Photonics West Expo 2020

By Ray Hicks, President, GasLab.

SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics held their most recent Expo at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California February 1-6, 2020. I took the time to walk the show to learn more about the next generation sensors and applications we’ll be offering at GasLab.

Back in San Francisco

Upon landing at SFO and traveling through the city, what struck me is how quiet it is. There are so many electric cars a loud motorcycle really stands out as obnoxious.

The next thing that I noticed is how young this city is. The average age must be 30. But then again, there are not many children either.

I did see homeless people - not like you see in LA or Portland - so they must either hide them or they have fewer on the street.

SPIE First Impressions

First, I have to tell you that I have not been to this show in years. The last time I recall it was a bunch of old European engineers and mathematicians talking about glass lenses, filters and coatings. Now all the interest in lenses is like so much of photography - just history. Make the lenses “good enough” then sort it all out in the software. From glass to photons of light. I have to give SPIE credit for reinventing themselves.

The big exhibits on the expo floor were centered around Lidar, augmented realty, virtual reality and mixed reality (called AR, VR, MR on the floor), micro spectrometers, Quantum cascade lasers (QCLs), MWIR vs. LWIR LEDs, and “Lab on Chip.” All to feed the needs of autonomous vehicles, medical devices, and entertainment.

Why I Attended SPIE

All this was interesting, but the reason I attended the expo was to research new optical means to measure chemicals: gaseous or liquid, vaporized or dissolved in liquid.

What I saw was lots of interesting ways to accomplish chemical measurements, most very costly. This show is catering to a research community powered by government, military, large organizations and lots of grants.

As I stopped by each booth, the first thing I noticed was the abundance of IQ on hand. The presenters were smart. They knew their stuff. However, most of them explained their products as lists of specifications, not features or benefits. In fact, most of them couldn’t answer why or how would I use what they were selling. Instead of talking B2B, I realized they were talking G2G (geek to geek). I guess I’ve forgotten what it’s like to attend a trade show where you don’t care if you sell anything or not.

What I Learned

This market consists of several horizontally oriented business groups. Companies like ThorLabs or Edmund Optical (used to be Edmund Scientific) offered complete packages of components. They focuses on small quantities to ship - quick but expensive.

SPIE Exhibit

Then there were the monolithic vertically orientated specialty companies like Hamamatsu who has a reputation as photon central, or Thermo- Fisher who is in every science, niche or industry. Both offer top shelf products, albeit expensive ones.

The one German institution that dominates in all physics related expo’s is called the Fraunhofer Society. SPIE was no exception. Fraunhofer isn’t a company like we think of one in the US, but instead is a government and private funded clearinghouse for applied physics research and knowledge. They have over 26 thousand employees and an annual budget of 2.6 billion euros. There may be 5,000 companies from dozens of nations exhibiting at SPIE, but the German influence is the majority. Everyone else from the US to Japan to the Chinese all jockey for position to follow the leader.

And because Fraunhofer gets so much money from the government and private industry, they can move from research to commercialization quickly. Fraunhofer is like a machine. Nobody does it better.

While at SPIE I spent some time with the Hamilton Company. I had just visited with them at the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening – SLAS Conference in January and was interested in the sensors they were using for medical lab automation.

I was particularly interested in their fluorescent oxygen quenching sensors. They use a fluorophore that is excited in blue 430 and emit in red 650, which give them a longer shift and a larger signal span than the competition. In addition, they have ruggedized their sensors to be chemically stable at different ranges of applications, bio agents, hydrocarbons, nitrates and reducers.

Hamilton has have a cheaper electrochemical line of sensors that uses a galvanic membrane separation. Because it uses no lead it is suitable for food or pharma.

What I appreciated was that everything they do is bullet proof and well documented. While they are not cheap they are value priced to the application.

What was new, or new to me

Some random thoughts as I wandered the trade show floor:

∙ I saw a number of companies focusing on laser measurement of distance and ranging. While this technology has been around for years, it is peaking in commercialization.

∙ The number of MEMS products that are in commercialization. For the uninitiated, micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS are tiny integrated devices that combine mechanical and electrical components. They were a wild promise 20 years ago – today they are real products you can purchase. Inkjet printer heads, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and of course microphones inside smart phones are all MEMS devices.

∙ QCL laser companies, mostly in the visible wavelengths. For example, I saw a company using fluoroscopy for bio processing to removing tattoos in a dermatologists office.

∙ The number of mini and micro spectrometers from Broadcom, Ocean, SiWare and many more measuring UV to near IR light. For example, SiWare is in commercialization of a 0.6 to 5.5 um device the size of a package of gum for medical use.

∙ A press-laminated process for making filters a really big deal for the VR head set market. Everix was showcasing this disruptive technology.

 


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