February 27, 2014

Interview with Prof. Dr. Martin Schell − One of the new Executive Directors of the Fraunhofer HHI

"Nearly every second bit transported on the internet touches an optical device developed by Fraunhofer HHI” – Martin Schell on the special international standing of the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) in optical data transmission. 

1. optiMST: Mr. Schell, on 1 January 2014 you and Mr. Wiegand were appointed as executive directors of HHI and successors to Mr. Grallert. We would like to congratulate you and Mr. Wiegand and thank you for this interview which you’re also conducting on behalf of your colleague. How is your work divided up, and what’s going to change? 

Prof. Schell: Mr. Wiegand and I strongly believe that by acting together we can take HHI forward into a better future. HHI is a huge institute covering a great number of disciplines. We complement each other very well in various fields. Mr. Wiegand has more of a scientific research background while I have more experience in industry. Then you have the diversity of expertise. Mr. Wiegand is in charge of Information and Communication technology while I’m head of Optics. And we both share responsibility for administration and staff units between us on a rotary basis. In our many conversations we’ve discovered that when it comes to the central themes dealt with by HHI, we both follow the selfsame strategy. Mr. Grallert has successfully led the institute for many years – we want to follow in his footsteps and consolidate and extend the fields in which we’re international leaders. 

2. optiMST: The technological focal point in the field of optical data communication – in which HHI is an established international leader – is built on indium phosphide (InP). How do you see the future of InP technology, particularly in comparison to other emerging technologies like silicon photonics? 

Prof. Schell: InP technology is the future technology on which we’ve built our special international position in data communication, and it will remain so for us. Nearly every second bit transported on the internet touches on an optical device from HHI. But obviously we also keep a very close eye on the other technologies as well. At distances in excess of 500 meters we see no market opening for silicon photonics. This is a field in which InP can show its full potential – and where the ratio of chip costs to system costs lies generally between 5% and 15%, even though around 50% of system performance is determined by chips. 

In the silicon industry you need to manufacture in huge quantities to pay off development costs and gain slots in wafer production. I believe that the strengths of silicon photonics – the potentially low costs per item – can only be realized with a minimum scale of 50 million items per year – and this means only for short distances. 

At HHI we also have projects in the field of silicon photonics – in the field of sensors for medical applications, for instance. This is an area which does hold real potential for large-scale production – particularly for sensors which need to be destroyed after use for reasons of hygiene. 

In optical data communication we focus on InP and on polymer-based wave guide technologies which now make up 10% of our project side. The key advantages of polymer technologies are the flexibility they offer in integrating various optical functionalities and their extremely low entry hurdles in comparison to silicon. 

We are now in the process of planning a new laboratory for both technologies. In the past few years, we’ve been so successful on international markets that our present laboratory space is no longer big enough for further growth. 

3. optiMST: The takeover of u2t Photonics by technology leader Finisar could be a major step forward in establishing Berlin as a hi-tech hub for optical communication networks and the realization of the 100G standard. u2t Photonics is a spin-off of HHI and a long-term customer and partner. How do you see the takeover in terms of what it means for HHI and Berlin as a place for science?

Prof. Schell: I have mixed feeling about it. On the one hand, obviously, when the world market leader invests, it’s a great mark of recognition for the technologies of u2t and HHI. Yet on the other hand, it’s naturally a great pity that our branch has not a single major German player who could make a comparable investment. 

Unlike u2t, Finisar has its own InP technology. So naturally, it’s a great mark of distinction for HHI when the high-end of Finisar’s range of products comes with chips from HHI. With increasing volumes, Finisar will transfer at least part of chip production to its own factories. We still have a great many ideas for the next but one generation in the pipeline and are looking forward to putting a renewed focus on preliminary research.

u2t now has the chance to raise its own profile within a major corporation with huge structural advantages – whether in terms of module fabrication or leverage in negotiating with suppliers or market access. This is where I see an opening to further consolidate Berlin’s position in the development and rapid market launch of high-end modules. 

4. optiMST: South Korea intends to raise its mobile communication standard to 5G by the year 2020. 5G is much quicker than the 4G standard which is still not available everywhere in Germany. How do you think Germany’s communications infrastructure shapes up generally in terms of an international comparison? 

Prof. Schell: When it comes to the introduction of broadband, Germany is a developing country. In other countries we see intelligent approaches – take Paris, for instance, where fiber optic cables are run through the sewers. Germany is more occupied with short-term low-cost patching up work rather than any serious planning for long-term complete renewal. Companies like Deutsche Telekom cannot manage such a project on their own; government support is absolutely necessary. At the very least, the government needs to set the regulatory framework. We can see the first signs of this in moves like the Federal Framework Regulation on Empty Conduits (Bundesrahmenregelung Leerrohre) which promotes – but unfortunately does not prescribe – the laying of empty conduits for the subsequent development of broadband networks. I’m afraid that the backward state of broadband development will prove a serious handicap to German competiveness in the coming years. 

Yet this poses no danger to us at HHI as systems and components developers. We develop for the global market and all leading nations use our technologies. The development of broadband-based next generation applications – which means ten percent more jobs – would obviously be easier if the domestic market had an excellent infrastructure. 

5. optiMST: What themes and projects is HHI now dealing with in the field of optics, apart from data communication?

Prof. Schell: Data communication is the key area for those of us working in optics. Yet in order to accumulate more mainstays and become more independent of the cycles of the telecommunications industry, we are also working in related fields like sensor systems or design of rapid ASICs. One  example here is our terahertz technology that already makes up a significant part of our activities in optics. In this area we are conducting contract research for a Munich and a Munich-Berlin SME, and are also playing a certain role in prototype production. 

6. optiMST: How good is cooperation with SMEs in Berlin and what forms of cooperation are there?

Prof. Schell: We very much enjoy collaborating with Berlin SMEs which frequently bring in great innovative ideas and their own developments. We benefit greatly from such close cooperation and sometimes by working with us SMEs hit on new ideas or customer relationships. Cooperation begins with a purely informal exchange of views and opinions – like those which take place at the PhoKos focal area of the Berlin-Brandenburg Competence Network for Optical Technologies, OptecBB – and can end in long-term relationships.

Even so, what we would still like to see is even more Berlin companies coming to us with cooperative projects. The possibilities for cooperation are enormous. We have a whole series of examples where the collaboration proved fruitful and successful both for the company and ourselves. In any case, our doors are always open. 

Interview by Markus Wabersky