The Fraunhofer Project Center, based on the University of Twente campus, opens an incubator center that is specifically aimed at photonics companies. This new photonics incubator has a micro-assembly machine with flexible functionality. It will be possible to move from a single prototype toward small series, scaling up to larger production volumes. Introduced at this year's Hannover Messe, the photonics incubator is in the on-campus High Tech Factory.
Photonics chips, using light, are a rapidly emerging field. A major application area is fast communication in, for example, datacenters. It will be an enabling technology for the new 5G standard and beyond. Apart from that, photonics has a wide range of applications in, for example, medical diagnostics and the autonomous cars of the future. But compared to the electronics industry – extreme level of integration, fault-free production in very large volumes – photonics is still in its pioneering phase. Being able to produce a handful of chips, is not enough to conquer new markets. Assembly of the chips, and connecting them to the outside world, is even done by hand in many cases. The new Fraunhofer incubator will help new businesses in automating this process, thus improving efficiency and lowering prices. They don’t have to start with very large series instantly, assembly of one hundred chips can be a starting point. The incubator keeps the threshold low.
The flexible machine developed for this, will be able to assemble with a precision better than 20 nanometer. It positions photonic devices and glass fibers with a high level of precision. It is even possible to switch on the photonic chip while assembling it, enabling live feedback to the machine. This is a typical Industry 4.0 approach, making the whole process transparent, with even possibilities for the customer to monitor the process. The machine, developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology in Aachen and the AIXEMTEC company, has a modular setup. It can also be used for the assembly of lab-on-a-chip systems, for example.
The new incubator is situated in the High Tech Factory on the campus of the University of Twente. This is a sharing facility for companies, being able to use a cleanroom infrastructure and high tech equiment. Another advantage of this concentration of high tech is that entrepreneurs know how to find each other as well as relevant UT research groups. Here, also the company PHIX is based, foreseeing thousands of job in photonics assembly in the near future. The University of Twente is a partner in this. Fraunhofer Project Center already supports this company in automating low-volume, high-mix processes.
The Fraunhofer Project Center for Design and Production Engineering of Complex High-Tech Systems, also called FPC@UT, was founded in 2017. In this Center, the University of Twente collaborates with the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology in Aachen, Germany, and with Saxion University of Applied Sciences. FPC@UT initiates projects on advanced production techniques and the transition towards Industry 4.0. Precision assembly like in the new incubator is one example, technologies like additive manufacturing are another.