There’s no doubt that quantum technologies will transform existing global supply chains, providing optimization solutions surrounding labor, raw materials, logistics, management of financial assets, and more. What we seldom hear about, however, is what’s happening to develop the quantum industry’s own supply chain.
Need a component? Make or modify one
With solid roots in academia, advances in quantum technology to date meant that when researchers needed a specific component to meet stringent requirements, they either custom-designed one or modified off-the-shelf components. The lack of commercial component availability also meant that the solutions used were often outrageously expensive. A good example of this is lasers for quantum applications that, until recently, were research grade, not optimized for size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C), and for the most part, lacked sufficient reliability. The go-to solution was to modify lasers designed for other applications.
Within the quantum industry, therefore, system developers often rely on small-volume, high-cost development by small- and mid-sized companies or adapt commercially available lasers developed for other applications. Target application segments are just not large enough to support the development of a quantum-specific supply chain.
“With the growth in research activities at universities and national labs and in quantum system developers who need access to reliable components, there are real opportunities to be explored and exploited,” said Celia Merzbacher, QED-C Executive Director at SRI International. “It’s especially refreshing to see innovative small companies interested in addressing the growing demand. These are nimble businesses that can have an impact on quantum supply chain growth.”
According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office blog, The Quantum Leap Hinges on Worker Skills and Supply Chain Limits, the quantum market just isn’t large enough to support commercial-scale production of specialized components that meet the needs of quantum developers. It’s the large quantities that bring in sufficient revenue to support high-volume manufacture. The small number of components needed for research and commercial use do not provide enough financial incentive. Therein lies the rub.
The ‘We’re in this Together’ Approach
Scott Davis, CEO and co-founder of Vescent Photonics, LLC, a designer and manufacturer of lasers, electro-optic tools, and control electronics weighed in on the state of the quantum supply chain. Davis identifies the lack of ruggedized components and systems to enable quantum to get out of the lab and the global shortage of electronic chips as the top two challenges.
While the chip shortage is not quantum-specific, the impact of the global shortage on quantum is real. “With the electronics industry supply chain, the fact that 80% of the world’s integrated circuit supply comes through one company based in Taiwan–it doesn’t take a genius to say, that’s a vulnerability. And, in many cases, ruggedized components just don’t exist, so research-grade rather than commercial-grade equipment is in use. These are big challenges,” Davis explained.
When asked if the quantum industry is working against itself regarding the status of the supply chain, Davis agreed, “In some ways it does. In order to succeed, it needs a robust supply chain and there are a lot of competing architectures out there. Often, companies will want to lock up the supply chain for themselves. The supply must be available across the ecosystem and the system-level people should understand that and understand that for this economy to work, everybody down the supply chain needs to be economically viable. We must take a holistic approach. The supply chain will only be as strong as its weakest link.”
There are several things that could impact the industry going forward. For example, there is funding for the Microelectronics Commons at the U.S. Department of Defense and the Tech Innovation Hubs and CHIPS R&D at the Department of Commerce that would have a huge impact on the ability to develop technologies for quantum and to train the workforce for the future. The industry already has several proposals in the works, but it’s unknown so far what will be selected for funding.
“Quantum is very hard. To make these quantum systems, you need a lot of specialty pieces. People need to be looking at the bill of materials (BOM) and ask which ones are made by just one teeny, little company on the planet—there’s quite a few,” Davis added. He added that the community needs to be thinking about quantum as a business going forward and not just the fact that it’s cool science.
“For those wanting to enter this industry, either to modify existing components to the quantum space, take part in the design, development or manufacturing of cutting-edge solutions, or fill labor shortages”, Davis advises, “It’s important to be a bit bold. Take the risk.”
U.S. Government Accountability Office blog: https://www.gao.gov/blog/quantum-leap-hinges-worker-skills-and-supply-chain-limits