News Article

Bookham Streamlines Its Operations

Earlier this year, Bookham Technology revealed how it would consolidate the manufacturing capabilities gained when it acquired various components businesses from Nortel and Marconi.
In November 2002, when Bookham Technology completed its purchase of Nortel Networks Optical Components division, CEO Georgio Anania was certain that combining the Nortel operation with Bookham s previous acquisition of Marconi s optical components business would yield significant cost efficiencies. Now, just four months on, his strategy for streamlining Bookham s manufacturing facilities is becoming clear.

For a start, Nortel s former InP chip manufacturing plant in Ottawa, Canada, is being closed and the fab will be relocated over the next 12 months to the ex-Marconi facility in Caswell, UK. Also, Bookham s assembly and test operations are being consolidated at the former Nortel site in Paignton, UK.

The Paignton facility transforms individual components - such as the optical chips made by Bookham s manufacturing plants at Caswell and Zurich, Switzerland - into packaged products that are ready to be installed into optical networking equipment. A quick tour of the site reveals the sheer range of products produced there, including a full range of transmitters, receivers, lasers, 980 nm pump modules and optical ampli-fiers. A new addition to the facility is a semi-automated line for laser assembly and test recently moved in from Caswell.Shifting prioritiesHowever, it is clear that the volume of products handled by the Paignton site has dropped dramatically over the last couple of years, in line with the precipitous decline in the optical components market. "In its heyday the plant was running 24 hours a day and seven days a week to keep pace with demand," says Tim Durrant, an operations manager at the site. At that time, some 7000 people were employed at Paignton, but now the headcount has dropped to 800, and many of the workstations stand idle.

But the decline in volume hasn t stopped innovation at the site. On the contrary, the telecom downturn is encouraging engineers to work more closely with their customers to deliver bespoke components that meet specific demands.

Furthermore, with systems houses cutting down on their own engineering resource, it is up to component makers like Bookham to design and manufacture value-added products, such as complete line-cards rather than discrete components. An on-site R&D lab allows engineers to modify designs and optimize device performance, while also ensuring that any new designs can be implemented on the production line.

However, the difficult economic situation is putting the brakes on the drive towards automation. Although some assembly processes at Paignton have already been automated, Durrant explains that the volumes are now too low to justify investment in further labor-saving equipment.

Take the assembly of optical receivers as an example. A series of automatic machines has been installed to position and attach individual elements within the module package, but operators are still needed to physically move the product from one machine to another. "We have the building blocks here to fully automate the production line," says Durrant, "but we need greater volumes to warrant the expense."Weighing up the costDurrant explains that automation is relatively straightforward for process steps that only involve chips, components and packaging. "However, automation remains a very expensive option for any process that involves fiber, and that s what makes the production of optical components so different from chip manufacturing," he says.

For example, the receivers and transmitters that zoom off the automated production line must be passed to skilled operators for fiber alignment, which remains a painstaking and time-consuming process. To prevent a bottleneck at this stage, the automatic line is switched between the assembly of several different products, allowing a number of alignment operators to work on those different products at the same time.

Automatic alignment systems are available, but Durrant says that they remain too expensive to be economically viable, particularly in the current climate. The continuing need for highly manual procedures makes process control an integral element of each assembly stage. After alignment, for example, the same operator measures the optical output of the device to ensure that it meets expectations. "The operator has control over the entire process, which provides an extra incentive to do the job well," says Durrant. "It also identifies any problems quickly to improve product yields."

The same approach is taken in all the assembly operations. And at final test, every effort is taken to replicate conditions in real networks. "This site was originally used to manufacture components for submerged cables, and we have the same mentality today when it comes to ensuring performance and reliability," says Durrant.

Meanwhile, Bookham is working fast to integrate operations at the Paignton site with its activities at Caswell and Milton, near Oxford, UK. "Nortel, Marconi and Bookham all had slightly different approaches to component manufacture," says Durrant. "We are having many exchanges of ideas that will help us to establish best practices across all our manufacturing facilities."

While it could be argued that the slack in the market offers the ideal opportunity to streamline and optimize operations, Durrant maintains that engineers at the site are just as busy as ever. "We are constantly working to improve the products and adapt the designs to meet specific customer requirements," he says. "In this market we have to work hard to win every contract."

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