Pathways for innovation

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The worldwide optoelectronics marketplace offers industry players a number of viable approaches for generating and sustaining attractive, profitable growth. Technology differentiation is generally a critical element in all of these approaches. The various approaches, however, seek to achieve technology differentiation in fundamentally different ways. Experience shows that all of the approaches can be successful, given the right conditions and sound technology and market strategies. Introduction of fundamentally new, breakthrough technologies is one particular innovation path, and is often the primary focus of corporate strategic plans. This approach aims to generate significant differentiation, and is typically associated with substantial, multi-year R&D and manufacturing investments.

By John Roush, President, PerkinElmer Optoelectronics


John Roush

The breakthrough approach clearly has its place within corporate investment priorities. But the need to balance risk, reward, and timing points to the value of two other approaches that have also proven successful in generating technology differentiation and growth: next generation technology enhancement within existing applications, and extension of existing technologies into new applications.

The application of amorphous silicon (a-Si) digital x-ray detectors in medical imaging is one successful example of a new breakthrough technology that achieved substantial differentiation. The technology is based on a-Si fabricated on a glass substrate using thin film processing. These detectors replace film cartridges in traditional x-ray applications such as radiology, cardiology, angiography, and radiotherapy, and provide superior grey scale resolution, high frame rates and the obvious workflow benefits of digital imaging. Market penetration required comprehensive multi-year partnerships with leading medical imaging OEMs as well as substantial investment in fab capacity and execution. The technology has now been on the market for more than five years, and has achieved substantial penetration in the target applications.

The consumer electronics and entertainment markets offer some relevant examples of introduction of new generations of familiar technologies to meet emerging market demands. Recent developments in xenon lighting are an example of this approach. Ceramic xenon short arc light engines were developed in the 1980s, primarily for medical illumination applications such as endoscopy and surgical headlamps. Today, new generations of these xenon light engines are gaining market share in applications for advanced front video projection microdisplay systems and rear projection televisions, producing high colour quality and contrasts, and creating home theatre images that were once possible only in the cinema. With its natural colour spectrum and enhanced safety over quartz and mercury lamps, next generation xenon light engines are providing improved high-lumen output, increased lamp life, superior image quality and reduced size for producers of home theatre systems.

Similarly, xenon flashtubes have been used in 35mm compact and single-use cameras for more than 20 years. Next generation capillary versions of these tubes are now being used both in digital still cameras, and in the rapidly emerging application for embedded flash in mobile phone cameras. Penetration of these new segments within the photoflash application were made possible by next generation innovations of the flashtubes to enhance light output while reducing size, weight, and cost.

We can find several examples of established technologies - flashlamps, lasers, sensors and LEDs - driving new applications in the medical, aesthetics, and automotive arenas, to name just a few. As is frequently the case with innovation, the technology platforms for these applications had been in use for years in other applications, but extension of the technologies into the new applications was not obvious. In these cases, the intersection of emerging market requirements and disciplined creativity provided the catalyst for emergence of the new application solutions.

Xenon flashlamps have been widely used for decades in applications ranging from laser machining to warning beacons and aircraft and runway lighting. These lamps offer an example of a technology platform that is increasingly being applied in a new and different application: medical or aesthetic optical device applications. Skin rejuvenation, hair removal and the treatment of acne and psoriasis all benefit from the use of traditional flashlamps. In particular, the intense pulsed light (IPL) modality has experienced strong growth due to its efficacy and replacing of expensive laser systems with lamp-based systems, making them both easier to use and more affordable.

Thermopile temperature sensors represent another example of extension of existing technology into new application areas. The classic thermopile application has been the ear thermometer, where temperature of the inner ear surface is measured remotely, instantly and precisely. But engineers seeking to enhance driving comfort and reduce energy consumption in automotive air conditioning systems have successfully utilised thermopile technology in automotive climate control applications to measure the passenger’s body temperature and trigger the adjustment of the overall temperature inside the vehicle for optimal passenger comfort.

In the never-ending quest for differentiation and growth, optoelectronics companies may deploy various approaches. Innovation can obviously take many forms. While capital-intensive investment in breakthrough technologies, such as amorphous silicon, are often the key to sustained growth, the other innovation models discussed can provide meaningful steps forward in sustaining growth rates and opening new market segments and applications. These approaches require the willingness to push the boundaries of performance for the next generations of existing technologies. They also necessitate re-examination of these existing technologies in the context of market requirements in emerging applications. Often the best technology for a new application already exists and can be readily adapted to meet the new requirements. Collaboration and partnership between the technology provider and the OEM can result in a differentiated solution for the new application that drives sustained growth and profitability for both players.

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