Wants, needs, and what lies between

Facebook X LinkedIn Email
This is not the first time the global photonics industry has confronted supply chain disruptions, nor will it be the last. But the current wave of chaos might well be remembered among the worst and most persistent. It has affected the flow of many products along the photonics value chain, from neon gas to optical slurries, and it arises from a mind-bendingly complex web of factors that encompass a global pandemic, geopolitical trade disputes, armed conflict, seismic shifts in the global logistical infrastructure, and an often inadequate workforce.

The prolonged constrictions in the supply of complex semiconductors — such as microcontrollers, microprocessors, and field-programmable gate arrays — however, appear to remain topmost in the mind of most suppliers of photonics technologies. These devices are not only at the heart of optical manufacturing equipment, they also drive and control many photonics products themselves.

All of this helps to explain the optimism following the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act. But the photonics industry is not in safe waters yet. It could take another two to three years before the funds apportioned by the CHIPS Act will yield substantial new chip-making capacity.

The prolonged adversity has prompted creative attempts to find workarounds and solutions. In a recent online discussion hosted by the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC), director general Carlos Lee conducted live surveys on the attitudes and outlooks of members in attendance, as well as on their openness to collaborative solutions.

In a response that surprised no one, 79% of attendees qualified the supply chain situation as “bad,” which is dire enough without pointing out that the remainder rated the situation somewhere between “very bad” and “very, very bad.” Some 85% of attend- ees expected it would also be two to three years before the supply of goods was flowing naturally again.

Microcontrollers, their variations, and the systems they power overwhelmingly topped the list of components most in demand, according to attendees. The discussion following this discovery suggested that many of these components are not scarce so much as unevenly distributed. Larger companies, for example, have more negotiating power when accessing limited supply. But more importantly, some of the small- to mid-size players on EPIC’s call wondered whether spare components in their inventory might be traded in kind for their more needed counterparts.

This discovery alone would have made EPIC’s roundtable discussion worthwhile. But Lee quickly pivoted attention to ways that EPIC might provide an exclusive platform for its members to post and trade the components they need most.

Competitive and logistical concerns complicated discussions around the format and utility of such a platform, but there was more than nominal interest in the concept.

It is simplistic to claim collaboration is enough to solve global supply chain issues. But although these issues are felt universally throughout the photonics value chain, most small- to medium-size businesses need only plug a few gaps in their own supply.

Open and well-moderated discussions such as EPIC’s online meeting can facilitate this by identifying shared pain points, unveiling noncompetitive solutions, and prompting the smaller and more private collaborations that could keep a business operational for another year. Sometimes it is enough to just keep solving the problems closest to home.

Published: November 2022

We use cookies to improve user experience and analyze our website traffic as stated in our Privacy Policy. By using this website, you agree to the use of cookies unless you have disabled them.