Photonics West exudes cautious optimism

SAN JOSE, CA—I heard it again and again from most everyone I spoke to at SPIE’s Photonics West: The recession scare in the U.

SAN JOSE, CA—I heard it again and again from most everyone I spoke to at SPIE’s Photonics West: The recession scare in the U.S. and the large stock-market drops in Europe and Asia are creeping into the otherwise solid, growing photonics marketplace. Just how much the ‘fear factor’ surrounding this economic uncertainty will affect the market going forward is anyone’s guess.

Several startup and mid-size companies are stepping back to evaluate the application areas that brought them the most success in 2007 as they chart a cautious spending roadmap for 2008. But taking a look at the ever-expanding attendance of Photonics West (and the need for two South Halls this year to accommodate the growing exhibition), the pessimism is hard to see. Official SPIE Photonics West 2008 (held January 19–24 in San Jose, CA) attendance figures reached a record of 17,570, and it was announced that Photonics West will move from San Jose to San Francisco in 2010 as a result of newly announced plans to remodel the San Jose Convention Center, and by the continuing expansion of Photonics West.

BiOS Symposium

Over the last few years, the Biomedical Optics (BiOS) portion of Photonics West has grown dramatically. The two-day weekend commercial exhibit has gone from a few tabletops in a meeting room at the convention center to 150 exhibitors in 2008. And the scientific sessions, with more than 1300 papers presented this year, now stretch throughout the entire week. Some of the most well-attended sessions were those featuring nerve stimulation, 3-D tomography, and single-molecule counting. For example, research by Wonshik Choi and Michael Feld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, MA) was presented in a paper on tomographic phase microscopy. Choi and Feld sought to build a quantitative phase microscope that could produce a real-time, 3-D map of the index of the material in a living cell and thus observe changes in the cell under varying conditions. They have been able to extend their technique to high speed and are now performing video rate optical tomography for cellular samples and show they can monitor the changes in a living cell as it is exposed to different chemicals.

As always, the BiOS Hot Topics session was packed. Among the highlights was a presentation by Rox Anderson of the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard School of Medicine (Boston, MA), who described how laser-guided fractional microbeam surgery now being used in ophthalmology and dermatology provides a new paradigm for treatment of more deadly cancers.

OPTO Plenary

Tuesday morning’s Plenary session for the OPTO Symposium at Photonics West began with a presentation by Eli Yablonovitch of the University of California at Berkeley entitled “Nanophotonics: from Photonic Crystals to Plasmonics.” The packed room of about 400 individuals—with many more sitting on the floor or spilling outside into the hall—listened intently as Yablonovitch defined a photonic crystal as a “semiconductor for light waves” that has moved out of the laboratory and into mainstream two- and three-dimensional applications, being especially critical to the development of silicon and CMOS planar technologies towards all-optical networks. His presentation was basically a duplicate of the one he presented at the 2007 Frontiers in Optics conference (see www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/308378), and concluded with a discussion of plasmonics.

In the second presentation on organic or “plastic” optoelectronic devices, presenter Niyazi Serdar Sariciftci from Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria) boldly stated that molecular chemistry will rule the 21st century, after a long period of semiconductor materials rule. He sees a future with cheaper-to-produce, less-expensive, “printed” semiconducting polymer inks for applications in photovoltaic cells, displays, organic transistors, and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).

LASE Plenary

The Wednesday morning Plenary for the LASE Symposium was meant to have a more practical emphasis on how lasers are being used in real-world applications. Dieter Bäuerle from Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria) described how lasers are being used in nanopatterning applications; specifically, he discussed the use of microspheres on the surface of a material to form laser-beam focusing and effect maskless, large-area patterning to a substrate.

Bäuerle’s presentation was followed by an analysis of “The Long Journey from Idea to Industrial Success” by Holger Schlueter from Trumpf USA (Farmington, CT). His presentation echoed many of the same points made by Peter Leibinger in his similar presentation at the LFW Laser & Photonics Marketplace Seminar—primarily describing the specific technological and business advances that, over many years, can result in a successful laser-based product line. The LASE Plenary, presented to a much smaller crowd than the OPTO Plenary, concluded in the unheated and chilly Montgomery Theatre auditorium across from the convention center with a presentation by Fred Dylla of the American Institute of Physics on the free-electron laser (FEL).

MEMS/MOEMS Plenary

Reliability testing throughout the entire product-development cycle is key to building a better MEMS/MOEMS, according to Michael Douglass of Texas Instruments (TI; Dallas, TX). In his plenary session presentation on Monday at Photonics West, Douglass outlined the failure-analysis processes that TI has implemented for years to ensure the reliability lifetimes of its Digital Light Processing (DLP) and Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) technologies, citing some pretty impressive statistics resulting from these testing procedures.

As the MOEMS/MEMS industry continues to establish itself as a viable alternative to the macro world, reliability is always a concern, Douglass noted. There are several emerging market opportunities right now for MOEMS/MEMS to gain a foothold; applications such as mobile media, consumer electronics, biomedical, and homeland security are all showing great interest. However, these applications are also some of the most demanding when it comes to reliability assurance, he added.

Executive Panel sees mixed outlook

Top executives shared their views on the opportunities, challenges, innovations, and new applications in the photonics industry in the January 23 Photonics West panel, “Market Direction and Implications for the World of Photonics.” Moderater Stephen J. Eglash, president and CEO of solar energy startup Cyrium Technologies (Ottawa, ON, Canada ) began the session with an open-ended question about what panelists are excited about for the year ahead, and to what they attribute their success.

A lively discussion ensued, starting with Holger Schleuter, VP of industrial-laser/material processing corporation Trumpf (Farmington, CT), who gave an optimistic view of the diode-pumped solid-state laser in light of its tremendous success in the automotive industry. “Growth of the industrial laser market is good, dynamic, and organic. We are worried about the financial crisis that appears to be looming, but we just aren’t seeing bad signs of it yet on the books.”

Steve Turley, chief commercial officer of Bookham (San Jose, CA), quipped that keeping the company balance sheet sorted out is exciting. “We’ve come pretty close to going out of business on one or two occasions, but continued investment in R&D has kept us moving ahead, differentiating ourselves from others.” Acquisitions have been an important strategy, said Turley, referring to transactions with Marconi, Nortel Networks, New Focus, and Onetta between 2003 and 2006.

Stuart Schoenmann, president and CEO of optics and laser company CVI Melles Griot (Albuquerque, NM) agreed that acquisitions have played a part in their company’s success. “CVI’s two major acquisitions of Melles Griot and Coherent Imaging Optics have kept us very busy.” The company sees a bright 2008.

Mark Sobey, senior VP of Specialty Laser Systems at Coherent (Santa Clara, CA) claimed that diversity in its markets is Coherent’s key to success. Starting with advanced packaging and the manufacturing of interconnects, the company makes every part of a device. “There’s almost no part of the iPhone we aren’t involved in,” said Sobey. Staying involved on all sides of a movement keeps a company’s focus on wherever the interest is very strong, he added.

A more cloudy outlook is forthcoming said some sages in the industry, an understandable position considering global stock-market value drops and the threat of recession in the U.S. New Technology Development Executive Ken Kaufmann of Hamamatsu cautioned they see “storm clouds on the horizon” as customers deal with the deficit reduction act in the U.S. to balance spending on other things, like Iraq. “Budgets are all down about 2%,” said Kaufmann. “Congress is giving no increase to any research. Some companies are reducing R&D to look better to shareholders. I see a tough year ahead.”

Robert Edmund, CEO of Edmund Optics (Barrington, NJ), concurred. Although precision-molded aspheric optics are a big part of Edmund’s growth, the CEO stated an unstable stock market causes caution. “We could be seeing the effect of [the volatile stock market] in the near future. Decisions don’t get made in an election year. It’s hard to see a robust market coming in ’08.”

Holger Schleuter responded to my question on this seeming divergence of opinions. As Trumpf is privately owned, “we don’t have to report to a board of directors,” said Schleuter, and maintains their outlook is decidedly rosy. “Maybe the car is going over the cliff, but we aren’t anything but bullish.”

—Gail Overton, Kathy Kincade,and Valerie Coffey

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