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Photonics in South Korea and Singapore: People and places

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2010
Caren B. Les, News Editor, caren.les@photonics.com

As is well known, South Korea is a high-tech industrialized nation and currently among the world’s 20 largest economies. Gwangju, its sixth largest city, was home to the World Photonics Expo 2010 in the spring and is the seat of the Korea Association for Photonics Industry Development (KAPID). The cluster organization in connection with industry, academia and government was founded to support research and development in photonics technology and to build up international cooperative projects and programs, among other objectives.

KAPID is working to foster growth in the Gwangju region in photonics industries such as light sources and photovoltaic devices, and optical materials, instruments and communications.

Within the city’s infrastructure is the Advanced Photonics Research Institute (APRI) with its mission to educate and train professionals with advanced degrees in the field and to generate knowledge-based venture companies through the joint research of industry and academia. The program is part of the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST), along with the Ultrafast Fiber-Optic Networks Research Center.

“GIST is a university with a clear technological profile and is proud of being a leader in Korea as far as the number of publications and awarded grants per faculty members are concerned,” said In Won Lee, director and professor, APRI GIST.

Lee said that, in the imaging optics field, there are many companies producing visible-infrared optical components and systems for cameras, mobile phones, medical instruments, machine vision systems and satellite cameras. Medium-size satellite cameras developed by the Korean company Satrec Initiative are loaded and operated successfully, he added.

Lee noted that the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science manufactures and tests aspheric mirrors of diameters larger than 1 m. Optical communications is another important field in the Korean photonics industry: Companies of various scale produce fiber cables and passive and active components for optical communications, he said. Recently, LED and solar cell companies have been growing fast due to the drive of the Korean government through the “green technology” program, according to Lee.

APRI is the only Korean institute fully dedicated to research and education in optics, said Karol A. Janulewicz, an associate professor at the institute. He added that APRI hosts the Ultrashort Quantum Beam Facility. “This laser should achieve in the end of this year a peak power of one petawatt with a pulse length between 30 and 40 femtoseconds,” said Janulewicz, who is also involved in the Photonics and Applied Physics graduate program as well as in the Center of Extreme Light Applications within the National Core Research Center, all part of GIST.


Top: Pictured are laser systems in the Ultrashort Quantum Beam Facility at APRI GIST in Gwangju, South Korea. Photo courtesy of GIST. Bottom left: Physical vapor deposition equipment is shown at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Right: A mask aligner is depicted at Nanyang Technological University. Images courtesy of NTU.


Strong competition

Janulewicz commented that there is strong competition from the semiconductor industry and the materials and life sciences sector in South Korea. He said that these branches thrive there but that there is still a bit of resistance to the use of alternative technologies based on photons. This resistance is also observed globally, he added. In his opinion, the Korean photonics industry needs to make speedier progress in the area of infrastructure and to show visible industrial success on a global scale so that more young people will consider it an attractive career choice.

He describes the state of the photonics industry in South Korea today as in the early development or childhood phase, noting that he is referring to the industry in the narrower sense – in terms of lasers, LEDs, fibers, optical switches, or high-quality optical equipment and materials. He said that the small existing companies are focused on small-scale products.

Other organizations that support photonics development in the Gwangju region include the Korea Photonics Technology Institute, which is involved in areas such as product development, pilot production and test certification, and the Optical Communication Component R&D Center of the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute.

Based in Anyang, Korea, EO Technics Co. Ltd., with more than 500 employees, has been a laser application systems manufacturer in the semiconductor, display, LED, printed circuit board and solar industries since 1989. In the microelectronics industry, it specializes in laser marking, drilling, cutting/grooving/dicing, and scribing/ablation systems. “With the technologies based on semiconductor laser marking, EO Technics is now widely expanding its application area to plastic, rubber, metal, glass, paper and other materials,” said Kyudong Sung, president of the company. The multibeam laser marker developed by the company has brought huge innovation to the industry, he noted, adding that the device provides two to eight times greater productivity than conventional laser marking systems.

Sung said that revenues were down 19 percent in 2009 but that 2010 is becoming a very strong year. Among the goals of EO Technics, he said, is broadening the use of its multibeam technology to serve general-purpose as well as high-tech customers.

Postcards from Singapore

Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is greater than that of most developed countries, and its economy depends heavily on exports, including consumer electronics, information technology products and pharmaceuticals. Although GDP growth slowed in 2009 as a result of the global financial crisis, the Singapore economy has begun to rebound in 2010, and the government predicts growth of 3 to 5 percent for the year, according to the CIA’s The World Factbook.

Chee Kim Wui, senior manager of marketing and sales (civil optics) at Qioptiq Singapore Pte Ltd., said his place of business began seeing signs of recovery starting in the fourth quarter of 2009. It is targeting for a rebound back to 2008 sales levels but is seeing a shift in its customers and their product demand, he said.

Qioptiq Singapore designs and manufactures optical components and electro-optics assemblies for a wide range of products. In the commercial sector, it produces biotech filters, endoscopy couplers, ophthalmic modular assembly, large-venue projection components and semicon subassemblies in cleanroom environments. For the defense market, it produces night-vision equipment, vehicle displays, lasers and fire control systems. The company also is enhancing its manufacturing of aspheric lenses, which includes improving its capability in unique edge-profiling of lenses and prisms that are used mainly in avionics head-up displays.

“Two obvious shifts for us are in the increased demand for complex electro-optics assemblies and optics for digital movie theater projection. With the support of local government agency, and when it comes to outsourcing of complex electro-optics assemblies, Qioptiq Singapore has positioned itself as the premier choice for customers from various sectors, such as OEM from analytical instruments, ophthalmology diagnostic equipment and semiconductor inspection equipment,” said Chee Kim Wui. During the economic downturn, the company was able to gear up its cleanrooms to be operation-ready for these assembly jobs.

“In the area of digital movie theater projection, I’ve reported last year that there is a shift from traditional film projection to digital projection. This shift has been accelerated by the increase of 3-D movies and moviegoers’ reception of such movies. With the previous downturn, we were able to reposition our production to achieve the higher-capacity demand for plano components (rods, prisms and cubes) from our customers,” he added. Latching onto this initial success, Qioptiq Singapore will continue to improve its capability and capacity in the areas of projection component manufacturing and complex electro-optics assemblies. It will further leverage the skills and knowledge of its sister companies in Germany and the UK to achieve these goals, he said.

He commented that, as OEMs begin to outsource design and manufacturing of optics components and electro-optic assemblies, it is important for the outsourced manufacturing company to understand its value within this chain and to provide products that fit its own cost, manufacturing and political positions.

Innovation for customization

Buk Mum Fatt, president of Hypertronics Pte Ltd. based in Singapore, noted that his company’s innovation is in developing its own solid-state laser systems, including the 1064-, 532- and 355-nm varieties. “The company builds the entire machine, including optics system, laser cavity to electronics hardware, power supply, embedded controller and scan head. This is very important in our region, where customers demand a one-stop shop for their process tools. Vertical integration allows more efficient inventory control, flexible customization and improved cost reduction in this region, where product customization is the norm,” he added.

He said that one of the company’s major innovations is the integration of machine vision inline, with the laser through the scan head allowing high-speed vision and laser interaction during operation. “This product has garnered strong sales volume and opened up many new and exciting applications by not requiring movement of the camera or workpiece while imaging different locations in the mark field.

“We in fact grew during the global economic downturn recently. Our product range is quite wide and spread across a number of industries, so that if one sector is down, another is up. Also we have been churning out many new products which had received good industry response.

“Our emerging technologies are in vision inspection of small parts with hard-to-access viewing points, hard disk parts inspection for manufacturing defects, 3-D marking, high-speed on-the-fly marking, [digital signal processor] controlled stand-alone laser systems, low-cost laser markers and other optics applications. Our application areas are in flat panel displays, hard disk manufacturing, semiconductor production, biomedical products manufacturing and general laser processes.”


Top: Shown is metallorganic chemical vapor deposition in process at Nanyang Technological University. Courtesy of NTU. Bottom: Corning International Singapore manufactures optical fiber, cable and photonic products for the telecommunications industry. Courtesy of Corning.


Finding, employing and retaining technical staff experienced in lasers, optics and complex machine design are among the challenges facing the company, Buk Mum Fatt noted, adding that other issues include finding good customers with the right fit whereby the company can create a solution rapidly from a permutation of its core capabilities and technologies. “Meeting customers’ needs for ever-reducing lead time and pricing is a challenge for the company as well. However, being a long-term player here in this region, we have built up a strong competitive advantage to meet this challenge,” he said.

Among Hypertronic’s goals are to develop standard products to sell in volume, to integrate past experiences into building more complex applications, and to expand its market beyond Asia. It expects to expand its range of products in vision imaging, laser processing and metrology.

IDI Laser Services Pte Ltd. of Singapore provides laser automation solutions for industrial laser applications. “We build laser systems for welding, cutting and micromachining for the consumer electronics, automotive and medical industries,” said Chris Chan, director. Among the challenges he sees are fewer projects during the downturn, which has led to intense price competition, and the lag in the adoption of laser applications in Southeast Asia as compared with the US and Europe.

Singapore’s resources include the government’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, which supports 14 research institutes and seven consortia and centers. Also, the Photonics Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore is dedicated to research and teaching in areas such as biophotonics, green photonics, nanophotonics, photonic materials and devices, microfluidic photonics and microsystems, and laser, fiber and ultrafast photonics.


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