Xerox runs this up the (telephone) pole: MEMS for magical ‘last mile’

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May 14, 2003 — On-demand digital video and Internet delivered rapidly and cheaply to your home or business could be made possible by a new technology from Xerox Corp.

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The company has developed a working prototype of a MEMS switch integrated with technology that controls the flow of light on a single silicon chip. Xerox said the new technology allows it to shrink what normally would require racks of equipment into a total 1-inch-square package.

Its first use likely will come in storage-area networks for businesses, but its ultimate goal is to extend the reach of fiber-optic networks, delivering on-demand DVD-quality videos and other Internet services cheaply and rapidly to homes and businesses.

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That is, of course, once the telecom industry is ready to invest in this kind of “last-mile” technology.

“The technology we have, you could put up a telephone pole,” said Joel Kubby, a technical manager at Xerox’s Wilson Center for Research and Technology in Webster, N.Y. “It lowers the price of components and enables optical network to get closer to the end user.”

They made the switches and waveguides together on the wafer using semiconductor-processing equipment, avoiding the increased cost and space requirements of current devices, which are assembled and packaged separately. The technology grew out of a $14 million Advanced Technology Program grant. The project, which also involves Corning IntelliSense, Coventor Inc. and Xerox subsidiary Palo Alto Research Center, started in 1999 with the goal of developing a broadly enabling, low-cost method of making optical MEMS.

Xerox seeks to license the technology to optical equipment makers, and can even offer them a place to make it: The company is installing a pilot production plant at the Infotonics Technology Center in New York in partnership with Corning and Kodak. Provided the market cooperates, Kubby said, the device could see commercial release in about two years.

“I believe it will scale down in cost as silicon technologies do,” he said. “The key component is the recovery of the market.”

Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst for In-Stat/MDR, expects it would take at least that long, given the field trials and custom design needed once a license is signed. While other companies are quietly developing similar technology, Xerox is the first major company to announce its progress, and she said that puts them in a good position if economic conditions improve.

“They’ve got a lot going for them — good partnerships, good financial backing,” she said. “The bottom line is … that the market right now doesn’t really care.”

Bill Trimmer, president of Belle Mead Research, a MEMS consulting firm, said innovation is encouraging and necessary, despite the telecom meltdown.

“People overbuilt, they lost money and now everyone is cutting back, but the core business is still there,” he said. “There is a viable market. It’s just the optical industry has been overblown.”


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