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What's in a name?

Warren Clark traces the history of NKT Photonics A/S, a new name for an established technology supplier

Though NKT Photonics A/S, in name at least, was only created earlier this year, its roots can be traced back over several decades. The NKT part of the name originates from the parent company, NKT Holding A/S, which began life in 1891, with its first order being for telephone cable. The name NKT derives from the limited company that was formed in 1898, Nordiske Kabel og Tradfabriker (literally, Nordic Cable and Tread Factories). Indeed, NKT Holding is listed on the Danish stock exchange, and now employs more than 8,000 people worldwide in a diverse range of industries such as power cables, industrial cleaning products, offshore pipes and, of course, photonics.

Much of NKT’s first century was spent on the production of cables of one type or another, and it was the evolution of this business into fibre optic cables in the early 1970s that began its association with photonics. At the time, NKT was one of the first companies outside the US to produce fibre optic cable on an industrial scale. The late 80s and early 90s saw the creation of NKT Electronics and GIGA – companies dedicated to high-speed telecommunications – which in turn led to IONAS, a company that specialised in optical components and pioneered the concept of end-to-end optical communication.

Within IONAS, there was a group working on a fibre laser based on Bragg gratings, which had applications in fibre sensing. With IONAS set for a merger with another big telecoms player, this particular group did not fit with the direction of the rest of the company. So it was spun out into its own entity, with the sole purpose of developing applications for its technology, which was primarily in sensing.

By the turn of the millennium, NKT had started a major business development plan in the optics market, which included the formation of Crystal Fibre, created to develop the emerging technology of photonic bandgap filters. Koheras followed in 2001, as a developer and manufacturer of laser light sources. It is these latter two companies that merged earlier this year to create the new entity, NKT Photonics, effectively bringing the two complementary companies together under one umbrella.

The NKT Research Center came under the wing of Koheras soon after the latter’s creation, and the acquisition of a German company in this area soon followed. Through Crystal Fibre, the company began developing non-linear fibres, which later became the backbone technology of its laser system programme, called SuperK. Even back in 2004, Crystal Fibre was supplying these fibres to Koheras.

Jakob Skov, CEO of NKT Photonics, is keen to point out that both Crystal Fibre and Koheras were focusing on non-telecom activities right from their early days. ‘Crystal Fibre was created around the time of the telecoms bubble bursting,’ he says. ‘Also, we belong to an industrial group, we have learned that it takes a lot of effort and a long time to develop a product and to penetrate a market effectively – improving quality and reliability and so on.’

Indeed, the fact that penetration of the industrial market takes years of work means that the broader NKT approach is all about playing the ‘long game’. ‘I’m not here to beat quarterly targets,’ says Skov. ‘And I don’t need to haul myself through funding rounds and keep my name in the press. Our parent company understands the way industry works – and the time it takes to tackle it properly – and we are here for the long haul.’

Jakob Skov, CEO of NKT Photonics.

Today there are three companies within what is known as the NKT Optical Group: Vytran Inc. (focusing on splicers and cleavers especially designed for LMA fibres), based in the US; Lios Technologies GmbH (building DTS systems for monitoring in tunnels, cables and oil sector), based in Germany; and NKT Photonics A/S.

‘There are three product portfolios,’ says Skov, ‘each with their own place in the life cycle: PCF fibres and components are on the verge of being deployed in various industrial applications; the Koheras fibre laser is already widespread in commercial applications; and SuperK, the broadband system, which is penetrating existing markets quite rapidly. In the early days of a novel technology, it is all about proof of concept and making the customer believe that our fibre-based solution can outcompete the existing technology.

‘Now, our focus is on ensuring our customers can listen, see and sense with the speed of light. Our Koheras FL is a very low noise laser source that offers a highly coherent wavelength over large distances – up to 70km. Because our customers know exactly what the wavelength looks like when they send it out, they know that any change in that signal when it returns can be converted into, for example, sound, a visible image, or any other event – and that is the basis of fibre sensing.’

In applications where once electrons were used for sensing, this technology allows the use of light instead – and at a higher sensitivity. Examples are pipeline monitoring or perimeter security, as well as searching for oil.

‘Any distortion on the fibre along a pipe or around a perimeter will cause a change in the flow of light – or frequency,’ says Skov. ‘The PC can then interrogate this change and equates it to the acoustic footprint of whatever events may be expected, such as an intruder approaching, for example.

‘The technology can also be deployed as a towed array, where the fibres are towed behind a vessel, and any activity in the water will be detected.

‘Lidar is another application, where light is sent out into free space until it hits aerosols, for example. Using the principle of Doppler shift, we can use the fibre sensing technology to detect speed and direction of aerosols. This can be used to measure wind. The technology can sit within a wind turbine and detect the speed and direction of wind before it hits the turbine; by pitching the blades of the turbine correctly according to the incoming wind, efficiencies can be increased. It can also help protect against damage from gusts, as the resistance of the turbines can be adjusted to accommodate the wind speed. The information can also be used to help place turbines in a wind park at the point of construction.’

Future applications of such technology could be in monitoring conditions around take off and landing of aircraft, and also within aircraft themselves to predict pockets of turbulence. It could also be used for wind measurement before commencing a major construction project in a city, for example.

The merger of the two companies has created a new entity that can address many markets. ‘We say we do fibres, we do optical modules, we do lasers and we do laser systems,’ says Skov. ‘We can interact with the customer according to which of these elements they want.’

The laser systems element of the NKT Photonics portfolio is based around its SuperContinuum white light laser, which is based on its own fibre technology. It offers a range of frequencies from one source, from 450nm to 2.4μm. ‘This flexibility offers huge efficiencies in applications where there would otherwise be four, five or six separate lasers operating at different frequencies,’ says Skov. ‘The system also provides users with access to frequencies that haven’t always been readily available.’

Part of the success of this technology is the fibre developed by Crystal Fibre, which features airholes. ‘This gives us functionality in the fibre,’ says Skov. ‘If we put airholes at certain strategic points of the fibre, the index change is so great that the light stays in the fibre. This allows us to keep more light in the fibre, and therefore much more energy in the fibre. This opens up markets, such as laser marking and high power laser applications.’

As with any company involved in photonics, it has been a challenging year for NKT Photonics, but the merger has enabled them to offset any slowdown in growth by making some cost reductions. ‘Having said that, we did grow by 27 per cent in the first half of the year,’ says Skov. ‘We won’t match that level of growth in the second half of the year, but we will still show growth. We’re able to do this because we operate in areas that the larger players don’t, and the niches we exploit have been less affected by the financial crisis.’

Looking forward, Skov’s focus is on enhancing reliability. ‘We deal with a lot of Tier 1 industries,’ says Skov, ‘and they demand 24/7 operation. Our technology is already at that level of reliability, but we need to prove that to our potential customers. We’re also working to improve ease of use and enhance the user experience to enable us to penetrate more mainstream markets.’

Skov is optimistic that the photonics market will recover ‘faster than people expect’, but that 2010 will be a bumpy ride – and that there will be consolidation. For his own company, though, he is predicting double-digit growth.