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Newsletter "SEI NEWS" 2012

Home > Company Information > SEI WORLD > Back number > Vol.419

[Newsletter "SEI NEWS" Vol.419]

Optical Communication Modules Brought Innovation to Communication Technology

Mitsuaki Nishie

Optical communication technology supports today’s information society. Since the dawn of this technology, Mitsuaki Nishie, who is a Fellow of Sumitomo Electric, has devoted all his efforts to the research and development of optical communication modules. As an engineer standing at the forefront of this technology, he talks about the history of optical communication and the real pleasure of technological development.

Takeda Shingen, one of Japan’s most famous warlords, also used optical digital communication.

The history of optical communication in Japan may be said to date back to Noroshi or signal fires. Noroshi was a primitive means of digital communication that used smoke to send a signal. Noroshi then evolved into flag signaling that combined two values 0 and 1 to give a meaning to each signal.

Digital communication technology made dramatic progress thanks to the development of optical fiber. In 1966, Dr. Charles Kao published a paper in which he foresaw “an optical fiber that will be able to transmit information for a long distance at a low transmission loss.” Inspired by this paper, research and development into optical fiber started in 1970 throughout the world. Sumitomo Electric, which had already started studying this technology, also launched full-scale R&D programs.

At that time, I was studying optical communications in graduate school. I entered Sumitomo Electric in 1974 with the hope of leading the development of optical communication systems at the company.

We succeeded in developing the world’s first bidirectional optical CATV system.

After I entered the company, in the late 1970s the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (currently the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) launched its Higashi-Ikoma Optical Visual Information System development project named Hi-OVIS, a revolutionary major project in the field of optical communications. This project aimed to carry out the world’s first experiment on bidirectional video and data transmission between a communication center and 130 households via optical fiber. In the project, Sumitomo Electric was responsible for developing the optical fiber and transmitter-receiver, and successfully completed the world’s first bidirectional optical CATV system. At that time, the price of a light emitting diode (LED) used as the light source was about 200,000 yen. Out of the many companies that could test-produce only a small number of optical communication devices in their laboratory, Sumitomo Electric was the first to develop a serviceable device. Thus the company contributed greatly to the progress of optical communication technology.

Alvin Toffler, the author of “The Third Wave,” visited the Hi-OVIS station after it opened in 1978. This book, which foresaw the information intensive society, was published after he visited this system. This fact proves how advanced the system was.

We worked on the development of digital transmission technology.

After completion of the above major project, we launched a digital transmission technology development project in anticipation of the digital age. In the late 1970s, we put on the market an optical transmission module named “SUMILINK.” This product was the first in our optical data link series.

An optical data link is one of the most basic devices used for optical communication. As shown in Figure 1, a fiber optic communication system consists of optical transmitter and receiver modules. Optical fiber is used as the transmission path between the transmitter and receiver modules. The optical transmitter module converts electrical signals into optical signals, while the optical receiver module receives the optical signals from the optical fiber and converts them into electrical signals.

Optical data link modules are now used at many points in broadband networks. I believe that Sumitomo Electric was the first in the world to call an electrical-to-optical conversion module an “optical data link.”

Figure 1 Fiber optic communication system

Fiber optic communication system

We developed improbable new products.

Though SUMILINK did not sell as well as we expected for a while after we released it, demand gradually increased with the emergence of the local area network (LAN) in the 1980s. However, we were still weaker in international market competitiveness than pioneering influential companies in Europe and America. We experienced a competitive disadvantage in the global market, since we were unable to prepare custom integrated circuits (ICs). Even when we offered users good ideas, our competitors received the orders.

Facing such stiff competition in the marketplace, our internal staff members held repeated discussions until we decided to develop an easy-to-use, epoch-making product that was later named “SUPER SUMILINK.” This product was based on a new idea of packaging optical components in a plastic mold in the same way as when producing LSIs (large scale integrations) and other semiconductors. The newly planned product needed to be more functionally reliable than traditional optical modules fabricated by screw-clamping and soldering the components, so that it would drive competing products out of the market. Inside the company, people criticized this development project as reckless. They said that it would be technically impossible to retain the functions of precision optical devices after heating them to a temperature of 150°C or more when packaging them in a plastic mold.

In the firm conviction that “there is no reason that we cannot attain our objective,” we increased the number of engineers to concurrently expedite the development of ICs, design precision optical components, and develop a technology for packaging optical components in plastic molds. It took two years to develop the innovative new product in March 1990.

The new product won great popularity during a campaign tour from the West to East Coasts of the United States. In the campaign tour, Sumitomo Electric was highly acclaimed as a company that had challenged such an unrealistic development goal.


We became a world leader as an optical data link manufacturer 10 years after developing the new product.

Immediately after we developed the new product, we encountered new difficulties since four leading optical data link manufacturers in Europe and America released new products that were compatible with each other. To cope with this new situation, we asked optical data link users to modify their substrates so that our products would become compatible with the products of leading manufacturers. As a result, we were able to increase sales of our optical devices and also took this opportunity to develop unique products that would gain the largest market share in the world.

Later, we shifted our main activity to the development of public communication modules using the molding technology we had already established. Just at that time, worldwide standards for public communication systems were being established. Our compact, low power consumption modules also enjoyed the world’s largest market share. In the mid-1990s, a little over 10 years after we began to develop an optical data link, we became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of optical communication devices.


Technological development can be compared to the evolution of living things.

I am no longer responsible for optical communication system and device development; I now manage the research and development of materials technology. I am still very interested in technological development. Unlike studies which pursue universal truths, technological development gratifies our desire to create products by combining sciences. Different products have different characteristics that are intrinsic to the company and the engineers concerned, even if these products have the same function. A combination of the so-called DNAs of the company and engineers working there is essential for creating leading-edge technologies and products. Thus, new technology and product development can be compared to the evolution of living things.

I believe that the ability to do things steadily and earnestly and to create a variety of new products by continuously developing unique technologies is embodied in the DNA of Sumitomo Electric.

I have developed various new products by combining my DNA with that of Sumitomo Electric. I hope young engineers enjoy the real pleasure that comes with developing new technologies. The business environment surrounding us is changing dramatically. Only technologies that can adapt to such a changing environment will survive. I hope you to carry out your work with an unyielding spirit without being deflected from the basics, while continuing to reflect both on what you need to do and what you want to do.


Compact pluggable optical data link(Small Form Factor Pluggable)


1995  Plastic-molded optical data link for public communication networks (SDH)


1991  Plastic-molded optical data link for FDDI*-LANs (left) and clear model of transmitter/receiver module (right)


1983  Original model of SUMILINK (for token ring LANs)


1978  Transmitter Optical Sub-Assembly used for Hi-OVIS


* FDDI: fiber distributed data interface

Work record

Mitsuaki Nishie

Since entering the company in 1974, he has consistently been responsible for developing optical communication modules. He completed the world’s first bidirectional optical CATV system. After working as General Manager in the Transmission Devices R&D Lab. and the Analysis Technology Research Center, etc., he is now Chief Engineer of the Materials and Process Technology R&D Unit. He was appointed a Fellow of the company in 2006.


His interests are golfing and listening to audio. On a fine day, he is either out on the green or practicing his golf swing on a driving range. On a rainy day, he listens to jazz on his DIY audio system. He has a love of making things ever since he assembled radios in his childhood. He says, “I feel relaxed when listening to jazz on a relatively large audio system.” His favorite songs are the standards of the 1950s and 1960s.

・SUMILINK is a trademark or registered trademark of Sumitomo Electric Industries, Ltd.

・SUPER SUMILINK is a trademark or registered trademark of Sumitomo Electric Industries, Ltd.

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