WASHINGTON -- A clarion call from the National Research Council this week to revive the nation’s ability to design and make products based on optics and photonics technology inexplicably buries a critical discussion about advanced manufacturing at the end of a new report.
A comprehensive assessment of a strategic technology is obviously a welcome development, particularly as policy makers grope for ways to revive U.S. tech manufacturing. But the discussion of advanced manufacturing, an area where U.S. companies have an excellent chance to compete against global high-volume manufacturers, should have been front and center in the report released Monday (Aug. 13).
Readers who waded through the first 150 pages eventually found a section on advanced manufacturing that addresses three “case studies” focusing on displays, solar cells and optoelectronics. U.S. manufacturing in the first two categories has declined steadily in recent years, although the report correctly notes that companies like Applied Materials (chemical vapor deposition equipment) and Corning (glass substrates) still have a place in the manufacturing ecosystem.
Sadly, many promising U.S. solar manufacturers have bowed to price pressures and moved manufacturing operations to Asia, and specifically China.
Optoelectronics, the third case study, is a critical area with national security implications. The ability to produce the key components of light-based communications – lasers, modulators, amplifiers, photodetectors and waveguides – is fundamental.
Keeping pace in optoelectronics requires that these components be manufactured where they are used. The report notes that the critical factor in where optoelectronic components are made, regardless of whether they are subject to U.S. export controls, is volume. The higher the volume, the more likely a component will be made offshore.
That underscores the need to be able to domestically produce smaller batches of advanced photonics components. Efforts are underway to create trusted manufacturing sites in the U.S. to produce optoelectronic devices. An assembly and packaging facility is currently being set up in Ohio.
One way to revive U.S. optics and photonics manufacturing centers on an emerging field called “additive manufacturing.” Sometimes referred to as 3-D printing, it allows users of the technology to essentially “grow a part.” Photonics technology has been one of the keys to making additive manufacturing an effective tool on the shop floor. Among its advantages are shorter product development cycles. Another is the fact that additive manufacturing helps low-volume manufacturers turn a profit by reducing the need to invest in the design and production of expensive custom tools.
Emerging laser-based and stereolithographic production techniques promise to increase the precision of 3-D manufacturing. The report notes that lasers operating at short wavelengths could help reduce the scale of the smallest devices, including the production of individual 3-D pixels.
Additive manufacturing also has the potential to allow three-dimensional printing “near the end user no matter where the design is done,” the report notes.
Though hard to find, the report’s findings and recommendations identify manufacturing sectors where U.S. technology can be leveraged to compete on a global scale, thereby putting more American workers back to work.