Industry Forum

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused difficulties for many manufacturers, the emergence of smart and autonomous vehicles into the mainstream presents a new opportunity for the photonics market leader. Industry Forum has been helping its Automotive Applications team prepare for the road ahead.

Lumentum has been at the forefront of photonics technology for several decades. Its diode lasers, many of which have been optimized for 3D-sensing applications, are used globally in everything from consumer electronics to dentistry, and industrial automation to smart cities.

Little surprise then, that the company sees tremendous opportunity in the automotive sector, where the development of smart and autonomous vehicles is starting to drive demand for 3D-sensing and related technology.

“Over the past few years, applications like driver-monitoring systems, and, most recently, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), have rapidly emerged in the automotive space,” observes Matt Everett, Product Line Director for Automotive Applications in Lumentum’s 3D-Sensing Business Unit. “There’s also been a shift from incumbent technologies like edge-emitting lasers and LEDs into vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs), which means there’s a lot of synergy with our products and what we do. For fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles, a combination of multiple sensor technologies like cameras, RADAR, and LiDAR will be needed. As these technologies make it to high volume production vehicles, we expect to see exponential growth in the market across the globe.”

With a long history of optical innovation, and its laser illuminators for 3D sensing already shipping in volumes of millions to tens of millions of units per week, Lumentum feels it is well-positioned to take a leading international role in this emerging market.

“We began by developing products for shorter-range sensors used in in-cabin applications, which have a lot of similarities with the products we make for mobile devices,” Everett explains. These include gesture recognition to operate certain vehicle functions, and driver and occupancy monitoring systems–for example adjusting how an airbag deploys according to the height and weight of a passenger or monitoring facial expressions, eye movement, and position to determine levels of distraction or drowsiness.

Lumentum is now also developing more sophisticated products for LiDAR-based solutions for the exterior of vehicles, extending from 10-20 meters for nearby objects to over 250 meters for higher-speed operation. “This is still very new,” says Everett. “In 2020, only around a tenth of a percent of cars on the road had LiDAR technology, but it’s growing very rapidly with a wide range of customers. As a tier two manufacturer, we would supply either to the LiDAR integrator or the tier one directly.” Lumentum is currently developing many products, including both platform and bespoke items for its automotive customers.

Has business been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related and much publicised global shortage of semiconductors?

“The shortage relates to complementary devices to the ones we’re making, so it affects our customers and their customers as they ramp in these new markets, but not our production lines. I am proud to say that Lumentum has been successful at enabling business and our opportunities are growing. People are still innovating and driving the future. Customers are still working on their technologies.”

With a background in chemical engineering, Everett spent more than a decade at Lumileds, where he spent much of his tenure in the product management of automotive lighting products. “It was at Lumileds that I got my taste for the automotive industry,” he enthuses. “One of the satisfying things about working in this sector is that you can see your work. When you’ve spent the last two to three years working with a tier one and OEM to get your technology on a vehicle and then you see it on the road, that’s a great feeling.”

He also enjoys playing a part in the creation of a step-change in vehicle safety. “It’s already been shown that autonomous vehicles can be safer than those driven by humans. There’s lots that must happen to reach that point, with the identification and classification of objects and how the car reacts to them, the detection range, and speed of processing, but in the long term, it will be much safer. As someone who likes driving, it is a little ironic that I’m helping to eliminate an activity I enjoy, but it’s gratifying to help make people safer!”

Training to succeed

The scale of the demand for vehicle sensors and the speed of its escalation has prompted Lumentum to invest in this burgeoning branch of its business. This is demonstrated by Everett’s appointment to a leadership role in September 2020 and subsequent investment in a learning programme for 117 people in 11 countries across Europe, Asia, and North America, delivered in partnership with Industry Forum.

Training so far has focused on increasing knowledge and understanding of the automotive industry’s stringent manufacturing standards and quality assurance, bringing people up to speed on the latest developments and best practices. The learning has been structured to reflect a wide audience of existing as well as new staff. Says Everett, “Many people are involved in developing this portion of our business and bringing the products to market. Industry Forum has been training people worldwide, from R&D, operations, quality, marketing and through to management.” Courses have covered, among other things, IATF awareness, core tools, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA), and PPAP preparation.

Although some of the training is still in progress, the impact is already apparent. “It’s been fantastic really, especially considering we’ve had to do it all remotely,” Everett observes. “The attendees are engaged. The instructors are well versed in their topics and effective at getting their message across. Lumentum already had a strong focus on quality, but the industry-specific training has strengthened the action plans in place. For example, with the APQP training, we’ve seen more cross-functional discussion, and more advanced and proactive thinking about the development process and what we need to do for our products, years ahead of ramp time, to ensure success. That’s exactly the point of APQP in a nutshell.”

After around 15 years focused on manufacturing components for the automotive markets, Everett knows well how exacting and demanding it is for a tier two supplier; “I always say, if you can work in automotive, you can work in any industry.”

He has been impressed by the spirit and pace at which Lumentum is continuing to innovate and develop new technologies, despite many employees working from home much of the time during the pandemic. “Nothing has slowed down and the same is true of the training with Industry Forum. Even though it has all been virtual, it’s been effective in going beyond Industry Forum and Lumentum in reaching our customers and their customers. One of the positive stories of this whole pandemic is the human spirit and how we’ve adapted to overcome the circumstances and make the best of it.”

Looking ahead, does he see an eventual levelling out of the current near-vertical growth curve for vehicle sensors? “One of the nice things about automotive is that it’s quite stable and predictable once you reach a steady state. That said, there is tremendous growth still expected to come in this space, and this ramp is just at the beginning. Lumentum is excited to be a technology leader and innovation partner enabling this growth for the needs of today and tomorrow!”