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Photonics Spectra
Since 1967, Photonics Spectra magazine has defined the science and industry of photonics, providing both technical and practical information for every aspect of the global industry and promoting an international dialogue among the engineers, scientists and end users who develop, commercialize and buy photonics products. Stay current with a FREE subscription to the digital or print edition.

Latest Issue
Nov 2022

Wants, needs, and what lies between

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.

Mike Wheeler
As editor-in-chief, Michael Wheeler oversees Photonics Media's editorial operations — spanning print, web, and podcasts. He also serves as editor of Vision Spectra, chronicling advancements in the rapidly expanding machine vision/inspection sector.
Dan McCarthy
Senior editor Dan McCarthy manages editorial content and production for Photonics Spectra. An award-winning writer and editor, he has communicated the progress and practical value of advanced technologies for over two decades.
Doug Farmer
Senior Editor Douglas Farmer has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, winning awards for health and education reporting. He has a master's degree in journalism from Ball State University. He is editor of EuroPhotonics and BioPhotonics magazines.
Hank Hogan
Contributing Editor Hank Hogan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked in the semiconductor industry and now writes about science and technology.
Marie Freebody
Contributing Editor Marie Freebody is a freelance science and technology journalist with a master’s degree in physics and a concentration in nuclear astrophysics from the University of Surrey in England.
Farooq Ahmed
Farooq Ahmed has covered the physical and biological sciences for over a decade. He has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Brown University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Columbia University.
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