Friday, January 28, 2011

Warm weather and a good mood at Photonics West

The mood at Photonics West reminded me of a team when it’s winning its games. The mood was good and no one wanted to spend too much time second guessing what they are doing. Whatever they are doing, it’s working.

This is no surprise, really, given that photonics markets were all up in 2010 over 2009 (see the annual Laser Focus market article--more on the other markets in future posts). Just showing up is an accomplishment, two years after the recession hit.

This is in sharp contrast to this time 2009, when it still wasn’t clear how deep and how long the recession would go. While the recession itself wasn’t the fault of the photonics industry, the stock market was nervous. Company executives had to go over and over their businesses and make corrections. All the while hoping for a few big wins.

If you listen carefully, there were whispers that not everyone is better off than last year. Especially among the smaller, private companies, and among venture financed companies that might be running out of time for a successful exit. And while some said that credit and investment has thawed, others said that the money is going elsewhere. It depends who you are.

But that's for another day. The event broke its record with over 19,000 attendees, split approximately evenly among conference attendees, show attendees, and exhibitors. Even the weather was unseasonably warm.

No one is second guessing the move to San Francisco anymore either. SPIE is happy with the San Francisco location and has no plans to return to San Jose.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Un-Trends in Photonics Markets

In the last post I ruminated on the best market trends of the decade in photonics. This time we examine that trends that weren't: the Un-Trends.

The decline of optical storage. Remember laser disks that were as big as vinyl records? Remember when CDs were displacing magnetic tapes? Remember CDs? The business of optical storage has been hit by a triple whammy: falling sales as downloads increase and falling prices due to commoditization. The iPad is the next big thing and--surprise!--there's no DVD player there. Not now, not ever. The future for optical storage is now in mass storage. And there's a chance that lasers will be needed to take magnetic storage a little further. Stay tuned.

The long winter of telecom components. The telecom components business never really recovered from the boom of the late 90s. Or shall we say it's back to the business it always was. Components. There are some successes, and stock prices are back to "normal," but overall it's nothing to brag about. Companies struggled through the decade to fill their fabs, move production to China, and just stay open. It's better now, but somehow it feels like there wasn't closure.

The elusive photonic integrated circuit. Twenty years ago it was called the OEIC, the optoelectronic integrated circuit. That was Bell Labs. In the 90s, Japanese companies pushed PLCs, photonic lightwave circuits. Now there are photonic integrated circuits (PICs) and the likes of Infinera and Luxtera. And of course there's the mother-of-all-quests: Intel's search for the silicon laser. (A 2006 article asks: lasers integrated into CMOS by 2010?) It's all nice work, and we're happy for Infinera--it's done a remarkable job. But the classical idea of the uber-circuit that will integrate smoothly with silicon--it's soooo 20th century. Get over it. What works is very piecemeal: some hybrid pick-and-place here, monolithic integration of a modulator there, and even then the economics can be questionable. The problem is that these approaches work best when you have high volumes, but high volume products are already commoditized in Asian factories. The real successes are much less dramatic. Think optical mouse, not 100G.

Optical computing is dead, long live optics in computing! I mean here the type of optical computing where the processor is all-optical. I worked on a project about this in the 1990s, with Japan, and there's still a little funding in it. The closest thing to it nowadays may be the all-optical telecom switch. (The name "switch" doesn't do it justice. They are pretty complex.) The optical processor is a nice idea ("it travels at the speed of light!") but it turns out that electronics is really really good, and really really cheap. Oh, and it's way easy to program. Now if you are talking about "optics in computing", that's another thing. There are optics everywhere inside a computer: the display, the mouse, the camera, the DVD player, maybe even a fiber cable someday (one can hope).

The death of CRTs, photographic film, and fax machines. The triumph of flat displays means the death of CRTs. What a great technology. Tubes are still preferred in various niches in electronics (take apart your microwave oven if you don't believe me). But I'm glad to see them go. Ever tried to carry a big CRT? (You can still buy one. Check Amazon.) Photographic film is still around too, although the last Kodachrome processor closed after Kodak stopped supporting the chemicals needed to develop it (see photos from the last roll here). It's hard to miss film, especially in the dentist's office or the hospital x-ray lab. And fax machines will still be around for faxing legal and medical documents, and for receiving wacky advertisements (does that ever sell anything?).

There's more, but isn't 5 enough?

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Decade's 5 Best Market Trends in Photonics

Well, it'over: the decade-that-could-not-be-named (2001-2010). Time for a list of the Decade's 5 Best Market Trends in Photonics:

The triumph of flat displays. Remember the see-through iMacs? Don't CRTs look soooo 20th century now? And how about the touch screens for smart phones? They don't just make a nicer phone. They transform how we live. This is #1 because of the sheer size of the display industry, and its impact on everything else.

Cellphone cameras relaunch the image sensor market. The first cameraphone showed up in 2000, in Japan. There are now over 1 billion mobile phone handsets shipped every year, and most have cameras. That volume drives lots of other applications. And the quality! Again, transformative, and billions in new photonics revenue.

The Green Revolution: LEDs and solar. High-brightness LEDs are all about taking an old technology and improving the brightness to do some new things--a marketing VP's dream. This decade saw LEDs in mobile phones and TV backlights, but the talk now is about LED lighting taking over the world. And how about that solar market! Many investors have lost money in solar companies, but they keep coming. Somehow, we all want to be part of it. (I was too, back that was back in the 1970s.)

Molecular imaging and all other thing biophotonic. The average person on the street doesn't know it, but photonics is making a huge impact in biomedicine, from diagnostics to therapy. Optical molecular imaging is my favorite because of the promise it brings in finally solving some difficult and costly medical challenges. But there is also mid-IR spectroscopy, ultrafast surgery, OCT, and many more.

IPG and the fiber laser. Several companies had fiber laser products in the 1990s, but IPG Photonics gets credit for making it a big name in materials processing today, and the 5th largest maker of non-diode lasers. Ha! No one is laughing now. The fiber laser is one of the laser types you would design if you could pick only one, and if you had the materials you have today. The diode laser is the other.

There you have it. Next time if I get to it, the Decade's 5 Un-Trends in Photonics.