production of optical components and systems now takes place outside the United States. There are only a handful of large U.S. optics companies engaged in the volume production of optical components, most of them in the plastic lens component business. This U.S. trend toward specialty products and small companies has been due in large part to the special technical needs of the Department of Defense, which has long been a vital customer for the industry. Government programs such as Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) have also encouraged the formation of small, innovative optics companies. The main strength of the U.S. optics industry is now in high-precision manufacturing of low-volume specialty optical components and devices with high added value. This strategy has produced a strong industry based on the diverse activities of many small companies but lacking the manufacturing base required for expansion into mass consumer markets.
There are several thousand small optics and optics-related companies in the United States, with an average of 50 or 60 employees each. Together they account for more than 200,000 jobs and annual net revenues of about $30 billion for optical components and systems (excluding ophthalmics).1 Yet even these impressive statistics do not adequately indicate the strength that small businesses provide to the U.S. optics industry as a whole, by making available a broad range of technical skills. A key finding of this report is that despite the optics industry's significant contribution to the U.S. economy, this contribution comes in so many small pieces that it is not usually fully recognized and understood.
The enabling character of optics, a repeated theme of this report, is an especially important consideration for the manufacture of optical components. The value of a component such as a laser diode or an aspheric lens is usually small compared with the value of the optical system that it enables. It is even smaller compared with the value of the resulting high-level application. Advances in the manufacturing of optical components are greatly magnified into improved capabilities and economic advantages at the systems and applications level. Advanced optical components cannot be considered commodity items.
This chapter addresses two distinct challenges. First, how can we maintain and strengthen the U.S. optics industry's leadership in high-precision manufacturing of low-volume specialty products? Second, how can we ensure the U.S. optics industry's ability to compete internationally in the increasingly important mass markets, especially the new mass markets that continue to emerge? Following a brief history of optics manufacturing in the United States and a short overview of the current state of the industry, the chapter divides into two main parts: (1) low-volume manufacturing of high-performance specialty products