Trends in the business unite »Optics«

The “Optics” business unit of the Fraunhofer IPT analyzes the production, testing and assembly of complex high-end optics and optical systems. Tobias Müller, head of the business unit, talks about the current trends within the industry and about the challenges it will face in the next few years.

What trends will have the largest impact on the production of optics over the next few years?

The trend towards ever more compact optical systems with high levels of functional integration and growing performance density shows no signs of abating – neither for consumer goods such as mobile phones and cameras nor for high-value industrial goods such as components for laser technology or telecommunications. Technical challenges including small apertures, steep and aspherical functional surfaces and narrow bands of permissible variation for forming or positional accuracy combine with huge cost pressures and a need to produce high quantities. Simply put, manufacturers are faced with the challenge of producing optical components with complex geometries cost-efficiently from materials that are difficult to process and of integrating these components into affordable devices. The market for infra-red optics is also expected to extend in volume over the next few years. In order to meet the rising demand, we and our business partners are currently developing technologies and consistent process chains for a direct and replicative production of optical components and systems. We also develop and test high-performance ultra-precision machines with suitable measuring equipment to automate manufacturing processes.

What role will cross-process data networking play in the optics industry?

The optics industry is characterized by a large number of complex production processes. This means that enterprises must know their process data very well and must draw the right conclusions from these data, continuously exploring new ways of improving their individual processes and process chains. At the same time, manufacturers must know exactly how their various production facilities are effectively interconnected, and they also need to conduct the right type of – ideally automated – analyses, since an integrated view of such data reveals potential improvements that may be not be discernible as long as the focus is placed on individual elements within the chain. Companies that are capable of manufacturing complex optical surfaces from challenging materials within extremely narrow bands of permissible variation while maintaining their ability to operate their processes reliably even near the performance limits of the current technologies are well equipped to face the challenges of the future.

How can enterprises cope with and manage the growing dynamism of the market?

Well-organized process chains and production chains add value and guarantee high levels of productivity: this is something we have known for many years. But many enterprises still spend time and energy on the optimization of individual production lines or processes by adding – sometimes many – correction loops. It would be faster and more efficient to apply any such iterations to the systems into which the individual manufacturing operations are embedded. If you know the manufacturing history of any given component, you can tell which downstream processing step must be modified in which way in order to improve the component quality cost-efficiently. A detailed model of the product and its manufacturing process can provide the basis for an automated assessment. The active adjustment of optical components, for example, demonstrates how models can serve to get a grip on complexity: the behaviour of optical systems varies according to the positional changes of individual elements in multiple degrees of freedom, but also depending on their forms and levels of surface roughness. This is why these systems are often so difficult to align. Detailed models are capable of resolving many of the resulting problems, since they can be deployed to facilitate production planning, the modification of parameters and a transfer to other production sites.