Pushing the limits of sensors with PIC technology

An interview with Dr. Anna Nikiel, Vice President of Business Development at Technobis

In this interview series, we discuss a broad range of PIC Technology topics with our users, partners and other members of the JePPIX community. Where do the challenges and opportunities lie for JePPIX and PIC technology?

Dr. Anna Nikiel is Vice President of Business Development at Technobis. From their headquarters in Alkmaar, The Netherlands, she explains why Technobis has been closely involved in JePPIX from the start.

“Technobis has always been a pioneering high-tech engineering firm, responding quickly to challenges from the market. Originally specialised in mechatronics, we turned our attention to photonic integrated circuits in 2005 following a technical challenge from ASML in Veldhoven. They commissioned Technobis to build a very special optical interrogator. It needed to measure values generated by Fiber Bragg Grating (FBG) sensors with extremely high accuracy. This required a complete rethink of both the system design and manufacturing process. The result was a series of photonic chip designs offering incredible speed, resolution and multiplexing capabilities. At that time other industries needed the ability for real-time monitoring of both temperature and strain. Aerospace needed several different systems, as modern aircrafts were built with new materials. Expensive landing gear needed constant monitoring to ensure that this critical component received preventative maintenance at exactly the right time.”

“Optical FBG sensors offer many advantages over conventional solutions. They’re easy to install, electromagnetically safe (e.g. in medical scanners) and can operate in highly explosive atmospheres (e.g. oil rigs) because there is no danger of sparking. PIC technology has enabled Technobis teams to design and build sensors that are faster, smaller, lighter, consume less energy and provide the most cost-efficient solution.”

Building a close relationship

“From the start, there has been very strong collaboration between Technobis and JePPIX. Those first PICs that we built into our products were created using the JePPIX Multi-Project Wafer services.

Back in 2008, developing your own (AS)PIC was prohibitively expensive. Only large corporations could afford the millions needed to bring the lab design to a reliable, competitive product.  For those of us working with Indium Phosphide PICs, JePPIX built on ideas from the semiconductor industry to develop their own multi-project wafer process. This allowed several users like Technobis to share the same “wafer real-estate”. JePPIX quickly brought down the cost of prototyping to around 10,000 Euros per participant per run.

Today Technobis uses JePPIX to develop and evaluate new product prototypes, making full use of their broker role. Once validated, Technobis connects directly with foundries like Fraunhofer HHI and SMART Photonics. As volume increases, Technobis needs several foundries to ensure continuity as well as reliability/yield.”

The growing importance of pilot lines

“We see the new JePPIX Pilot Line as an important industry-wide catalyst. Everyone benefits when photonic integrated circuits, on the Indium Phosphide platform, leave the lab and reach commercial level TRL7 and beyond. JePPIX is the first of the European Pilot Lines for PIC technologies that really does this. We know that stabilizing processes at Europe’s leading open access Foundries has become an important priority. It involves developing a robust process design flow so that Technobis customers know exactly what they’re going to get. I believe that testing will become even more important. With so much competition in the market, our clients need to understand exactly what the performance will be, and get firm guarantees that delivery of their sensor system will be on time and within budget. Together we are able to do so.”

Synergies with others

“We hope there will be synergy with other European pilot lines that we are involved in, specifically PIXAPP in Ireland (packaging) and the Eindhoven based OIP4NWE, which is developing next generation equipment. Both will be incredibly important for future technology nodes. As we scale up our production capability, we need higher yields and reliability. Tools need to become stable and the processes need to run seamlessly. As markets grow, we want to be able to transfer our PIC and packaging processes across a varity of new state of the art tools. Second sourcing strategies are becoming important as supply chains become more critical.”

Technobis Generic Test Package

“With the market demand for automated PIC packaging to increase volume and lower the overall cost, Technobis has expanded its own packaging capabilities. We have two types of inhouse contract manufacturing for PIC assembly and packaging.  It starts with low-volume prototyping. Clients can then scale up with confidence to volume manufacture of tens of thousands of pieces per year.”

Keeping a user perspective

“This explains why Technobis is a validation partner within the JePPIX Pilot Line. We have expertise within Technobis to translate the requirements of our end users into the design of the PICs and the packaging building blocks. In this way, Technobis helps the JePPIX Pilot Line validate that what they’re producing matches with our end user needs.”

“JePPIX has created important visibility for the PIC technology. And we’d like to see an expansion of JePPIX efforts in training and education. JePPIX should expand its current academic outreach to design short tailor-made PIC design courses for our industry partners. In this respect, a lot of outreach still needs to be done. Other material platforms are doing this, so clients with specific challenges would welcome a clearer understanding of what’s (im)possible with InP and TripleX.”

Want to know more about Technobis? Take a look at their JePPIX offering here (packaging) and here (testing), or get in touch with Dr Anna Nikiel (anna.nikiel@technobis.com) directly mentioning this article in the JePPIX Newsletter.