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Photonics Flash Forward: the Design Experience now vs. 2025

The photonic design and manufacture ecosystem is rapidly evolving. Today, photonic designs are moving from research to commercialization, with optical transceivers in data centers leading the way. The science and technology of generating, controlling and detecting photons is already solving challenges that electronics struggle to address. By 2025, even more applications will be advanced through photonics, such as augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR), medical imaging, biosensors, lidar and quantum computing. The photonics ecosystem will need to advance significantly to support these applications. What advances can we expect in design, simulation, manufacturing and delivery? Are our universities equipped to supply the talent needed?

The state of the photonics industry through 2025

Join the panel webinar Photonics Flash Forward – Photonics Design in 2025.

State of Photonics Design in 2020

The emergence of process design kits (PDKs) is one indicator of the maturing of photonics. The first photonic PDKs emerged just a few years ago, and they are starting to become prevalent as foundries deliver PDKs targeting a variety of design tools. These PDKs tend to be primitive in comparison to design libraries delivered by semiconductor foundries, but they are a significant and important step in the maturing of the commercial photonics ecosystem, which requires a strong partnership between foundries and photonic design automation (PDA) suppliers. Together, they are producing new PDKs and advancing the state of existing PDKs.

As more photonic integrated circuits (PICs) are manufactured and characterized, sufficient data is becoming available for statistical analysis. This year saw the emergence of statistical-based PDKs, enabling Monte Carlo and corner statistical analysis in more advanced PDA simulation tools. This will lead to more robust designs, with a new focus on manufacturability, another requirement for the commercialization of photonics.

The established electronic design automation (EDA) vendors are taking note of the emerging photonics market. They are delivering design tools targeted to this market and forming key alliances with the leading PDA companies to provide a complete design flow. Ansys has an open platform that EDA vendors have used to integrate their workflows with Ansys Lumerical. Our open ecosystem will help to further promote the use of photonics in a broader array of applications.

Cloud computing provider data center that uses fiber optics and photonics-based transceiver technology

Integrated electronic-photonic design automation (EPDA) flows that emerged nearly two years ago are becoming more sophisticated with the addition of statistical and design for manufacturing (DFM) capabilities. Statistical considerations require far more compute power, which requires a new focus on high-performance computing, with major cloud providers supporting photonics design in the cloud by making use of photonics in their data centers.

In contrast to electronics, a typical photonic design consists of relatively fewer, but very meticulously crafted, components. Many of these components can be found in the PDKs delivered by foundries, but each leading-edge photonic design always includes some critical, differentiating components that the more generalized foundry PDKs cannot deliver. This creates the opportunity for well-positioned companies to establish a photonic intellectual property (PIP) business. Well-managed companies with extreme photonic design capabilities and focus, and inexpensive access to design tools, are likely to spearhead the emergence of this market. With their unrelenting focus on photonic design, these companies will deliver superior designs. Companies looking to deliver leading-edge photonic designs will engage these PIP providers to outsource their component design and focus their own resources on other value-added areas such as the overall PIC design.  

Photonics Design Applications Continue to Expand

Breakthroughs in photonics design methodology are enabling higher quality, more manufacturable designs and are lowering the barrier so that photonic design no longer requires a Ph.D. in physics. Better designs push forward the applications that photonics can compete in and win at. More qualified designers result in a greater ability for companies to staff their photonics design team, driving greater competition leading to better products and faster evolution.

Already, we are seeing the impact of photonic inverse design (PID) from sources like Stanford and Lumerical in cooperation with the open source community. We are starting to see component designs completed much more simply with much improved figures of merit, over a shortened design cycle (days compared to months).

Improvements are evident even on the best published designs, often completed in a matter of days, with orders of magnitude improvements in components. PID’s simplified, automated design methodology is beginning to replace the manual, iterative process, and is being applied to a wide variety of photonic components. It has widened the circle of qualified photonics designers and hastened time to market for photonics designs. PID introduces new levels of automation that help raise the level of abstraction for design work. Just as raising the level of abstraction of IC design unleashed a torrent of IC designer productivity, there will be similar improvements in the productivity of photonics designers.

Applications for photonics design and simulation

Below is a snapshot of how photonics is being applied in various technologies.

Transceivers: This year extended the trend of photonics’ takeover in the data center. In 2020, this has become more pronounced as we move from 100G to 200G and onto 400G Ethernet transmission speeds. 

Lidar: We saw the introduction of multiple photonics-driven lidar designs this year. Lidar is a key technology for autonomous vehicles, but for everyday passenger cars, it’s not feasible to mount those rotating cans seen on today’s prototype autonomous vehicles. It’s also not feasible to pass the thousands of dollars in cost for those rotating cans onto the future everyday buyers of autonomous passenger cars. Many startups are focused on reducing the size (to a deck of cards) and cost (by an order of magnitude) of lidar.

Lidar is another application affected by the cleverness of engineers. The position of Tesla’s Elon Musk is that radar+cameras will be good enough for autonomous vehicles, so there is no need for lidar. The driving question is a race between lowering the cost and size of lidar vs. improving the capabilities of radar+camera. The winner of this race will determine the fate of a volume driver of photonics in autonomous vehicles.

5G: In 2020, we are seeing the buildout of 5G in earnest. This has driven volume in photonics integrated circuits as new photonics-friendly technologies such as NG-PON2 and PAM-4 are deployed in both the front haul and the back haul. There will be a hockey stick inflection in 5G as the second part of 5G – millimeter wave technology – for short-range within buildings, is deployed.

Sensors: Photonics is making steady progress in the area of sensors. Medical applications are a particularly interesting area for sensors with a strong opportunity for photonics. The progress in the medical field will be paced more by legal regulations and privacy concerns than by technology. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a layer of issues on top of this market, as people opt for telemedicine more often.

AR/VR: With some credibility, it is said that the easiest way to predict our technological future is to watch Star Trek. All of Star Trek’s technology will eventually come to pass. That’s good news for photonics. This year has seen a great deal of activity in AR/VR, so perhaps holodecks are not far away from becoming reality.

Quantum computing: Quantum computing is another application that is driving photonics adoption. It is challenging to predict. (I can’t tell whether it is here or there ...) In 2020, we have seen significant activity in quantum computing research, but we have yet to see that one important announcement that blows everyone’s mind.

What’s Next for Photonics Design?

Photonics, the technology of the future, will see solid advancement over the next 5 years. The growth rate will be impressive, with abundant applications coming into focus. Growth will be tethered by the cleverness of engineers extending electronics and the evolution of the photonics ecosystem.

Join the panel webinar Photonics Flash Forward – Photonics Design in 2025 to hear more about what photonics design will look like in 2025.

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