Putting optoelectronics to work

In mid-August, the editors of Laser Focus World went through an exhaustive couple of days of discussions to determine the structure of our Editorial Calendar for 1996. We do this every year to give ourselves a course to follow and to give our marketing people a guide to the technical areas we expect to cover during 1996. It`s a stimulating and interesting exercise that reflects many of the changes going on in the areas covered by Laser Focus World. And we discuss a lot more than lasers!

Putting optoelectronics to work

Jeffrey Bairstow

Editorial Director

In mid-August, the editors of Laser Focus World went through an exhaustive couple of days of discussions to determine the structure of our Editorial Calendar for 1996. We do this every year to give ourselves a course to follow and to give our marketing people a guide to the technical areas we expect to cover during 1996. It`s a stimulating and interesting exercise that reflects many of the changes going on in the areas covered by Laser Focus World. And we discuss a lot more than lasers!

For example, the magazine has always had--and will continue to have--a strong coverage of leading-edge research in laser and electro-optics technology so we pay particular attention to areas such as femtosecond lasers. However, in recent years we have been tilting toward more practical applications of such technology in areas that range from the traditional, such as spectroscopy, to the less conventional and more embryonic, such as medical diagnostics. In 1996, each issue will, we hope, carry a major feature that examines a different and important area of application of advanced technology.

A fast-growing market

As a result of our discussions, we will also be paying more attention to optoelectronics in 1996 because this area is expanding at an extremely rapid rate. Just how rapid that expansion is was brought home to me during a recent visit to Shar¥Corporation in Osaka, Japan. In the course of discussions with Minoru Miyuki, executive director of Sharp`s Electronic Components Group, about some recent market research data from Dataquest (San Jose, CA) I discovered that the worldwide market for optical semiconductors is growing at about a 30% annual rate. The dollar value of the market was almost $4 billion in 1994 of which, not surprisingly, Japanese production accounted for more than 70%. Compare that with worldwide production of lasers, which is around $1 billion and is growing at rather less than 10% this year, according to Laser Focus World estimates.

Although the Japanese share of optoelectronics gives Japanese companies dominant positions in many areas of application, growth is also strong among American and European optoelectronic suppliers. The US leader is Hewlett-Packard, a company whose optoelectronic products experienced almost 90% growth in 1994 to $360 million, according to Dataquest. That puts Hewlett-Packard in fourth position worldwide in 1994 behind Sharp, Toshiba, and Matsushita, and just ahead of Sony, says Dataquest. The European leader was Siemens, coming in at No. 6 with optoelectronics production of $220 million. In fact, European production grew at a very healthy 44% in 1994 and US production grew at 34%, thus outpacing the growth rate of Japanese manufacture.

The Japanese will continue to lead in optoelectronics device production, however, because of their dominant position in consumer electronics, notably in VCRs, cameras, camcorders, CD players, and CD-ROM drives. These are all pretty obvious applications that consume high volumes of optoelectronic devices. But the Japanese also have some utilitarian products that make use of optoelectronic devices. For example, at Sharp, I saw a compact, modern kerosene heater that uses an optical sensor to detect the color of the flame and optical isolators to isolate the control circuitry from power-supply spikes. Few Japanese homes have central heating so kerosene heaters are quite commonly used. Shar¥uses similar optoelectronic devices in the control circuitry of microwave ovens and in air conditioners.

When optoelectronic devices can be manufactured cheaply and in volume, the range of applications expands enormously as Sharp`s experience shows only too well. Perhaps there`s a lesson here for American and European suppliers. Maybe there are more mundane applications that the Japanese haven`t yet considered--what we need is a little more old-fashioned American ingenuity.

Nonetheless, I doubt that you will find an article in the coming months in Laser Focus World on kerosene heaters but we will be extending our coverage of the world of optoelectronics and its applications. We`d like to hear from you about interesting areas of application that you are working on or applications you`d like to see Laser Focus World cover in 1996. Send me electronic mail (jeffb@pennwell.com) or fax me at 603-891-0574. I`m also happy to hear directly from you, our readers, by phone at 603-891-9130 (and I do answer my own phone and return all my calls!).

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