What defines manufacturing excellence? Insights from the G&H cleanroom

Manufacturing complex and exacting fiber optic components and assembling photonic subsystems demands the highest possible manufacturing standards.

Engineer working on a fiber optic module in the cleanroom

Shipping fully-compliant products requires close management and control of the complete manufacturing value chain, from operator training to independent quality auditing and in-process testing, cutting-edge equipment, meticulous process design and management – and, of course, a specialist, compliant environment in which the manufacture can take place.

At G&H, our recently commissioned state-of-the-art cleanroom in Torquay, UK, delivers on all fronts. It is one of very few “ultra-clean” fiber-optic manufacturing places in the world, offering fused components, photonic packaging and module manufacture in a clean-room environment all under the same roof. It enables the production of our own fiber optic components and devices, and underpins integration with and assembly into devices and subsystems that our customers have entrusted to us. Aside from unique manufacturing control, contamination management and product assurance, this also allows for fiber-optic assemblies to be spliced together with matched and shorter fiber lengths, hence achieving performance otherwise not possible through the splicing of commercially available components.

This significant investment supports the evolving markets in which we operate, such as next generation semiconductor devices, higher-speed microelectronics, satellite laser communications and quantum technologies, adding a capability that is crucially important for making ultra-clean components and sub-assemblies in some of the most demanding applications. Whilst still new, the cleanroom is already enabling G&H to manufacture components and sub-assemblies that will used in a $2 billion R&D project requiring cleanliness of fewer than two particles of any contaminant per square decimeter.

In short, it’s an expression of G&H’s ongoing commitment to pushing the boundaries of manufacturing excellence, investing in continuous improvement, and, as our mission states, “changing the world with photonics”.

Here’s an overview of what goes on in there.

From couplers to chips: processes, deliverables, applications

As a Class 1000 cleanroom, the facility is suitable for both semiconductor and Ultra High Vacuum component manufacture and assembly.

The products manufactured include all kinds of fiber optic components, such as fused fiber couplers, and the processes deployed include initial manufacture, assembly, splicing, stripping, and cleaning. The latter is supported by a custom vacuum-baking process to enable low-outgassing component and module manufacture.

The markets for these components and assemblies produced in the cleanroom include semiconductor manufacturing, space, quantum technologies and telecoms – typically, extremely short-wavelength, high-power, high-precision applications in which even infinitesimally small amounts of contaminant can cause performance degradation or complete system failure.

The work is exacting both from a manufacturing and assembly point of view. Manufacturing fiber coupler networks, for example, involves up 80 meters of fiber, and several of these may need to be spliced into each customer assembly.

Engineer putting a module into a vac-bake oven

Taking precision, cleanliness, and security to the next level

In every respect, the G&H cleanroom melds meticulous working practices with forward-thinking infrastructure and systems to deliver a manufacturing environment that is not only free of contamination, but highly secure – the latter being, of course, a critical consideration for customers who confide the fruits of their intellectual property to us.

Detection and elimination of contaminants is paramount. We use black filter UV testing to locate contaminants and bake the components in a vacuum oven to remove moisture, gases, hydrocarbons, and manufacturing residue such as including adhesives. Even the vac-bake oven itself is specially designed to contain no contaminant materials in its construction. If the component does not pass muster, it is rejected.

Our working practices themselves are, of course, also strictly controlled, to prevent inadvertent adulteration of the components and assemblies. Technicians are clothed head-to-toe in specialist overalls, and gloved. Working surfaces are kept clear of all objects apart from the component or assembly being worked on – even essential tools are stored on a separate trolley.

The facility has 15 separate HEPA air filters, and its own air-handling unit, to maintain constant air cleanliness, and is certified by an independent auditor to ISO 14644-1 Class 6 for light levels, humidity, contaminants and temperature.

The cleanroom is a restricted-access area, with its own airlock and change room. Essentially, it is a separately enabled security zone within the G&H site, into which only cleanroom-trained technicians, operators and engineers can pass, and only on the basis that they are fully gowned in a contaminant-free overall before they can access any working area.

It is very much a case of manufacturing excellence and security coming together to support and reinforce each other, so that both our own and our customers’ assets are kept in the best possible shape, in the most trustworthy possible environment.

Finishing the job – and what our customers say

When so much thought, skill, and best practice has gone into the manufacture of a component or the creation of an assembly, the challenge is then to keep the products in that optimum, uncontaminated state for both shipping, storage, and final deployment.

The key to a successful finish is packaging, and here too G&H has set itself rigorous standards that meet and indeed exceed compliance norms. The vacuum packaging used for all our components and assemblies is nitrogen-flushed, to ensure the packaging itself does not become a source of contamination, and that we can be as confident of our standards at the end of the process as we can at the beginning and throughout.

In its short life to date, our cleanroom – 100 square meters of relentless precision in a thriving hi-tech cluster in Torbay, in south-west England – has delivered a step-change in our already unwavering commitment to manufacturing excellence, a topic on which our customers are often vocal.

At G&H, manufacturing excellence is a journey, not a destination, and with our ultra-clean manufacturing area, that progression is enabling us to make a difference to customers where we couldn’t before.

Why not join us on the ride?

For further information regarding G&H’s cleanroom services, please contact our sales team.