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    Comparing Photonics Growth Strategies CAN-NL

    May 19 2017     |     comments

    In the run up to the World Technology Mapping Forum (June 14-16th 2017) we're publishing a series of interviews with Photonics specialists to better understand how different countries are strengthening their respective Photonics Ecosystems. This is a conversation with Simon Wingar, Director Research & Development Information and Communication Technologies, National Research Council Canada, Ottawa. He looks as how Canada working with its photonics companies and compares their approach with Western Europe.


    Product Cycles – The Cradle to grave is now 5 years.

    Product life cycles are so short now, there often is not the time to transfer a process or a product to another fab. A typical product development lifecycle is 18 months. That product will probably be viable in the market for just 3 years after launch.  So, what used to be a product with a lifetime of 20 years has now been reduced to that of a commodity. The technology itself is not as important. It is the use of the technology which counts.

    Canada has a very strong track record in Communications and Photonics, however there is a risk of this know how dispersing and weakening Canadian Industry as foreign manufacturers cherry pick what they need. The question is how do you support industry to keep and grow the expertise.

    A bit of background

    Around 2001, the National Research Council Canada formed the idea of the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre (CPFC), (the equivalent of the PhotonDelta Cooperative and the proposed technology centres.) The CPFC was intended to build a much closer relationship between research and industry needs. Industry was already crying out for long term research while at that time they were caught up trying to satisfy demand. They needed to partner with an organisation that was able to think 3-10 years ahead. Then the Bubble burst.

    The Canadian Photonics Fabrication centre came on line in 2004. It is a custom-built state of the art facility geared towards prototyping, new product introduction and manufacturing of leading edge photonic devices. It was recognised that it was not only important to increase the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of photonic integrated circuits (PICs), but that we needed to also work on the Manufacturing Readiness Level (MRL) for next generation photonic devices.


    Initially, this effort was primarily geared towards bringing value to Canada, which meant focusing on supporting small and medium enterprises. But we also realised that for this to be sustainable we must be a global player. Being able to compete on an international scale would, in the long term, bring additional benefits to Canadian Industry. So, over the years we have worked with Canadian photonics startups as well as with multinationals.

    Over the last 5 years we have observed, what PhotonDelta has also seen, the explosion in the growth of datacentres. In addition to the growth in data centres and datacom in general, we also see significant growth in the use of photonics for other applications, sensing for example. So, we build complementary programmes in materials such as Gallium Antimonide that take advantage of the CPFC’s fabrication capabilities.

    We're watching what Europe is doing as well as the USA. In fact, there are closer comparisons between Europe and Canada. We both have individual companies in the value chain coming together and collaborating. We see the value in building trusted networks. 


    The challenges of what you're are attempting with a cluster of companies, each with their own development groups and/or facilities are significant. Strong cohesion, coordination and alignment will be the deciding success factor.

    What technologies are you involved in? 

    The National Research Council Canada has a very long and very comprehensive history in the R&D of compound semiconductors. Over the years we've worked with many materials including Silicon Germanium, Gallium Antimonide and Gallium Arsenide. But for telecom and datacentre photonic applications, Indium Phosphide is currently one of the leading material platforms.  Alongside this work in InP, we’re researching into the use of Quantum dot materials and the impact they will have on the future of quantum communications, computing and cryptography.

    Pure Play Foundry

    CPFC operates on a “pure-play foundry” model. The CPFC focuses on working with Industry, taking these advanced materials and technology through its full life cycle, R & D, prototyping and supply. At this point it’s important to note that the Canadian government never competes with its clients and so the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre does not market its own products.Companies that work with us, (even though we don't usually reveal who we're working with), benefit from a "lights out”, collaborative approach.

    A generalisation of the model is: The design IP rests with the company. The process know-how rests with the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre. That way we can reuse the technology for the benefit of everyone using the facility. It is important to maximise use of the facility while retaining and developing the knowhow.  IP protection is seen of paramount importance.

    One can see PhotonDelta Cooperative as being equivalent. We see that you have a lot of IP protection knowledge in Europe. IP protection issues is just one of the reasons we need to offer companies an alternative.

    How do you help the photonics companies scale?

    We have built a strategy that helps companies address some of the cost challenges of New Product Development.

    By addressing design for manufacturability, at an early stage in the development cycle, we can achieve close coupling of design and processes. The constant re-use of dynamically expanding “know-how” means the cost of requalification can often be avoided by allowing “production” to remain at the CPFC. Our clients often operate in an industry environment that is very sensitive to penalties for non-performance. This means you must have a reliable process at the manufacturing stage. That's why we have fully embraced the challenge of manufacturing alongside our research activities. We see this is as an important role that SMART photonics will play in the PhotonDelta ecosystem.

    What do the Canadian's do differently?

    The European model is based on standardisation, MPW's, and where lowest cost of entry has been the driving factor (which has its place). But given our base of expertise and the client base in Canada, we have chosen not to do that. We have focused instead on maximising the benefits offered by custom design and fabrication.

    The Canadian approach has been to be more ambidextrous, while recognising the additional effort and collaboration that is needed by all parties. We have focused our efforts on the activities that allow the client company to reap of benefits of being “best in class” that come from customisation. Ultimately is about giving the designer flexibility by creatively employing multiple “proven” paths through the fabrication processes, speeding up cycles of learning, shortening time to market and maximising yield on a case by case basis.

    One very simple example is to take what the automotive industry has been doing for decades. Single-Minute Exchange of Die method (SMED) is one of the many lean production methods for reducing waste in a manufacturing process. It provides a rapid and efficient way of converting a manufacturing process from running the current product to running the next product. Reduction of waste, in any form, is key.

    Each customer can then customize their process or product to accelerate the time to market, so they can attack their own niche at exactly the right moment. Because of that, we end up being able to support a diverse offering.

    Understanding our clients

    There are 3 types of companies we work with.

    1. There are FABLESS, these companies have designs and concepts, but no fab. They often need a lot of help in the test and measurement, packaging and assistance with the product value chain.
    2. We also have FAB-LITE, these are companies that are missing a key part in the production process, which could be grating fabrication or MOCVD growth. We work with each of the companies, on different levels, depending on their needs.
    3. Finally, we have companies which have their own fabs. They come to us so we can provide access to advanced next generation materials or fabrication technologies. This allows them to prove out new ideas or design concepts before making their own, often saving very capital intensive investments. In some cases, depending on the details of the agreement, this technology can then be transferred back their own facility.

    Better Device Yields

    One interesting observation is that the device yields, at any point in the product life cycle, obtained at the CPFC tend to be better than that of our clients. This is a strong validation of the approach we have taken of closely coupling design, process and people, which we like to call “virtual vertical integration”.  It’s a model that is familiar. Many of us at the CPFC have a long history in semiconductor processing (both captive and merchant) and so understand the importance of designing things that can be economically manufactured. You need to be world-class.

    Beyond Telecom

    The application of photonics outside of the traditional Telecom/Datacom applications are starting to emerge into the market place. For example, using photonics to accurately monitor the environment is an exciting new direction.  

    NRC has many research activities to monitor the environment, including those environments inside buildings. NRC has a “smart construction” division where scientists are looking at air-quality inside houses and other environmental issues. Some of our scientists are working in our Advanced Technology Fabrication facility (ATF), our equivalent of your Nanolabs (for early TRL R&D) to address these challenges. This research can then be easily transferred into the CPFC for higher volume when the time comes.

    To keep the two facilities aligned our scientists and engineers move between the two....the work in the ATF being focused 5-10 years out, and in the CPFC the next 18-60 months. So that's how we solve one of the problems of transferring R&D to manufacturing.

    15 years on from the telecom bubble

    The money today is a lot smarter. The application space is a lot clearer. The risk is better quantified.

    Susceptibility to technology hype is significantly less than it was a decade ago. 

    Collaboration is now seen as a key differentiator

    In the 80's you saw a lot of collaboration and people-movement between different parts of the electronics industry. Photonics has always suffered from a being dispersed and fragmented industry.

    For photonics, we’re now moving in era of trusted collaboration.

    Don't forget the people!

    The future will be inter-regional collaboration to solve the cost-points that the industry is demanding today. Remember, that the industry is being looked to supply answers. That's where consortiums and cooperatives become an important platform to exchange ideas and reduce risk.

    I think we would all benefit from seeing a greater exchange of people. When I was starting my career, (a few decades ago now) it was joked that the half-life of an engineer in any organisation was just 3-5 years. Your career progressed by moving. I’d like to see more of that philosophy in photonics.

    Why are you attending the World Technology Mapping Forum?

    We're interested in the forum because of our interest in packaging. This is an area that we need to become more involved in, because of the complexity of the interaction between photonic devices and packaging. Test and packaging can be 80 percent of the overall cost!

    The interaction between the package, the device and the system is only understood by a small group of people. We hope that the forum will bring heads together to solve some of these short and long-term issues. I hope you'll be able to attract the Microsoft, Facebooks and Google's of this world to help us better understand how these high-volume customers are deploying the technology. They are changing the paradigm. How do you learn from what the telecom giants did right (and wrong) in the last decade and translate that into what these new entrants are looking for?

    Advice to PhotonDelta

    If you are planning to make SMART Photonics and the other services succeed, they MUST be globally competitive.

    • In terms of the technology being offered.
    • In terms of yield and the economic viability of that technology.
    • In terms of the adaptability of the business model used.

    Because, at the end of the day, companies using your capabilities and services need to make money.

    The challenges of what you're are attempting with a cluster of companies that each have their own development groups and/or facilities are significant. Strong cohesion, coordination and alignment will be the deciding factor.

    Our approach, in Canada, has been to capitalise on our very strong materials science knowledge and to foster close relationships with our clients to exploit that technology. Bringing our material scientists and wafer fabrication engineers together has been key to our success, working closely with our client’s designers to satisfy the photonics industry’s current and future needs.