Rochester photonics hub aims to ramp up with $27M investment
The push to ramp up U.S. chip manufacturing could spell big business for a national photonics initiative based here in Rochester.
“We have the chance to evolve and do more, and I want to grab that opportunity,” said Wade Cook, who took the reins as executive director for the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics last fall.
“Some of what we'd like to do in the future ... strains or surpasses our current capability.”
On Thursday, the group’s governing board OK’d a proposal to spend $23 million on new equipment to ensure the local research hub can meet the demands of defense contractors and tool manufacturers already knocking at the door.
Another $4 million will go toward staffing, with a focus on technician, postdoc and PhD students. This is money that was set-aside years ago to attract photonics companies willing to relocate manufacturing operations to the area. That didn’t happen.
Photonics uses light to do the work of electricity – but much faster and more efficiently – with applications for everything from self-driving cars to medical equipment.
The industry is in its early stages. And AIM Photonics is meant to accelerate its growth.
The Department of Defense is a major backer. So, too, is New York state.
From the archive: Feds, state renew commitments to AIM Photonics
If the state agrees to the funding recommendations, the new spending will exhaust the remainder of the $250 million New York committed to the initiative back in 2015.
A changing industry
The state photonics board last met in November 2018. The technology has evolved since, as have the opportunities in the semiconductor micro-electronics and photonics industry, officials said – as the pandemic and the global chip shortage exposed how dependent the U.S. is on foreign manufacturers.
While the United States does the vast majority of semiconductor design, it controls just 12% of the manufacturing and only 3% of the packaging. That critical last step – and the focus of the local photonics operation – takes the technology and puts it in usable form.
“This is the main concern of the Department of Defense to ensure domestic manufacturing readiness,” Cook said.
Why? Because it’s the next generation.
“I think we all have the idea that the integrated circuits that go on our phones, that go in our cars, that go into consumer items – the computer that I'm sitting here, looking at -- (that) those micro-electronics are getting faster, smaller and better all the time and just making our lives easier, letting us do more,” Cook said.
“But for various reasons that improvement curve is starting to flatten out a little bit.”
'An important play’
The local research hub – or Test, Assembly and Packaging (TAP) facility - fills two floors of a former Eastman Kodak Co. Building on Lake Avenue. What the new equipment will do is increase its capacity and capabilities, making it able to take on work dealing with both photonics and micro-electronics.
“This is still an institute focused on integrated photonics,” said Vinnie Esposito, who heads up regional economic development efforts for the state. “But a lot of the tools that do packaging are the same. ... And to get to the computing power that's needed from these devices, we now have to combine traditional micro-electronics with photonics to be able to break through sort of the limits.”
The photonics expertise at the facility, and among the consortium partners, is what will set the local operation apart. But as Esposito explained: “There are other places that do micro-electronics packaging. It's more traditional. It's almost all done in Asia. And so that's why this is such an important play in the Department of Defense's eyes. And for Rochester.”
Internal projections show the TAP facility not turning a profit until 2026. But those estimates rise quickly into the millions of dollars.
There is federal money to continue operations. And the projections are conservative, officials said, accounting for half of the current sales pipeline and no money from the massive federal CHIPs and Science Act soon to flow into the industry.