Lynn Savage, Features Editor, email@example.com
It’s still quite young, but the 21st
century has yet to produce a truly life-changing technology. Certainly the 20th
century did, with the advent of lasers and transistors and all of the tools and
toys they have inspired and enabled since their creation. But innovative technologies
– and the science behind them – don’t arise from the ether. Instead,
they are built on the efforts of people who are looking for new ways of doing things
that will improve either themselves, their companies or the world at large.
Lasers, as with most new technologies, represent the middle ground
of a long chain of events in which Theodore H. “Ted” Maiman’s
demonstration 50 years ago was only a small part. As did many of his contemporaries,
Maiman worked on producing the first laser as a part of an intuited progression
from masers, or microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Just
about everyone in the nascent field fathomed that scaling from microwaves to infrared
or even visible wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation would be possible.
Ted Maiman’s work on the first operating ruby laser is just
the middle chapter of an exciting story. Courtesy of HRL Laboratories LLC.
A few people at the time could not see the potential benefits
of light amplification and so considered lasers to be a solution without a problem.
Others, however, quickly extrapolated uses for lasers in communications, metrology,
data recording and more; even fiber optics were conceived and devised soon after
the first practical lasers were built.
The life story of the laser still has not ended, but the excitement
it generated in the research and commercial worlds during the 1960s and 1970s, in
particular, points to how novel engineering feats appear in waves. In fact, the
process can be compared with a musical act that toils for years in bars, clubs and
other small venues, playing the occasional wedding or other family event until its
gigs come more quickly and assuredly, the band members can finally leave their day
jobs, one of them writes a particularly affecting tune or two, or the band lands
one lucky break and at last becomes an “overnight success.”
Modern companies, especially public ones responsible to increasingly
anxious shareholders, generally don’t have the luxury of waiting for such
lightning to strike on its own terms. Instead, they must proactively seek out the
next big thing.
“ ‘Big’ is a relative term,” according
to Colin T. Seaton, vice president of sales and marketing at Fianium Ltd. in Southampton,
UK. “The biggest thing will be breakthroughs in the increased reliability
and substantially reduced costs of lasers – for us, particularly, [the] area
of ultrafast and fiber laser convergence.”
Even incremental tech and market improvements can be considered
to have large and lasting impressions. Still, lasers already are nearly ubiquitous.
There is room for more applications, and cheaper, tinier lasers will gain the technology
more traction in medical devices, manufacturing assembly lines and the unmanned
aerial vehicles used by military personnel and civilians alike. But the laser is
50 years old, and we’re just filling in the gaps.
Listen up, and listen hard
When asked where they initiate new ideas, most company heads say
they listen to their customers. Market forces, they assert, lead them where they
need to be.
“We mostly listen to the marketplace to identify what new
products to introduce,” said Anthony Demaria, chief scientist at Coherent-DEOS
LLC in Bloomfield, Conn.
Customers – and the technological challenges they want to
overcome – are a prime source of innovation for many companies. They often
approach companies with requirements that challenge the laws of physics. Pushing
science and engineering to the edge often leads to failure and disappointment, but
also leads (often enough) to those “eureka!” moments that send innovators
into exciting new directions, new markets and even more innovations. The line from
masers to lasers might not have been drawn except for military clients who were
pushing for improvements on radar and communications equipment.
Besides listening to clients and other peers in the industry, careful attention should be paid to educating and training the next generation of innovators.
Customers do drive the market, but they are not the only people
who can spark innovation (see sidebar).
According to Eliezer Manor of Shirat Enterprises Ltd. in Ness
Ziona, Israel, innovation and commercialization are treated systematically and synergistically.
“The main factor is [the] creation of force multipliers by bringing together
all possible sectors which can influence it.”
These sectors, Manor said, include scientists from universities
and applied research institutes, government-related agencies, entrepreneurs, technological
incubators, venture capital funds, large companies looking to diversify their own
products, and players from various geographical areas that complement each other.
Most companies also report that they support innovation and innovative
thinkers within their own buildings. “We encourage inputs and ideas across
the company,” Fianium’s Seaton said, echoing many managerial sentiments.
It’s good policy, especially since most technology companies
have a rich mix of scientists, engineers, marketers, salespeople and savvy, experienced
managers who can put it all together. Okay, not every company has its act polished
in this regard, but the tools – and more importantly, the personnel –
to generate idea after idea and implement the best ones on an ongoing basis are
there. It just takes the will to tap into those resources.
When most companies say that they listen to their customers and
their employees, they are actually referring to existing ones. A useful alternative
is to hear out future end users and to nurture future scientists.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in
the US is at a low ebb, resulting in a dearth of highly qualified researchers and
engineers available to photonics companies. There are sporadic attempts to bolster
kids’ interest in STEM-related fields, but there is plenty of room for companies
to increase support for such endeavors as well as for efforts to engage more women
in STEM activities.
Broad-based education not only would improve the quality of future
employees but also help future customers gauge products, ask better questions and
respond more knowledgeably to new products.
Making innovation happen
“I believe that the real innovation, leading to ‘revolution
from evolution,’ will come from cooperation and joint activities between interdisciplinary
sectors,” Shirat Enterprises’ Manor said. “The next big thing
will come from open innovation structured activities of large corporations which
develop appropriate operational platforms – probably in the form of corporate
Some see innovation as already occurring, if slowly. For example,
Steve Sheng, president of Telesis Technologies Inc. in Circleville, Ohio, said that
he doesn’t see any particular breakthroughs in the photonics pipeline that
would fundamentally change the industry.
“I do see there are some important movements we already
knew but need to watch very closely,” he said. Sheng, whose company specializes
in laser marking systems for identifying and tracing manufactured goods, cites reduced
costs and increased efficiency of both LED lighting systems and lasers as important
trends to follow.
There are many different fields – such as lasers and LEDs
– that are developing only incrementally but that might take the world by
storm under the right set of circumstances. Some burgeoning technologies, such as
3-D displays for the home, image projectors that fit in cell phone casings and metamaterials-based
“invisibility” cloaks, seem as if they have been on their way for decades
already. Others, such as transparent electronic components and infrared sensors
that operate with high resolution at room temperature, may arrive without much fanfare
but are holding out great promise to move their industries forward.
In all likelihood, the next big thing is sneaking up on the photonics
industry right now. With continued hard work and a careful ear tuned to the whispers
coming from the market, the next breakthrough will come from the photonics world
rather than from somewhere else, further driving innovations such as waveforms in
a liquid medium.
Some innovations come from blending robust but well-established technologies, such as using quantum
dots to improve the photon-collecting efficiency of image sensors. Courtesy of Sony
So, will the next breakthrough come in the form of so-called quantum
film – merging the worlds of quantum dots and image sensors? Or will it come
from the push to miniaturize every possible gadget so that it fits inside a smart
phone? Only time will tell, of course, but good luck to those who are working at
it right now.
To whom are you listening?
There are many resources one can turn to to gain wisdom when developing new technologies. Are you paying
attention to all of these?
Academic and trade journals
Employees throughout your company
Entrepreneurs and startup companies
Experts and peers from various geographical regions
Government labs and related agencies
Industry associations and lobbyists
Larger companies looking for collaborators
Industry-specific social media
Trade shows and conferences
University scientists and engineers