Huawei to Build an Optoelectronics R&D Site in UK

Article By : Nitin Dahad

Huawei gets approval to build new £1 billion optoelectronics R&D facility in Cambridge, UK...

Huawei this week received approval to build the first phase of its new optoelectronics research and development (R&D) center near Cambridge in the UK, which will include fab space as part of the 50,000 sq.m. facility.

Speaking to the local government council planning meeting, Henk Koopmans, the CEO of Huawei Technologies Research & Development (UK), said, “We want this to be a key facility for Cambridge and the UK”. He said this would be a completely new facility and separate from the existing center it already has in Cambridge, indicating that it would involve moving many of its 200 people currently at its Adastral Park site near Ipswich.

Huawei said it will invest £1 billion in the first phase of the project, which includes construction of 50,000 square meters of facilities across nine acres of land and will directly create around 400 local jobs. Once fully operational, it will become the international headquarters of Huawei’s optoelectronics business.

The first phase of the project will focus on the research, development, and manufacturing of optical devices and modules, using an integrated model that it said will bring innovation faster to market. Optoelectronics is a key technology for fiber optic communication systems, so Huawei said this investment aims to bring the best of such technology to data centers and network infrastructure around the world.

Artist’s impression of Huawei’s new global optoelectronics HQ in Cambridge, UK (Image: Huawei)

The approval to build at the site in Sawston, near Cambridge (around six miles from the Arm global headquarters), was given at a local council planning meeting on Thursday of this week. The committee was asked very explicitly to consider the application from Huawei purely on the merits of the application based on local planning regulations. The committee was told, “The proposed user [Huawei] is not a material consideration.” Apart from one councilor, the committee voted overwhelmingly to approve the application to proceed with the building of the R&D center including a 22,351 sq.m. wafer fabrication cleanroom.

The approval follows over three years of work and planning – according to Huawei, it began the search for the ideal location back in 2017 and completed the acquisition of the 500-acre South Cambridgeshire site in 2018. The company began its planning application process in early 2019.

The vice president of Huawei, Victor Zhang, said of the new site, “The UK is home to a vibrant and open market, as well as some of the best talent the world has to offer. It’s the perfect location for this integrated innovation campus. Through close collaboration with research institutes, universities, and local industry, we want to advance optical communications technology for the industry as a whole, while doing our part to support the UK’s broader industrial strategy. Ultimately, we want to help enshrine the UK’s leading position in optoelectronics and promote UK tech on a global scale.”

Employing 1,600 people in the UK and established in the country in 2000, Huawei has evolved its expertise in optoelectronics in the country significantly since its acquisition of the Center for Integrated Photonics (CIP) in 2012. CIP was a developer of advanced photonic hybrid integrated circuits and InP-based optoelectronic modules for communications markets, developed based on technology licenses from both BT and Corning Incorporated. This expertise is what would appear to be moving across to the new optoelectronics R&D facility in Cambridge.

CIP was located on the site of BT’s Research Labs at Martlesham Heath, also known as Adastral Park, near Ipswich in the UK. This site is now home to BT’s innovation labs and Innovation Martlesham, a cluster of 141 high tech companies, including Huawei, BT, Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, Juniper, Keysight Technologies, Tech Mahindra and ZTE.

Following news of the approval, there has been widespread coverage in the media about the decision, especially questioning the wisdom given the debate on national security and whether Huawei poses a threat. Apart from one councilor, the planning committee in Cambridge clearly attempted to ensure that they were looking at the application based on a process that looks at the merit of the application based on planning laws; they were urged to separate this from national and political sentiment around Huawei.

This is clearly a huge dilemma for those in UK politics, especially as there is a desire to attract inward investment and forge strong relationships with non-European countries as it treads the path of its exit from Europe. Investment from China has in the past been actively encouraged by most of the senior political leaders. Another dimension is the opportunity for the UK tech sector, many of whom look to China for a large chunk of revenue growth: Arm and Imagination Technologies are two prime examples who have established joint ventures and entities in China to support growth and market penetration.

Hence it would be difficult for the UK to turn its back on such a large investment. At national level, this will no doubt be debated by the policymakers in weeks and months to come. But at the local level, the planners did what they thought would be good for jobs and their local communities.

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