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All eyes on photonics manufacturing


The recently launched Photonic Integration Technology Center in The Netherlands is set to take the nation's thriving industry to global markets, reports Rebecca Pool.

As the photonic integrated circuit market gathers momentum, industry players are eyeing The Netherlands with growing interest. In only the last year, two Dutch photonic chip companies have raised more than €60 million in investment funds to kick-start photonic chip manufacturing.

In June 2020, independent photonic integrated circuit (PIC) foundry, Smart Photonics received €35 million to expand its wafer manufacturing capacity at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. And in March, this year, PIC manufacturer, Effect Photonics, also won $37 million - around €30 million - to develop single-chip coherent optics and scale production.

In addition, in late 2019, PhotonFirst – previously called Technobis – also scooped an undisclosed sum to accelerate the roll-out of its integrated photonic sensors. And recently, Surfix won €8.5 million to accelerate development of its integrated photonic biosensing platform.

But the industry buzz doesn't stop here. Only weeks ago, integrated photonics industry accelerator, PhotonDelta, Eindhoven University of Technology, also known as TU Eindhoven, the University of Twente and research institute TNO, joined forces to launch the Photonic Integration Technology Center (PITC).

Sylwester Latkowski, PITC scientific director.

As Sylwester Latkowski, PITC scientific director and TU Eindhoven researcher, tells Compound Semiconductor: “We have Smart Photonics, Effect Photonics and PhotonFirst all of which have PICs at the heart of their business and products.”

“More and more customers are approaching these companies, and as fantastic and leading edge are their products, scaling up manufacture isn't always simple,” he adds. “We've seen a need to mature certain aspects of the PIC technologies and supply chain, and will work with businesses to get the next generation products production-ready.”

As well as these key Dutch businesses, PITC is also working with testing company, Salland Engineering, PIC design house, Bright Photonics, VTEC Lasers & Sensors and more.

However, Latkowski is keen to emphasise the centre's international outlook pointing to partnerships with France-based optical spectrum analyzer and automated optical test equipment supplier, APEX Technologies, German photonics assembly and testing company, ficonTEC, and potential US-based collaborations in the future.

The PITC scientific director also likens the newly-launched PITC to the Belgium-based R&D hub, Imec, emphasising the value that such an organisation can bring to a supply chain.

“Such an overarching centre can perfectly co-exist alongside established institutes, companies, large industry and universities,” he says.

Industry partners

PITC was conceived by Erik Van Geest from PhotonDelta, TNO's Jan-Laurens van der Steen, Pieter Telleman, University of Twente and of course, Latkowski. As such, the centre is home to a broad photonics-related expertise. Latkowski and colleagues at TU Eindhoven, including Kevin Williams, have spent years working on active-passive monolithic InP integration, creating lasers, amplifiers, quantum well modulators, detectors and more on a chip.

Meanwhile, Twente University provides expertise in SiN-based technologies, with spin-out, LioniX International, designing and fabricating PICs, and delivering SiN waveguides and modules to market. Still, as Latkowski emphasizes: “We also work with silicon photonics, and as an organisation, PITC is technology-agnostic.”

At the same time, TNO brings industry experience in maturing technologies. And PhotonDelta, a public-private partnership of government agencies and integrated photonics modules players, has contributed significant funds, alongside other organisations.

Indeed, PhotonDelta members include researchers, chip designers, foundries and software developers, that develop single and hybrid InP and SiN waveguide technologies. For example, Bright Photonics, Effect Photonics, Lionix International, PhotonFirst, Surfix, SmartPhotonics and VTEC are amongst the numerous industry partners from The Netherlands, with other partnering organisations including the European Photonics Industry Consortium and the MESA+ Institute of Nanotechnology.

From the outset, PITC will focus on increasing its partners' Technology Readiness and Manufacturability Readiness Levels. Latkowski points to how the centre could help a company such as VTEC Lasers & Sensors, which develops pluggable modules for telecoms suppliers, to reduce its design-in window and have products ready on demand with the necessary specification.

“Customers like VTEC have mature products but have to hit certain deadlines when manufacturing at volume,” he says. “The telecoms industry doesn't wait for anyone but we can help them meet the necessary time-frames.”

PITC is going to focus on several key programs, including metrology, InP, SiN and hybridization. As well as leading PITC scientific activities, Latkowski also chairs the photonic test technical working group at IPSR-I - Integrated Photonics System Roadmap-International - that created the reference document to shape the future of the PIC.

Photonic IC on an evaluation kit.

Given this, he is particularly passionate about metrology. “Years ago, PIC roadmapping activities from MIT indicated that test, assembly and packaging are the dominant cost drivers for a PIC-based module... and today's PICs are much more complicated,” he says.

“While packaging and assembly is more of a challenge we have companies that offer this but when it comes to testing, no-one really is keen to do this, and it isn't trivial,” he adds.

Latkowski highlights how many laboratories can offer advanced characterization but industry needs swift tests that can identify sub-standard dies. To this end, more automation of test and assembly processes in the PIC manufacturing chain is critical to improving statistical process control. And this requires, for example, a standardized approach to chip layout.

“There's a lot to be done,” he says. “We're proposing to work with multiple parts of the supply chain, including OEMs, fabs, and equipment and software vendors, on this as there are no comprehensive test tools yet.”

Industry grade fully automated die tester being developed together with Ficontec in PIXAPP and InPulse pilot lines.

In a similar vein, Latkowski asserts that hybridization is key. “Hybridization is going to be very important and I'm strongly pushing this [PITC program line],” he says. “The PIC module is typically a hybrid and includes some combination of InP, SiN, silicon and electronics, not just photonics.”

Tech-development aside, Latkowski and PITC colleagues will also be developing a future workforce for the photonics industry. Latkowski reckons that today, the pool of engineers and researchers with photonics expertise is somewhat limited. However, he will be working with partners at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences, home to more than 44,000 students based in and around Eindhoven.

“Existing candidates typically hold a PhD [relevant to photonics] but this may not always be what is needed to fill a vacancy,” he says. “We will shape teaching and internship programs for the future talent that industry needs – this could be electronic-photonic test engineers and photonic product designers.”

“Importantly, every PITC launch partner has already expressed an interest in supporting and taking part in these programs,” he adds.

Along the way, the centre leaders intend to stay abreast of the latest industry technology developments. Pointing to polymer optics developments, largely driven by Michael Lebby, chief executive of Lightwave Logic, Latkowski says: “We have research activities in materials such as this and are watching how these evolve.”

“If these are seen to be attractive to module suppliers, we will be able to help here, and will monitor technologies such as this that may be needed for the next generation of photonics products,” he adds.

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