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Listen hard, and you’ll hear the NEXT BIG THING coming!

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Lynn Savage, Features Editor, [email protected]

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.”

Influential sectors

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 venture capital.”

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 Corp.

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
Research institutions
Industry-specific social media
Technology incubators
Trade groups
Trade shows and conferences
University scientists and engineers
Venture capitalists

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2010
The science of measurement, particularly of lengths and angles.
Anthony DeMariaapplied researchCoherent-DEOS LLCColin T. SeatonCommunicationsConsumerdefenseEliezer ManorengineeringentrepreneursFeaturesFianium Ltd.fiber lasersindustrialinnovationLynn Savagemarket forcesmetrologypotentialityResearch & TechnologySensors & DetectorsShirat Enterprises Ltd.STEM educationSteve Shengtechnology incubatorsTelesis Technologies Inc.transistorsuniversitiesventure capitalistslasers

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