Global Innovation 101

Risk reduction is the essence of sound business behavior, but it is often misunderstood as merely “playing safe”. Playing safe can actually make risks worse by strangling the very innovation that is key to business success. "Innovation" is the act of following big trends and exploiting them to maximum commercial advantage. "Exploitation" is the art of negotiating through the twin challenges of opportunity and necessity. The most vital component in this effort, however, is sound understanding, which, when absent, is like driving an overladen heavy goods vehicle in the thick fog of an icy road.

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This blog explores these important principles by briefly examining the journey of one pivotal strand in opto-electronic innovation.

The huge potential from being able to create circuits in which electrons are replaced with photons, is a science going back decades. The first giant steps came with the development of fiber optic cables in the 1960s. That this technology took more than two decades to enter commercial application, is highly symptomatic of the time and complex processes required to move from concept, to prototype, to wide-scale commercial roll-out. In the past decade, and with the development of hybrid silicon photonics, we have taken several more extraordinary steps forward in the technology. For those participating in that history, theirs was and remains a terrain of risk.

Where there has been success, reflects risks rightly anticipated. This was not a leap of faith, however, but a rational evaluation of potential probabilities and outcomes. Developers delved sufficiently deeply to assure themselves and others that the underlying physical principles involved provided demonstrable grounds of success, thus:

Replacing information sent through electrons, with information stored in photons, was known to have at least four proven advantages; a transportation capacity that is measured in the trillions of bits per second; the ability to create functioning chips that are very small in scale (which turned out to be are 200 nm, that is 500 times less than the human hair); switching capabilities that are also are measured in trillions of transactions. Finally, and very important given the challenges of ecology, the potential to consume extremely little power; mere trillionths of calories per bit.

If the initial opportunities were verified by the underlying laws of nature, today we can add the drive of external necessities, most especially those represented by the advent of 5G communications, the immanent development of 6G, quantum computing, encryption and communications. Additionally, we can add the wider contextual drivers represented by pandemic and geo-political megatrends, digitization, autonomization and security, future demands on the transport and logistics. All in all, these place rapidly rising demands on the synthesis of data, which is now reaching staggering proportions. Against this backdrop the need for strident advances in optoelectronic technology became and becomes abundantly urgent.

Our opening paragraph mentioned the importance of understanding; rightly perceived and ranked by probability, it is critical in risk management. As we have seen, technological innovation is not roulette, but science, and as such, first-order certainties can be utilized to create probabilities, which in turn mark clear trends over time, which then determines the flow of future direction—critical risk indicators for SMEs seeking to participate in any given ecosystem. Think of the child's game of joining the dots. Undertaken in logical order, dots so joined become a picture well beyond the child's capacity to create free-hand. Technical innovation follows the same principle.

Figure 1. Controlling the Rate and Flow of Energy: Wood Burner and Vacuum Tube

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Case Study Example.

Figures 1 (above) and 2 (below) demonstrate this “not roulette” principle by illustrating how earlier understanding in regards controlling the degree and flow of energy as utilized in electronics and now optoelectronics, were manifest in a century of extraordinary evolution, beginning with understanding the relevant laws of physics, then the development of the vacuum tube, then the transistor, and finally, the photonic integrated chip. Formerly different technologies, yet as we have implied, the eureka moment is to grasp that they all work by the same elemental laws. Appreciate this, and we discover that known parameters were followed that inevitably led to the breakthroughs that came with each of these technological steps forward, each building on the previous advance.

Figure 2. Controlling the Rate and Flow of Energy: Transistor and Photonic Integrated Chip

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For example, much of the twentieth century technology that we take for granted was predicated on the invention of the vacuum tube in 1904; radio, television, radar, long-distance telephone, and the first-generation digital computers. The right-hand illustration in Figure 1 shows a diode, a grid, the cathode and the anode. By analogy, it works rather like a wood burner, on the simple principle of controlling the rate at which air flows into the stove, and then out through the chimney, except in this case we are controlling the rate and flow of electrons. Again, by way of simplification, we may liken the cathode to air-inflow and the anode to the air outflow. In actual construction, though, vacuum tubes became much more complex and technically capable than our diagram suggests.

Notwithstanding, the underlying principles—the control and flow of energy—remain the same, as indeed they do for Figure 2. Here we place side by side two simplified schematics; the one on the left representing the first transistor engineered in 1946 and the second a hybrid integrated silicon photonic chip, circa 2018.

At around one centimeter, the first generation of transistors were significantly smaller, more compact, more energy efficient, and technically capable, than the vacuum tubes they replaced. Very rapid reductions in scale led to the development of the electronic chip, adding to the transistor other components including resistors, inductors, and capacitors.

Scalability, and efficiency in production resulted in rapidly falling prices, (the first transistor circuits were expensive), created a boom in various electronic consumables, such the transistor radio, which became so ubiquitous in 1960s youth culture. Forty years on, a similar step-change is underway as electron-based components are replaced with photonic devices, feeding into the more advanced products, such as high-end smart phones. Again, the underlying principles driving the technology are exactly same, except with a photonic chip, optic fiber replaces copper, electrons are replaced with photons, these then pass through optical components such as waveguides (equivalent to a resistor or electrical wire), lasers (equivalent to transistors), polarizers, and phase shifters.

As in the 1950s, when the production of radios and TVs increasingly utilized hybrid vacuum tube transistor technology, before moving on to transistor only in the 1960s, so today we now parallel these advances as photonic elements supplement electronic circuits, as in the future, they will totally replace some them. While it is difficult to predict, the 2020s could parallel the 1960s in this respect, and instead of landing on the moon by the end of the decade, result, for example, we could reach a place where photon-based computing power archives “singularity” in matching human brain capability (See our blog, "FSO/AI Pushing Data Access and Evolution").

As we have implied, for SMEs to be a successful part of this development, must be able to successfully navigate a vast range of challenges, all of which distill into time and cost, which then must be factorized against risk; technological advance can be expedited through generous financial allocation, or brought under cost controls at the price of slower development. Since all resources are infinite, there is always a trade-off, even for larger companies. For SMEs, though, most are budget stretched and uncomfortably exposed to the dangers of runaway costs. Happily, this is exactly where Palomar’s global Innovation Centers provisioning assembly services can deliver real support; as we illustrate in Figure 3, this can be achieved by reducing the parameters of risk around each scenario, thus shifting the over-all risk curve (orange) to the left and subsequently higher potential margins of ROI (left axis) and lower/narrower range of cost variations (bottom axis) on the same innovation curve (green).

Figure 3. Principles of Risk Reduction

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Conclusion: Risk Reduction.

It is self-evident that all risks are framed within a set number parameters, and that these parameters are inherently capable of variation, as inviolably dictated by both external and internal contexts (the amalgam of factors that comprise market demand and the ability to meet that demand) and underlying principles of cause and effect. Sound business practice suggest that these need to be narrowed as much as possible, so to optimize the chances of commercial breakthrough and sustainable market traction. The question is, how to do it?

The first task is to, (i) specifically identify these parameters, (ii) the factors which have transpired to create them, and finally, (iii) how these may be manipulated to create positive change. In the highly technical, and even more acutely competitive environment of optoelectronic device development, one root to risk reduction finds exact correspondence to the agility and adaptability and repeatability of potential packaging systems. Additional correspondence relates to the degrees these potentials are at the disposal of the developer, together with the presence of a large bank of past experience sufficient enough to confidently and efficiently face the challenges of developing something that has not been done before.

The scenario just described, does not come cheaply, and is out of the budget range for many SMEs—and if not out of range, then at the cost of unacceptably high, or very nervous risk taking if done entirely autonomously. What Palomar’s innovation centers offer is all necessary competences, systems-solutions services and bespoke support, within a cost-defined, risk-contained framework, commercially meeting both technical needs and passing all the demands of a cost benefit analysis.  

Palomar’s systems have been developed out of decades worth of proven technical excellence, reliability and agility, as equally, our systems engineers have very high levels of collective experience in packaging according to the requirements of new materials (components, substrates, epoxies, etc.), smaller dimensions, more challenging component/epoxy interactions, greater population density, complexities, wire bonding challenges (where relevant) and ever more demanding commercial protocols. Above all, we have a very positive reputation for working with a vast range of customers across a vast range of needs. This means new customers can come to us with confidence, knowing that we will understand the synergies needed to work with your engineers and development ideas to create a commercially viable product within the demands of a competitive timetable.