Optical components used in telephone and data connections, via optical fiber, developed by Fotônica, a small company from Campinas, are beginning to replace imported products, at prices 30% lower, and with better performance. They are parts know as attenuators, used in adapting the level of power of the transmitters to the receivers of the light signals that carry the information from one side to the other, both between cities and inside a company. The first two models of attenuators have already guaranteed Fotônica more than 30% of the domestic market. Within a couple of months, when the third model is ready, the company intends to expand this share to 80%, besides selling its products in countries like Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay, where they are marketing other products, like optical connectors.
“The differential of Fotônica’s attenuators over the imported ones is that we have developed a product that is stable in any situation”, says the physicist and the president of the company, Walter de Andrade Carvalho. As the optical networks usually cover long distances, the transmission equipment has high power, for the light to reach the receptor at a sufficient level, even after the losses incurred during the trip. The attenuators are used to produce these losses, when the two transmission points are a small distance away, and, depending on the project, they can be put at the outlet of the transmitter, at the inlet of the receptor, or in the middle of the path. “The imported products that we have examined had a variation in performance, depending on being in one or other position”, says the researcher.
The stability of performance of the new attenuators was achieved, according to Carvalho, by changes to the project and to the raw material used. But the prices are lower for the classical reasons. On the one hand, the domestic product is obtained with lower labor and development, and on the other, the foreign one has its costs burdened with import duties. Besides its stability and its price, Brazilian production brings another advantage for the telephone companies that use attenuators: being able to buy only what they need. The time that it takes to import – at least two months – makes these companies issue their orders before knowing the amount of attenuation that they are going to need in each component, and they thereby see themselves obliged to purchase a great variety of options. “They bring in as many as 20 pieces for each transmitter, when they need only one. Nineteen are thrown into the garbage”, says Carvalho.
The Brazilian market for optical attenuators, according to the researcher, is today in the order of R$ 2 million. About 40% of the total corresponds to shifted splice attenuators of doped optical fibers, such as those that Fotônica has already put onto the market. The remaining 60% cover the plug-type attenuators, which will only start to be produced in the next few months, for which reason the company’s expectations are focused on the second half of the year. The three models developed by Fotônica constitute a complete line of attenuators. The plug type is the most used, for its practicality, but it has spatial limitations, because it much increases the physical volume of the connection. The other two models offer greater flexibility for having the shape of cords, as if they were electricity extensions. In the doped fiber attenuator, the amount of the attenuation is conditioned by the size or type of fiber used in the connection, while with the shifted splice attenuator, it is possible to fix the lengthof the cord and the place of the splice in accordance with the customer’s needs.
To develop the optical attenuators, Fotônica received support from FAPESP under the Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE). They also were able to count on support from the Optics and Photonics Research Center (CePOF), one of FAPESP’s ten Research, Innovation and Diffusion Centers (Cepids), which has one of its research groups at the Physics Institute of the State University of Campinas (IF/Unicamp). The company maintains a permanent partnership with the CePOF, to solve technical problems. “There they have machines worth thousands of dollars that it would not be justified to have in the company, so we use them, and, likewise, their connectivity problems are solved by Fotônica.”
The knowledge generated in the project is also serving to carry out training outside the company. “This does not represent much in Fotônica’s sales, but in our customers’ work it adds a very great value”, says Carvalho, who carries out all this work with a team of two physicists and two technicians.Research and development are part of Carvalho’s professional history, as he was the first to defend a thesis for a master’s degree at Unicamp’s Photonic’s Laboratory. “It was a new idea that I found very interesting, but we didn’t know whether it was going to result in a product, whether it was going to create value, or whether it was going to be just an academic curiosity”, the researcher says. His doctorate came soon afterwards, at the Optics Institute of the University of Paris, with the focus also on optical fibers.
Beginning of production
Fotônica was born as a consultancy, in 1991, but already in the first few months of experience, Caravalho identified the need to develop optical connectors for producing connectorized cables, which are currently the company’s main product. “I did a job for a manufacturer of communication equipment who was having problems with connectors, and we developed the technology for assembling these components. They used to have a loss of 50%, and we managed to bring usage up to 96%”, the physicist says. Between the production of the optical connectivity components, engineering business, and optical network projects, Fotônica today sells about R$ 3 million a year.
“We once reached R$ 15 million, before the crisis of the telecommunication companies, with exports of up to US$ 500,000. We are now experiencing a moment of recovery”, says the company’s director, who is betting on expanding his exports in Latin America, today a market estimated by him at US$ 30,000 a year. “We are going to do a campaign focused on quality and price”, he announces.
Fotônica’s research team is now preparing another project – this time totally innovative – for developing connectors intended for high power optical systems. According to Walter, there is today a fragility in the structure of these systems all over the world, because the connections are made with parts designed for lower power levels, and they frequently burn out for not withstanding the load used. The challenge is to develop the product before Japan, the United States and some countries from Europe, which have already started researches in search of solutions for the same problem.
Development of Technology for Optical Attenuators (nº 00/07566-0); Modality The Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Walter de Andrade Carvalho – Fotônica; Investment R$ 11,000.00 and US$ 114,000.00