Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute: “Panoptic” Danger

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One should hardly rule out the risk of the Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute (IPMI) morphing into an all-encompassing and permanent industrial policy for the US. The term “integrated photonics” is so ambiguous and nebulous as to potentially include every facet of new optical technology. Also, it is a sure bet that manufacturing itself will not turn out to be the essential role of IPMI in the long term, rather actual R&D work on newfangled solutions will be its focus – with the potential of hampering future technical development far into the future.

There are ample precedents for private-public partnerships straying away from their original missions. SEMATECH’s essential mandate at the beginning was really just to increase knowledge of advanced production processes for semiconductors. Later, the consortium’s goals changed to include branching out into the build-up of infrastructure — and it started providing funds to both chip and computer suppliers for manufacturing equipment.

The feds ultimately backed out of SEMATECH – so, why should there be fears about at least a quasi-governmental takeover of the US optical business? Since that time, mindsets have changed dramatically. Before the existence of SEMATECH, the biggest direct involvement by Uncle Sam in the private sector was a loan bailout of Chrysler, and now more recently, it became about running an automobile company – at least for a while.

Leaders in both major political parties in the States have become practitioners of crony capitalism and the “too big to fail” movement. Many developments in the energy sector cannot even be started without a successful lobbying effort. There seems to be barely any true privatization left in healthcare.

On an earlier point, the focus of the photonics consortium on production is a red herring. Politically speaking, it is an easier sell to the American citizens to couch federal expenditures at a time when the country is broke in nostalgic terms — getting back to the days of having a much higher number of manufacturing jobs. However, it is somewhat illogical to believe that economies of scale, effective yields, etc. can be accurately proven in what will be for all intents and purposes only a testing hub.

Moreover, it is a common falsehood anyway that manufacturing as a whole in the US has been declining for many years. In fact, the real value of output has been rising more or less steadily for several decades.

[written by Mark Lutkowitz]