Caren B. Les, News Editor, email@example.com
Views from China
Affected by the global economic downturn, the output of some optical manufacturing enterprises in China hit bottom between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, but production has been going up from the second quarter of 2009, according to Xin Qi Ming, associate lead professor of the Optics Manufacturing Subcommittee of the Chinese Optical Society and deputy general manager of Chengdu Crystal Technology Co. Ltd. in Sichuan, China. He added that a great number of businesses making traditional optical glass lens elements based on foreign orders have undergone the most difficulties. He said he feels positive about China’s photonics technology market not only because of the eventual recovery of the international economy but also because of a great demand in China for photonics products, among them consumer-related items, medical instruments and energy-saving LED sources, because China, with a population of 1.3 billion, is getting richer and is home to a trendy younger generation.
For a very long time, many of China’s optical enterprises have been producing optical products for relatively low-technology items such as binoculars and civilian gun sights, said Xin Qi Ming, who added that these products, at their highest production level, achieved a 70 to 80 percent share of the global market. He said that some of the companies mainly make glass spherical elements and prisms for digital cameras, camcorders and projectors for some famous foreign enterprises. A recent development has been the mass production of the lenses for camera modules in cell phones – lenses that consist largely of optical plastic aspheric elements, he said.
When asked his opinion about photonic technologies that are predicted to show significant growth in China in the next few years, Xin Qi Ming said that he expected to see a rise in such technical fields as lasers, optics, bio-optoelectronics, optical engine devices and laser medical instruments. He gave as an example that almost all of the limited number of laser medical instruments in China’s major hospitals have foreign brands. With the reform of the medical system in China, community hospitals will increase rapidly, so it will be necessary to add a great number of medical instruments.
Optical components and devices still will be the major products of the Chinese photonics industry in upcoming years, but some new photonics-based products are likely to rapidly find a place in future markets, said Xin Qi Ming. Ascending technology may include medical equipment, pico- and pocket projectors for mobile displays, power LEDs for the optical engines of microdisplays and energy-saving illumination, new efficient photocells for sustainable energy sources, detectors for environmental protection, and new manufacturing and testing equipment, he said.
The latest innovations and emerging photonics technologies in China, he said, may be mobile displays and LED illumination, and the related design and manufacturing technologies, such as injection molding and coating of optical plastic steep aspheric elements, optical plastic free-form fabrication, optical glass aspheric precision molding and refractive-diffractive hybrid lens making.
Challenges for China
Because of the lack of globally popular famous-brand photonics products in China and a shortage of personnel for the research and development of products and technology there, R&D personnel and manufacturers in the photonic industrial chain face the challenges of designing and making new products that will be welcomed by consumers at home and abroad.
Xin Qi Ming suggests that an effective way to meet these challenges and to bolster China’s photonic businesses would be to attract science and technology personnel from colleges and universities, research institutes and foreign technical teams to join in the development of products and technology for these enterprises. In his opinion, the main goals of China’s photonics industry in the near future would be to upgrade the photonics industry in eastern China, to phase out or transfer to western China some traditional spherical element fabrication capacity, and to speed up the development of products and technology by taking advantage of the economic downturn.
The best bridge
New photonics products and technologies in China generally originate in some colleges and universities, or research institutes, mainly because China’s optical businesses lack sufficient capital and R&D strength, according to Xin Qi Ming. He said that only a small number of research achievements become commercially available, while many others are shelved after the related experiments and papers are completed. This well-known business problem, an old story, arises from the inadequate integration of production, education and research, he said.
Acknowledging that such a systemic problem cannot be overcome quickly, he said that it is gratifying that a group of ambitious medium- and small-scale entrepreneurs in China as well as some science and technology personnel returned from foreign countries have come to the forefront, delighted to absorb the world’s advanced technologies and to transform them into new products. They may be building the best possible bridge between research and commercialization, he said.
During this very critical and difficult global economic time, some areas of our business have been negatively affected, such as classical optics and those related to the information technology and semiconductor sectors, according to professor Song Fei Jun, executive vice president and chief technology officer of China Daheng Group Inc. based in Beijing, a specialist in photonics components, laser processing and medical equipment, including optical components, modules and optomechanical-electronic subsystems.
Song Fei Jun added that other areas of the business, notably medical devices and life science instruments, have been largely unaffected and even very active. He said that increased revenue in those areas has greatly compensated for the amount lost in classical optics sales. On average, the revenue and profit for Daheng Optics (a subsidiary of China Daheng Group) from January through May 2009 have been similar to corresponding figures reported in the past two years. His strategic consideration has been to turn the development into areas of emerging business while maintaining the classical optics business and the relationships with longtime customers. The company’s recent innovations include some precision measurements, such as highly accurate optical phase retardation testing up to λ/500.
Fali Xie, president of Castech Inc. In Fuzhou, Fujian, China, a manufacturer of crystals and optics for laser applications, said that the company’s sales have been influenced by the economic recession because more than 80 percent of the company’s products are exported to the US, Europe and the Asian region. On the other hand, he added, the company is benefiting from the rapid development of laser applications in China, and its big challenge and opportunity is to win more market share there.
Castech’s recent new products include a 60-mm-long Nd:YVO4 crystal with high inner quality and low bulk absorption as well as segmented grown YVO4/Nd:YVO4 crystals for high-power diode-pumped solid-state laser systems. It has recently expanded its product line in magneto-optical terbium gallium garnet crystals, an optimal material for Faraday devices for YAG, Ti:sapphire, tunable, ring and injection-seeded lasers. Currently in development at Castech are dual beta-barium borate crystals for Pockels cells for lower operating voltage.
As for the future, Fali Xie said that the company plans not only to pay close attention to quality and production cost control of its leading nonlinear optics and laser crystals, but also to develop a series of laser and telecommunications optics and components – including lenses, prisms, wave plates and polarizers – to encourage customer purchasing and to cut costs.
John Ling, chief executive officer of Photop Technologies Inc. of Fuzhou, Fujian, China, said that the company has more than 150 approved or pending patents on optics, lasers and optical communications and employs more than 200 engineers dedicated to R&D and new product development, from a total of 3100 staff members. The company is a photonics designer and integrated products supplier for optical communications, commercial and consumer optics, and laser applications.
Recent company developments, he said, include the smallest green laser for commercial and industrial applications, advanced optical components and high-end modules for 40-G/100-G optical networks, fiber-coupled lasers and optical assembly for biomedical instrumentation, a series of new crystal materials, and new product development for LED and laser-based projection displays.
Generally speaking, Ling said, the company is facing challenges relating to its ability to develop products for new customers in a highly concentrated market and to commercialize these products. Other hurdles include managing growth and responding to competitive pressures. Some of the company’s legacy products and volume production lines are affected by the global economic downturn, especially in the business sector of consumer products, he added.
As for goals, Ling said that the company aims to maintain continuous two-digit growth for the next two years and to strengthen its position in the market as a leading supplier and integrated manufacturer of crystal materials, optics, microchip lasers and optoelectronic modules with a main base in China. Among its strategies for achieving these goals are to grow revenues and increase margins within the existing customer base by cutting costs, to continue investing in technologies, to focus on high-growth products and market opportunities, and to improve its manufacturing process.
Photop also is looking forward to establishing partnerships with industry leaders in the optical communications, biomedical systems, and laser and optical instrumentation sectors, Ling said.
Nanjing Sapphire Electro-Optics Co. Ltd. of Nanjing, China, has advanced equipment, an experienced technical force and a strict quality assurance system, according to Pauline Liang, CEO of MPA Crystal Corp. of San Jose, Calif., which is the US branch of Nanjing Sapphire.
The Chinese company’s products have earned a very good reputation in the world’s optical components market – 90 percent of its products are sold to the North American and European markets, Liang said. The company specializes in producing high-precision crystal optics using its cold optical processing technology on crystal materials such as sapphire, fused silica, single silicon and optical glass. Its sapphire optics have applications in laser technologies, optical instruments, medical devices, and in space technology and equipment.
Among the company’s goals for the next few years are expanding its capabilities, improving its current product series, developing new products and becoming more competitive, Liang said, adding that the business recently upgraded to a new 108,000-sq-ft facility. It welcomes other companies to join it to develop new products and invest in them.
At Changchun Boxin Photoelectric Co. Ltd., based in Changchun City, China, the number of employees has increased from 50 to 120 since 2008, according to Jenny Zhang, a company representative. The company’s major products are optical components, coatings, crystals and lenses. Zhang said that many experienced engineers are on staff and that a classical polishing method is used to make the products, which are supplied to customers worldwide.
Quality control and delivery time are the major challenges facing Changchun Boxin Photoelectric right now, Zhang said, adding that the global economic downturn is not affecting the company so much at this time. Its major goal is to increase profit at least 10 percent each year.
Voices from Japan and Singapore
Tadahiko Shimazu, director and general manager of the accounting division of Hamamatsu Photonics KK, based in Hamamatsu, Japan, said that the global economic downturn has had a great impact on the company, and it is going to suffer a sales loss to the extent that it has not experienced in the past 34 years. The company produces photoelectric transducers such as photomultiplier tubes, light sources, opto-semiconductors, image sensors, laser diodes, and light-related modules and instruments for applications in areas such as spectroscopy, automotive, medical instrumentation and semiconductor failure analysis. It has produced innovative products for detecting low-light-level and ultrafast phenomena, and emerging technologies include fabricating miniature-size products and microelectromechanical systems technology.
The company’s major goal at this time, according to Shimazu, is to recover from the downturn as quickly as possible and to build growth prospects in preparation for a paradigm shift.
In Singapore, the photonics market still has room for growth because the country is equipped with the infrastructure necessary for more multinational companies to set up manufacturing sites, according to Chee Kim Wui, senior business manager (civil optics) at Qioptiq Singapore Pte Ltd. He added that, in his opinion, the growth of photonics manufacturing in Singapore is limited by the number of photonics experts available in Southeast Asia. The lack of optics-trained engineers has hindered growth, he said, and the company is working with a local government agency to improve this situation. China is the nearest country from which experts in photonics could be imported, he said.
Qioptiq Singapore works in the area of components and assemblies for high-end optical parts, both in the civil and defense sectors. The company’s civil optics division goes into various product segments, such as medical imaging devices (coupler and ophthalmic products), medical and semiconductor inspection equipment, large-venue and high-end rear projectors, filters for life sciences research and scanning equipment.
Chee Kim Wui said that there are pockets of growth within the civil sector that have shown encouraging signs for Qioptiq. Among them are the mid-tier equipment and nonselective medical care sectors, the demand for high-definition imaging, and the migration of analog to digital media, along with projection of these media.
He said that, to keep pace with the demanding consumer market, the company will continue to work on innovation and to upgrade its capabilities.
Notice that clear optical vision comes before action, he said, and welcome to the decade of optics!