Headquartered at MIT, AIM Photonics Academy is embarking on an ambitious plan to develop a technician-training program in emerging technologies, attempting to answer the question of whether an institute known for educating world-leading scientists and engineers can play a role in helping train an outstanding technician workforce.
MIT is stepping in to train technicians in the advanced manufacturing field of integrated photonics.
Integrated photonics installs light technology on chips. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AIM Photonics is one of 14 institutions across the country that were part of the Obama administration's initiative to develop new technologies and build the little-known industry's workforce.
In a country with high demand for bandwidth, data centers need more and more power to run, and photonics moves information much faster and efficiently than electronics because it generates less heat. Fiber optics are already in everything from cellphone networks to bar codes to sensors, but there aren't nearly enough workers to create the technology.
BSU is one of several institutions, including Stonehill College, working with a $1.8 million grant MIT secured from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The grant allows AIM Photonics Academy at MIT to develop a program to train people to work in advanced manufacturing. The initiative brings together industry, academia and government.
Government officials say there is a skills gap in the emerging integrated photonics industry. A federal office awarded Easton’s Stonehill College $570,000 to start training technicians by summer 2020.
Massa said he's already working with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the next few generations of photonic technology, like incorporating tiny lasers into microchips to save power and speed processing.
But as that technology moves from the lab to factory scale production, the technology will have to be taught to technicians and engineers so they can put it into practice and install and repair the equipment.
That's what he wants to start doing with the grant.
[The manufacturing institute AIM Photonics] is one of 14 across the country focusing on emerging technologies and industries addressing an increasingly important and frequently vexing question: how to prepare workers at all levels — technicians as well as people with doctoral degrees — for new technologies, like integrated photonics, that are in development, but only at the very early stages of commercial use.
According to the SPIE/OSA Optics and Photonics Education Directory, there are [as of 2018] over two dozen colleges and universities in the U.S. offering Bachelor of Science degrees in optics and photonics or related fields, but only 10 institutions offer associate degrees. In fact, there is only one institution in New England offering an Associate of Science degree in optics and photonics — Springfield Technical Community College — for a six-state region that is exploding with job opportunities. Even when combined, the 10 programs across the U.S. do not graduate nearly enough associate degree optics and photonics technicians needed to satisfy the growing needs of industry. The lack of skilled optics and photonics technicians in many cases is actually hampering the growth of many companies. As a result, many associate degree students are hired as early as their first semester of college on a part-time and/or internship basis in order to entice them to stay on full time upon graduation. Starting salaries typically range from $40,000 to $60,000 or more, with many graduates receiving multiple job offers.
Industry players, from university professors and engineers to company executives, are now working to bridge the gap between the growing photonics and optics job markets and their lagging numbers of skilled technicians. New initiatives and programs, such as the Optics & Photonics Technology INnovation (OPT IN!) program, target a broad range of potential technicians, and at younger ages, in efforts to populate and strengthen the existing and future workforce.
More programs such as these are needed for next-generation success, according to industry experts. Lionel Kimerling, who leads the Education, Workforce Development and Roadmap division of AIM Photonics — a public-private U.S. manufacturing institute focused on integrated photonics — spoke with Photonics Media about such needs. As the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and founding director of the school’s Microphotonics Center, Kimerling weighs in on the current state of photonics and optics training, the struggling workforce, and what can be done to strengthen it for future success.
“I come from a humble background. I’m the oldest and the first to go to college in my immediate family,” Gagnon said. “Now I’m this guy from South Texas who’s right here on the East Coast, going to MIT. I say that to my family and they can’t believe it. These types of accomplishments were not in the cards for a lot of people I know.”
Gagnon credits STCC for such an opportunity. “If it wasn’t for the optics and photonics technology program, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” he said. “This program made possible something I thought was unattainable.”
The MIT internship was established via collaboration between Lincoln Lab, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and AIM Photonics, a Manufacturing USA institute that promotes the manufacturing of photonic integrated circuits (PICs) in the U.S. for academic, commercial, and government applications. Massachusetts is supporting AIM Photonics and several other Manufacturing USA institutes through a $100 million Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (M2I2) administered by the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
AIM Photonics recently held a week-long boot-camp-style academy (the third to date) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which included students from all over the world. MIT professor and executive at AIM Photonics, Lionel Kimerling, told Photonics Media that the AIM Summer Academy brings together students from big and small enterprises, providing practical access and technology on-ramps for U.S. industry, government, and academic communities.