Many thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, of people are employed in the fiber optics industry in various positions and working with components, networks, cabling, construction and splicing equipment and all the business aspects of all of that. However, only a very small portion of those are directly involved in the manufacture of the optical fiber itself. The production of fiber, whether standard or specialty, is one of the quintessential high technology processes, performed on a molecular level, with chemical concentrations measured in parts per billion in an extreme “clean room” environment.” Atmospheric pressure, humidity and temperature are all tightly controlled, and a passing storm overhead with resultant drop in barometric pressure can have a negative effect on the finished product if the facility is not constructed to mitigate this kind of change. Diameters and concentricities of core, cladding and coating(s) are measured in nanometers, and suppliers routinely produce thousands of kilometers of fiber that meet their own brutally stringent specifications.
Several chemical deposition processes are used worldwide for fiber manufacture, depending on the type of fiber required, the history and intellectual property (IP) of the manufacturer, and the availability of equipment. For over 23 years, FOC has represented SG Controls of Cambridge, England and sold their MCVD (modified chemical vapor deposition) gas systems, draw towers and ancillary equipment throughout North America. Systems are expensive: $500,000 will get you started, and a complete facility can cost $1 million or more for equipment, with an equal amount needed to construct or modify the building to house the equipment, and to store and deliver the chemicals and utilities needed in manufacturing. The sales cycle – request for proposal; agreement on specifications; issuing purchase orders; building, shipping and commissioning equipment; and making initial fiber runs – takes over a year and can take as much as 7 – 10 years. In spite of all the changes that occur in the industry, and the caustic and unstable chemicals routinely used in fiber making, SG’s fiber manufacturing customers in North America have been making quality fiber consistently on a daily or weekly basis for as much as 20 or even 30 years with the same equipment. Properly maintained and cared for, a well-designed and constructed MCVD and draw tower can be used well beyond what would have been its estimated useful life.
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