Photonics is not electronics. Nobody is able to predict its future in 5 years

„Not even 1% of what we develop and produce stays in the Czech Republic. We only have certain strategic partnerships with universities but that within the overall revenue of the entire company really stands for a tiny fraction” as Mr. Martin Zoldak of Argotech company states at the beginning of our dialog. The Argotech company is truly one of the very few companies in this country that specializes in the field of photonics. What is a dynamically growing industry that is in the near future about about to become the sought after “rapid change” in the sphere of further development of technologies. In the last decade we have gotten used to everything around is being constantly fast paced and in fast motion and this change having an exponential character. However now we are in stage when further development is theoretically possible but it derails due to physical limitations. Optic fiber might be even faster but physics has its certain limitations and boundaries in terms of distances, temperatures, power input, scrap heat. That's why alternatives are being looked for and photonics has, amongst all other fields, best potential opportunities to overcome and exceed such limitations.

„I am actually even a little surprised how little attention our Czech universities devote to this industry. When we look for a new member of staff to join our company, we have a shortage of possibilities. Our only hiring option is a talented graduate from an Industry that is somewhat close or related to ours and in principle teach the candidate everything from the scratch here in our company. Based on our experience there are only two universities to deal with our field of business and that is namely the Technical University in Ostrava and one department within the ČVUT University. As a matter of fact this is where the ship to the future going to be headed and Western countries tend to invest a lot more finances and energy into research and science” says a man who has been with Argotech in its entire existence. Unfortunately this is the result of a very limited government support for research and four technology companies and there are no conceptions for strategic fields in existence.

In fact, photonics is a very interesting and attractive industry for engineers and is closely linked to electronics. And as opposed to electronics, however, it brings a further dimension and makes certain applications a lot more interesting. This might also be a reason why we practically have zero fluctuation of staff within our company.

From Service to State-of-Art solutions

In 2006 in the northern parts of Bohemia activities of the company called Infineon Technologies (a semiconductor company separated from Siemens) ended. A company that produced active elements, transmitters and receivers for optical fibre. After too big global players have taken over the largest part of activities of photonic division of Infineon, there was still a considerable part of activities without anyone being interested. In a close connection with an experienced team that was already here it was a huge motivation to set up a successor company which is headed by an ex Marketing Director of the photonic division of Infineon. Hence the company Argotech was born almost overnight. A company that was founded upon and ran in the first years of its existence trying to take over smaller orders that the biggest players just were not interested in.

„We continued in the production of what Infineon used to make. However this was a model in which we would be able to survive only some five years. It was necessary to think about a longer time frame and our future steps. In the company decided that the only way was to launch its own development. The aim was not to do just “contract manufacturing” where you just blindly manufacture what others deliver to you on a plate. But to give it its own expertise and experience, the know how. We began to focus upon high frequency solutions which is closely linked with photonics. We started to deal with the first project for our clients who wanted highly sophisticated convertors from us. From a pure production company we became an engineering company” as Mr. Martin Zoldak describes.

Knowing the fact that Argotech has up to now being able to maintain its status of a solely service providing corporation that provides services to its clients. The company does not sell any of its own products as you would not find a single product from this company. “Such Philosophy is probably going to stick around for a while now. It is also about trustworthiness and about fears of losing intellectual property. Our devices are meant for optoelectronics, microelectronics, photonics and sillicon photonics. Photonics is a very dynamic industry. Nobody has an idea there what is going to happen in five years time. It is pretty easy in electronics to predict the future however such is not the case at all with photonics. It might be perhaps even more dynamic industry dental electronics which has definitely been the case for more than a decade now. We are working on a range of specific, state of the art solutions” as Mr. martin Zoldak continues.

A Dead End Street

Current photonics - that might be described as riding a pretty wild horse. In parallel, there are many revolutionary approaches being dealt with many of which stand no chance of making it in the tough market. “ome of them are technically very good but financially are so expensive that the market is not capable of absorbing them. Generally speaking, photonics is expensive. Optical routes, electromagnetic waves that are being transmitted through wave transmitters that need to link to one another very precisely enter here. These than have dimensions within the range of micrometers. And with such accuracy you then need to make parts such as lasers, wave transmitters, silicon photonic  chips, optical fiber. It is not possible to do this passively but you need to approach it actively that's why it is pricey. “Light” must be transmitted in a manageable way, not via air,” as Mr. Martin Zoldak calculates the limits.

Photonics and optical fiber nowadays art not just about data transmissions as we know them from the past. There is massive spread of applications going on now and this is based on Futonics as it is specifically about specific sensors in various industries and businesses. Here photonics is in a lot of cases one of the well-known solutions, and there are no alternatives to replace this yet. For instance we are talking about contactless scanning and recording of chemical substances in petrochemical industry and also a defense industry is widely based on and built nowadays upon photonic solutions and there is a biggest boom in the spread of applications in the health and pharmaceutical industries for diagnostic purposes. As a result of this, an increase in quality of life for people with illnesses has been successful so far or it is possible to detect via spectral analysis the quality of medicals, food stuffs etc. But probably the most famous photonic application for non-professional public in the last year's has in the consumer industry been so called Face ID and Apple came for the 3-D identification of a human face with its new revolutionary iPhone X.

PCB and a high-frequency ceramics

„Speed is constantly being pushed. And this is happening so enormously that we are now able to transfer via optic fiber such vast amounts of information in a very short period of time that we are now facing issues with the limit of electric paths. In 2012 we were launching one project with one of our Russian customers where they wanted a 4×14 gigabites solution. This meant a huge leap for our company. We designed a converter. Two years later we were participating in a certain European Union project where we were required to create 4×56 solutions. This meant enormous risk for us as back then nobody really dealt with anything similar and there were no materials for that nor any roadmaps. The complexity of the solutions is increasing exponentially with the transmitting speed where the four times higher the speed leads but towards approximately a 20 times more complex problem. Without sophisticated simulation tools that are based upon FEM and FDTD it is impossible to proceed. In the end we found a solution that, in a good sense, has been our success up till now. It is based upon high frequency PCB and high frequency ceramics. With the help of the solutions we are now able to transmit signals with the speed of 100 gigabites NRZ via a single channel and that can be done without the additional modulation (with particular modulations it can be upgraded and enhanced 2 to 4 times), but unfortunately we can see that it has a price. The difficulty of the production of PCB, substrates and other things is very costly to manufacture. 100 gigabites is going to be the limit, we know now it is not going to be a terabyte, we're not going to be able to transmit that via electronics. 56 gigabites on one channel is such a demanding task for a commercial sphere that it is not financially possible to do it effectively. It's stopped on approximately a level of 25 gigabites per channel, this is a reasonable price. We are now at 100, maybe we are capable of getting a little over 100, but with photonics it is so expensive that it did not go any further” as Mr. Martin Zoldak adds on.


Silicon photonics application – a high frequency connection of the chip to a PCB via adaptive ceramics.

The architecture of entire system needs to change

We got into a point when architectures of entire computational in data systems are going to change entirely. Electronics as such is not capable of effective transmission of high speed signals on PCB joints. We can design it but materials that are being used are incredibly expensive. PCB has features of dielectrics, special laminates are being used, dielectricity for high frequency applications, specific Rogers. You cannot use here classic FR-4 laminates. These best materials have for such high frequencies such high decrement that even these best materials prove to be as inadequate for such frequencies. What is a side product of this is a higher energy demand. It is possible to break it through via raw power but this would result in having such waste energy that it does not make any sense. This can be overcame by photonic solutions and its direct integration into computational chips. This is already happening, large corporations such as IBM have already been working intensively on such solutions. The expenses are going to be outstanding by as much as 10 times but other than with the change of philosophy and architecture we will not make any further progress.” as Martin Zoldak closes.

Care to know more on the subject?
Connect with our specialists
Martin Žoldák
Project Manager