technology and IP, once gone, are impossible to get back,” said Lebby. “If our government agencies were to implement focused optoelectronics programs in new, emerging technology areas, we could design next-generation products and even create efficient manufacturing plants here in the U.S.”

To this end, Lebby cited two examples: chip fabrication companies could increase U.S. competence through photonics foundries for the production of photonic integrated circuits (PICs), for example; and a focus on organic optoelectronics and OLED technology for displays, solar cells, and lighting could enable us to build automated roll-to-roll manufacturing facilities here in the U.S., especially considering that major newspapers and companies like 3M and Kodak already have expertise in this area.

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs emphasized that the need for technology strength extends across the broader area of photonics and the full range of R&D activities. “The U.S. may continue to be world leaders in the science of LEDs or the semiconductor lasers that power the Internet, but the location of the semiconductor foundries and the know-how to manufacture in volume suggest that these green manufacturing jobs will be outside the U.S.” Arthurs recommended that the government expand funding in certain areas. “The Technology Innovation Program (TIP) at NIST is a small step in the right direction, but its funding is totally inadequate,” he said. “The excellent SBIR program should be expanded and the evaluation process should place more emphasis on local job creation.”

Arthurs also said that the U.S. needs to take action beyond increasing funding for research and support for valuable programs. He stressed the need for strong education funding, and in particular effective programs for encouraging students to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). “The excellent National Academies report, ‘Rising Above the Gathering Storm,’ pointed out that the impact of fewer students entering these fields is erosion of the ability of the U.S. to remain competitive in the world market. STEM education is a crucial element of our strategy for the future. We need to support and ensure the training of the skilled workforce required to perform the research and create the inventions that drive progress and a healthy economy.”

Lebby went on to detail 10 different areas in optoelectronics in which existing government agencies like the DoD and NSF could create focused commercial research programs that would strengthen the U.S. optoelectronics industry. Those areas include implementation of a high-speed communications Internet infrastructure, investment in chip-to-chip and intra-chip technology for computers, a trusted U.S.-based source of photonic devices for the DoD, and heavy investment in “green” photonics technology. OIDA’s market research forecasts that by 2020, green photonics applications will account for 54% of the optoelectronics components market.

The response

“On the morning following our testimony, the Chair of the Commission called me to learn more about PICs and how we could build an infrastructure in the U.S. to generate jobs--they got the message,” said Lebby. “What is exciting is the fact that our message really resonated with them, and now OIDA is in frequent contact with the Commission on how to move forward.”

“Senator Brown from Ohio seemed very concerned about U.S. jobs and while he concentrated on China, I feel this is too narrow a view and leads to the misleading and paralyzing belief that we can’t compete through attribution of Chinese success to low labor rates,” said Arthurs. “The world’s biggest exporter of manufactured products is Germany, certainly not a low-wage nation.” Arthurs said that the Commission Chair and others appreciated the view from the trenches so to speak. “The intensity and duration of the question and answer session show their interest and ended with the request to submit more testimony.” But Arthurs cautioned, “Even though interest in U.S. photonic competitiveness is growing, the financial realities of our current economy may be the proverbial 2 by 4.”

Lebby encourages all companies and institutions interested in domestic foundry and other growth opportunities to contact OIDA with ideas on how to continue driving the message home to Congress.

--Gail Overton

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