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Virtual Instrumentation Automates Fiber Pigtail Assembly

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2001
Daniel C. McCarthy, Senior Editor/Special Projects

Despite rapid advances in fiber optics and communications technology -- or perhaps because of them -- technicians still must assemble many network components by hand. Coupling fibers either to a laser or to another fiber requires technicians to move the cable micron by micron searching for a hair-thin light source before they can locate and optimize the alignment. The task is analogous to searching for a couple of blades of grass within a capture area the size of a football stadium, according to Tim Reid, a manufacturing engineer at Melles Griot in Boulder, Colo.

Hardware and software from National Instruments helped create a virtual data acquisition component for automating fiber pigtail assembly. Courtesy of Melles Griot.

Fiber pigtail assemblers at Melles Griot had used the company's NanoTrak, a closed-looped system that manipulates fibers with a piezo element mounted on top of precision steppers. It detects the light source using a power meter on the fiber output. Although the instrument lent mechanical aid to assembly procedures, it did not automate the slow and tedious process. Consequently, the task generally required trained technicians to work up to 90 minutes to find and optimize the coupling -- far too long considering the volume demand for telecommunications components.

Melles Griot contracted with Emergent Information Technologies Inc. to provide a solution in the form of an automated process. The company was given three weeks to develop a proof of concept.

Not only did Emergent deliver a solution with a week to spare, but its system also improved the NanoTrak's speed by an order of magnitude: It reduced the 90 minutes it took to complete a pigtail to 10.

Emergent's solution had the further distinction of simplicity, eschewing imagers or the associated telescope optics and frame grabbers in favor of components from National Instruments Inc. None of the hardware that Emergent used sounds photonic: a Can Bus controller computer I/O card and a graphic bus interface card. But combined with National Instruments' LabView software, these components form a "virtual" automated data acquisition system.

For instance, the Can Bus controller incorporates motion control and measurement functions on one bus to allow the computer to acquire data from precise locations. "We turned the computer into a test controller using National Instruments' digital I/O card to check positioning of the stages. The computer becomes a data acquisition system," said Scot Blackford, senior applications engineer and project manager at Emergent.

However, Blackford credits LabView for his ability to produce a solution within deadline. "We could have done this in C++ or Visual Basic, but it would have taken months to implement," he said. "Instead, we had an operable prototype in less than two weeks."

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