Photonics Wins Berth in U.S. Government Manufacturing Initiative

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3 October 2014—In a significant boost for photonics in advanced manufacturing, U.S. President Barack Obama has announced the creation of a new Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute, under the auspices of the Department of Defense (DoD), that will leverage more than US$200 million in public and private funding. The new institute—one of several federal Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs) under the administration’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI)—is expected to constitute the largest federal investment to date in the program. The announcement represents a watershed moment for the photonics industry and, in particular, for the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), which coordinated industry efforts to build a case for the new institute.
The NNMI is an Obama administration initiative to boost advanced manufacturing, which has slumped in the United States since the late 1990s in the face of stiff competition from Europe and Asia. The NNMI program aims to revivify domestic manufacturing by, among other things, creating public-private partnerships, in the form of IMIs, to help bridge the “valley of death” between academic and government development of new technologies and their mainstream commercial production. Under the program, the administration hopes to create as many as 45 IMIs, to be partly funded by U.S. government dollars.
The possibility of a photonics IMI first came to light in early June, when the DoD issued a Request for Information (RFI) to create new IMIs centering on two technologies, out of a short list of six candidates—one of which was photonics. The RFI announcement was followed by an intensive, coordinated response effort by the photonics community, which bore fruit in today’s announcement of photonics as one of the two new DoD institutes.
According to today’s announcement, the DoD will launch a competition to award more than US$100 million in federal funds, matched by a similar amount of private investment, to the winning consortia that will build the new IMI. The institute will focus on fashioning an “end-to-end photonics ecosystem” in the U.S., addressing concerns ranging from workforce development to new tools and foundries to serve domestic manufacturing. It focuses in particular on integrated photonics, a technology that both the industry and the government believe has significant potential to reduce costs and build new capabilities in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine to defense.
A Big Week for the NPI
The announcement of the photonics IMI also marked an important milestone for the NPI, a coalition of academia, industry and government, led by five nonprofit organizations, that seeks to raise the industry’s profile in the United States and drive new investments in photonics, both public and private (see “Finding a Voice for Photonics,” OPN, September 2014). The NPI provided input that helped to place photonics on the six-technology short list in the DoD’s information request. Subsequent to the RFI, the NPI organized and conducted webinars, outreach efforts, and other activities to ensure a strong and coordinated response from the photonics community to the DoD request.
The unveiling of the new photonics institute caps an eventful week for the NPI. On Tuesday, at a conference organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, it was revealed that a new Photonics Industry Neuroscience Group, assembled by the NPI, would commit US$30 million in additional private research funds to projects under the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative, which provides funding for cutting-edge tools and technology to drive neuroscience research.
Tom Baer, the chairman of the NPI Steering Committee and the 2009 president of The Optical Society (OSA)—one of two NPI founding society members, along with SPIE—sees the DoD announcement in particular as a vindication of photonics’ status as a key enabling technology. “Today’s announcement validates what the U.S. photonics industry has long known,” he said, citing the industry’s potential to help with job creation and national economic competitiveness. OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan concurred. “Photonics is receiving the recognition it deserves,” she said, “and American manufacturing stands to benefit as a result.”

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