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Photonics facility gets ready for work


Up on the fourth and fifth floors of ON Semiconductor's Lake Avenue building, some large, heavy, and sophisticated equipment sits in yellow-lit clean rooms, some of it hooked up and ready for use, some of it still in shrink wrap. It's all part of AIM Photonics' new Test, Assembly, and Packaging Facility, a development space meant to help US companies take light-based circuits from the prototype phase to manufacturing.

Construction crews were planning to bring in another piece of cutting-edge equipment on Monday, an undertaking that requires removing panels on the north side of the former Kodak Building 81 and lifting up the bulky machinery several stories by crane; the building was designed for this exact task. But rain delayed the work, said Ed White, AIM Photonics' associate vice president for the TAP Facility, during a media tour.

This piece of equipment, which was made in Germany specifically for the facility, is crucial. It'll allow the facility to perform its first production work for a client, work that should start in December.

Two representatives of the company will work alongside AIM Photonics staff on a chip the company developed. Their task: to figure out a process for attaching extremely thin fiber strands – a fraction of the thickness of one hair – to the chip.

White wouldn't disclose any but the most general details about the company and its product, though he did say the firm is based in California. Confidentiality is a necessity in the photonics industry, he said.

"In this business, first to market is a big deal," White said.

But even if they can't talk about the specific work, AIM Photonics officials see the start of work in the TAP Facility's cleanrooms as a big milestone. The effort weathered an embarrassing public quarrel over its headquarters during its early days. And some critics – one of the most visible has been Gates Supervisor Mark Assini – have questioned whether the substantial state and federal investments in the effort will be worth it.

At its most basic, AIM Photonics is a Department of Defense program. The public-private consortium is aimed at building up the US integrated photonics industry and making sure the technologies can be manufactured domestically.

Integrated photonics technologies use light in place of electrons to make devices faster, smaller, lighter, and more efficient. The DOD sees a lot of uses for the technology, from sensitive imaging systems to sensors and communications. It's already used in data transmission, biomedical devices, and imaging equipment.

The DOD put up $110 million to back the program, and that money supports operations in Rochester as well as projects across the country. New York State committed $250 million, much of that went toward renovating the TAP Facility space and equipping it. But it's also put money toward workforce training and toward the Rochester-based Luminate start-up accelerator. It's also designating $30 million for grants to help attract photonics companies to the Finger Lakes region.

Still, the effort has been dogged by early promises from state and federal elected officials that AIM Photonics would create thousands of jobs in a matter of years. Assini has hammered on those claims.

The DOD was pretty clear at the outset that AIM Photonics wasn't intended as a jobs program, and its leaders haven't characterized it as that.

Right now, seven engineers and a few other staff members work in the AIM Photonics headquarters, and the employee count would max out at 50, White said.

Some jobs will come here, but they'll come down the line as technologies mature and companies grow, said John Maggiore, Governor Andrew Cuomo's policy director and chair of the New York State Photonics Board of Officers.

"It's not a direct jobs program in that sense," Maggiore told reporters Monday.

AIM Photonics TAP Facility | Test, Assembly, and Packaging Facily | photonics | integrated photonics | Rochester high-tech | Rochester photonics | Rochester optics | Finger Lakes photonics