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Photonics appears on DoD's radar

03 Jun 2014

Community urged to respond to official 'Request For Information' from the US defense department over new manufacturing institutes - webinar scheduled for June 6.

The US National Photonics Initiative (NPI) has welcomed news that the US Department of Defense (DoD) has shortlisted photonics as a potential theme for one of two new manufacturing institutes in the country.

The development follows the launch of several such institutes under President Obama’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), and engaging directly with the DoD circumvents the need to sanction funding through a partisan US Congress.

An official Request for Information (RFI) published June 2 by the DoD says that the department if now looking to build on its three existing Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs) with another two.

The RFI, which closes on July 14, lists six technology areas as candidates under consideration. They are photonics, flexible hybrid electronics, engineered nanomaterials, fiber and textiles, electronic packaging and reliability, and aerospace composites.

“I am pleased that DoD is specifically interested in learning more about how the photonics community can contribute to the NNMI”, said Tom Baer, the chairman of NPI’s steering committee, in a statement from the group.

“These public–private institutes are critical tools for expanding and enhancing US manufacturing capabilities. We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate the integral role photonics plays in national security and throughout all of our economic sectors.”

Baer said recently that the NPI, which was set up by optics.org publisher SPIE, The Optical Society (OSA) and other related parties, had received a strong reception in Washington, DC, and that the NNMI had emerged as a particularly good fit with the idea of an advanced prototyping facility for photonic device production.

“A photonics innovative manufacturing institute focused on bridging the gap between advanced research and production will expand US leadership in photonics, ensure a robust supply chain and ultimately pay dividends in many sectors of the US economy,” he added.

Public-private partnerships
The RFI is not a solicitation for contracts, but an invitation for input from both academia and industry to help the DoD select and decide on the scope of the technology focus areas for future IMIs.

“These IMIs will be regionally centered public-private partnerships enabling the scale-up of advanced manufacturing technologies and processes with the goal of successful transition of existing science and technology into the marketplace for both defense and commercial applications,” states the RFI.

“Each [IMI] will be led by a not-for-profit organization and focus on one technology area,” explains the DoD. It will select technology focus areas from the six listed, based upon “evidence of national security requirement, economic benefit, technical opportunity, relevance to industry, business case for sustainability, and workforce challenge”.

IMIs are typically launched with federal funding of between $70 million and $120 million over a 5-7 year time period, with funding from non-federal partners expected to at least match that total. After that initial period, the IMIs are intended to be self-sustaining without the need for federal funding.

In its section on photonics, the RFI highlights the diversity of the technology, and that there are a number of manufacturing approaches where a public-private investment could rapidly accelerate its availability from Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4 to TRL 6 or 7.

“A photonics IMI would address industrial base issues for photonics materials, such as infrared materials, nonlinear materials, low-dimensional materials, and engineered materials which are critical to [the US’] photonics ecosystem,” it states.

“Preference could be given to technology topic areas that are in late stage research and development, that may require some design/foundry efforts, but the bulk of the efforts are in the packaging, reliability and test disciplines, increasing the probability that the technology will mature and transition to DoD weapon systems and/or commercial platforms in 3-5 years and enabling the institute to be self-sustaining in the 5-7 year timeframe.”

‘As many technologies as companies’
However, the document also highlights the low level of co-ordination and co-operation that has traditionally existed between companies working on proprietary processes. That has resulted in a number of disadvantages, with no common or generic component library or fabrication process as things stand currently.

“There are almost as many technologies as photonics companies,” is one of the RFI’s blunt conclusions and, as it points out, for most potential new applications the market is too small to justify the investment that would be needed without co-operative development.

Among the wide-ranging questions aimed at the photonics community in the RFI are whether an institute dedicated to the technology area could address other applications in biophotonics or agriculture, and whether such an institute should focus on a single foundry platform like silicon, or a more diverse set of materials.

Responding to the development, the OSA encouraged the photonics sector to contribute its feedback, with CEO Liz Rogan saying:

“Today’s announcement is a critical opportunity for the optics and photonics community. This is our chance to make the case for photonics-based manufacturing in the US. We know how beneficial our industry is to advanced manufacturing technology and it’s up to us to demonstrate that through participation in this RFI.”

SPIE president Philip Stahl added, "It is urgent that the optics and photonics community become informed and actively involved in providing comment about why a photonics IMI should be established as a result of this initiative."

"Those of us in the photonics community, whether in government, academia, or industry, are well aware of the importance of these technologies in everyone’s lives. Right now, it is vital to communicate those impacts to the DoD."

A "community webinar" has been scheduled by the NPI for June 6 at 2-3 pm EDT to discuss the RFI. For more details read this community alert and register for the webinar here.

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