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Ultra-clean fabrication inspires Nufern growth

06 Mar 2006

When the telecommunications industry dried up, the military market came to the rescue of speciality fibre firm Nufern. Company president Martin Seifert tells Jacqueline Hewett how Nufern turned things around and found new applications for its fibre.

Nufern, the US-based speciality optical fibre house, was in the same position as many others when the telecoms industry crashed: find a new market for your product and quickly. Salvation came in the form of the military market, which around mid-2001 was beginning to look into large mode area fibres and the uses of fibre lasers.

Now with the industrial fibre laser market poised to explode, and a rebounding telecommunications market, Nufern finds itself an enviable position.

"Since Q4 of 2002, we have been growing vigorously again," Martin Seifert, Nufern's president and CEO, told OLE. "We have just passed where we were in the telecoms heyday. This is going to be the first quarter where we beat any that have gone before. At our peak we were 68 people, we dropped to 28, but we'll be 68 by the end of 2006 and will be much larger in terms of volumes, diversity and revenue."

JH: Why did you form Nufern?

MS: In the 1998/9 timeframe, things were booming. A few colleagues of mine and some investors suggested that Corning, Alcatel and Lucent probably didn't belong in the speciality fibre business. These were huge companies, growing bigger, and the speciality fibre business was by its nature a smaller market.

We saw an emerging gap in the industry. There was a place for a mid-size, speciality house that would use the process systems of the major players but service the smaller markets. Our strategy was to come in between the boutiques and the large players to create speciality fibres to enable the component and systems firms.

We started in March 2000 and to get a head start we decided to buy Adrian Carter's business: Redfern Photonics in Sydney, Australia. While we were racing to build our state-of-the-art facility in Connecticut, we were able to ship [fibres] from day one. We had critical customers in the industry that were deploying our products in submarine, satellite and terrestrial systems.

Unfortunately, when the telecoms bust happened, which for us was mid-2001, we had to shut down our Australian operation and consolidate in Connecticut.

How did you ensure your survival during the telecoms downturn?

To be different, we decided to make our fibres in an ultra-clean environment. Two dramatic results stem from this.

The first is that we make fibres that are very close to the absolute theoretical limit of strength. The other thing that happens is that you get much higher fatigue failure resistance in your fibres.

When the telecoms market dried up, I turned back to my roots: the military and aerospace markets. At that exact time, the industry was looking to do fibre lasers. There was a programme at the Air Force Research Lab called LITES, and this funded us to do some large mode area fibre studies. Because we had the attributes of strength and fatigue failure resistance, we enabled power levels that had not previously been achieved.

We were also very open with the technology. We realized that if this is going to be an industry, we should start publishing our data and standardizing. An industry is not one company. We wanted to make sure that we supported component makers and that there were multiple people in the play.

We also moved up vertically in the supply chain by adding fibre-based sub-assemblies to our product line in 2003. We wanted to make sure laser manufacturers could do something with fibres. We are not in the business of competing with them.

How is your business split today?

You can pretty much split us into three: one-third into industrial markets, one-third telecom and one-third military. I think it will stay this way for the foreseeable future. Last year we had much more growth than expected in military markets. We took pretty much 100% of the business in singlemode high-power amplifiers from the military and government research institutions.

What military and industrial applications do your fibres find?

There are two large interests. The first is the HEL - high-energy laser programmes - and the second is LIDAR and LADAR. These are two very different applications and for us eye-safe has been the big deal. We have done a lot of development of eye-safe Er/Yb and thulium large mode area fibres.

HEL lasers are interesting because they also naturally go into materials processing. All our industrial markets are materials processing. Volkswagen, for example, has asked specifically for fibre lasers that are eye-safe. The reasons for eye-safe in the industrial area are more than just removing the risk of glint. It also allows the operator to get closer to the work piece.

LIDAR and LADAR research is experimental just now. No-one is supplying large quantities of fibre lasers into these "real" applications.

Can you tell me about your work on polarization-maintaining fibre and gyroscopes?

We have put a tremendous amount of effort into developing polarization-maintaining and absorption reducing (PANDA) fibres that operate as low as 405 nm up to 2000 nm in all the form factors that are deployed.

PANDA has a number of advantages when it comes to gyroscopes. For example, it is intrinsically radiation-hard because you don't have any dopants close to the core. It also has a more uniform mode field because you start with a singlemode fibre. In our facility we can also give you extremely consistent control of mechanical diameters.

The qualification process is extremely long. We actually finished these products in 2003 and are only starting to get volume purchase orders for gyroscopes now. There is a lot more interest in making smart weapons, self-guided weapons and autonomous vehicles - they all need gyroscopes.

PANDA pigtails for telecoms is opening up now and this is going to be very consequential. All of these are modest-sized markets. They are fifty million to a few hundred million dollars, but if you put a few of them together they start to become of consequential magnitude.

Do you get unusual requests for customized fibres?

Oh yes. We have a whole group dedicated to this. Applications range from people making spark plugs for Formula One racing cars to people who are listening to whales in deep ocean trenches. All the space programmes have unique requirements too. In the last six months, there have probably been a dozen applications that have come to our attention.

What are the latest developments at Nufern?

At Photonics West we introduced our NuWire range of fibres specifically designed to have more wire-like properties. These are largely designed to go on air frames (the structure on which the fuselage is mounted). These fibres are bend-insensitive singlemode fibres that are extremely radiation tolerant.

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