Optoelectronics growth challenges institutional cultures

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--Prospects for the optoelectronics industry at least through the year 2010 seem quite bright, according to plenary speakers at the annual Lasers and Electro-Optics Society (LEOS) meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in November. Productive research may not suffice for engineers in optoelectronics to achieve satisfying careers, however, if they are not also willing to challenge some of the constraints placed upon them by their institutional cul

Optoelectronics growth challenges institutional cultures

SAN FRANCISCO, CA--Prospects for the optoelectronics industry at least through the year 2010 seem quite bright, according to plenary speakers at the annual Lasers and Electro-Optics Society (LEOS) meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in November. Productive research may not suffice for engineers in optoelectronics to achieve satisfying careers, however, if they are not also willing to challenge some of the constraints placed upon them by their institutional cultures.

"Institutional cultures not only support but also constrain us in what we are able to do," said John Armstrong, retired vice president of science and technology at IBM (Armonk, NY). "We must strive to overcome those constraints."

Armstrong, who discussed the interplay between institutional cultures and individual careers, was one of three plenary speakers who opened the 1997 meeting. Tetsuhiko Ikegami, president and CEO of NTT Advanced Technology (Tokyo, Japan), discussed the role of optoelectronics in a society of "bit-greedy" computer and telecommunications use. He also shared data on the current state and projected future of optoelectronics as seen by the Optoelectronic Industry and Technology Development Association (OITDA; Tokyo, Japan). The third plenary speaker, Robert Brown of the University of Nottingham (Nottingham, UK) and head of optoelectronics research at Shar¥Laboratories (Oxford, UK), talked about photonics in recording and displays.

Ikegami quoted figures for the optoelectronics industry based on a 1997 OITDA report that found only 6% of optoelectronics production in 1995 and 1996 outside of Japan. The report gave total production figures of $36 billion and $40 billion for 1995 and 1996, respectively. And of the $40 billion for 1996, $28 billion was equipment and $12 billion was for components.

The breakdown for optoelectronic equipment in 1996 included 50% for optical disk equipment, 27.1% for optical input and output equipment, 13.1% for optical telecommunications equipment. The remaining percentage included areas such as display equipment and optical sensors.

The breakdown for optoelectronic components included 53% for display devices, 12.9% for light emitters, 13.1% for optical fibers, and 8.9% for photo detectors.

A primary focus of Ikegami`s talk, however, was on OITDA projections for the year 2010. In the area of telecommunications alone, with an estimated worldwide revenue of $820 billion in 1996 (about 3% of worldwide gross domestic product), he projected a growth factor between 10 and 100. But revenue can`t be expected to grow that rapidly, so higher-capacity systems will be needed. Actually achieving such high capacities will require re-evaluation of a wide range of factors from the structures of communication networks to the management of R&D organizations.

Brown discussed fundamental limitations in technology and the need for extensive technology development to fully exploit the multibillion dollar markets for optical data recording and flat-panel and projection displays. As evidence of imminent rapid growth in these fields, he cited October reports from Idemitsu Kosan (Tokyo, Japan) concerning the development of organic electroluminescent full-color display panels. The company has announced a 320 ¥ 240-pixel, 5-in.-diagonal panel that weights 80 g and is 0.1 in. thick and a 640 ¥ 480-pixel,10-in.-diagonal prototype with a 2-mm-thick light-emitting panel and a 1-µs response time. These types of developments are making the industry a very exciting place to work, he said, but also a place where rapid changes leave no room for complacency.

Armstrong`s presentation preceded those of Ikegami and Brown in the program. Yet Armstrong`s words--spoken at a time of corporate downsizing and R&D job cuts that accompany the rosy market projections--seemed to render organizational and market-oriented admonitions of the other two speakers into a context directed squarely at the individual engineer.

His two main points were that growth is not necessarily a sign of institutional health or productivity, and that unconventional career choices--those that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries--tend to benefit individual careers. "Until four or five years ago, R&D institutions had experienced four or five decades of continuous growth," he said. "They all had become clinically addicted to growth and are now in withdrawal."

Innovation tends to come from small, flexible groups that are able to focus outward on markets and competitors as opposed to large comfortable staffs in established institutions, be they industrial, government or academic, he argued. Innovation is also fostered by a free flow of ideas and people between engineering and management, and between different engineering departments--between R&D and product development, for instance. This type of cross-fertilization is often stifled by traditional institutional biases, he said. Engineers who break out of these biases tend to benefit both their careers and their institutions, he said.

"I`ve seen more careers hurt and stifled from conventional choices than I`ve seen hurt by unconventional choices," he said.

Hassaun Jones-Bey

More in Research