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SPIE Professional January 2011

A niche in optics

Optimax finds niche in quick delivery of prototype optics

By Rick Plympton and Mike Mandina

Optimax was founded 21 August 1991 by four guys who believed computer-controlled machining of brittle materials (glass) could create superior optical component manufacturing. Optimax was one of the first optics companies to adopt this breakthrough technology, setting a precedent for collaboration, experimentation, learning, and innovation.

Mike Mandina, Optimax presidentKevin Bartlett, Bob Bechtold, Mike Bechtold, and Doug Story started Optimax by moonlighting while working full-time jobs elsewhere. A few months later, Mike Mandina joined the team, bringing his optics manufacturing know-how and management experience from two other businesses.

The four original founders eventually left the company for various reasons, but Kevin later returned to Optimax and is currently employed as a master optician.

Rick Plympton, Optimax CEORick Plympton signed on in 1995 to provide marketing and sales leadership.

Our company is a precision optics manufacturer that started with antiquated equipment for making spherical and plano optics in the basement of a pig barn outside Rochester, NY. In 1998, we built a factory for versatility and speed and grew from a small team of opticians struggling to make weekly payroll into one of the largest independent optics manufacturers in the USA.

We have grown for 20 years by recognizing emerging market opportunities, developing innovative manufacturing and metrology technologies, creating a workforce culture of continuous learning and improvement, and providing profit-sharing rewards to our workforce.

Recognizing opportunities

From the beginning, we recognized a need for quick delivery service of custom optics. In 1993, typical delivery for a precision lens was about 10 weeks, so we purchased an OPTICAM machine (the third in existence, behind Kodak and Texas Instruments), a prototype multiple-axis brittle material machine center for lens fabrication. With it, we developed a process to manufacture lenses much quicker.

Optimax logoBy the summer of 1995, Optimax could process raw material into a precision lens within a few hours. Our expedited delivery services enabled companies to fulfill product demonstration commitments, such as for trade shows, and in 1998 we built and shipped a set of imaging lenses for a NASA shuttle launch in just five days.

Making the lenses to customer specification is paramount — you don’t get a second chance to repair optics launched into outer space, Hubble excluded. We have developed optics manufacturing processes for deep ultraviolet (DUV) applications, high energy lasers (HEL), and multispectral systems that span from the visible to mid-infrared.

In the mid-1990s, advancements in computing technology enabled powerful new optical design software programs, such as CODE V, Beam IV, OSLO Light, Zemax, and Kidger, and we recognized another market opportunity.

In contrast to the traditional model of a vertically integrated company with optical design and fab under one roof, the new design software empowered independent optical engineers. This, in turn, created a demand for an independent optics manufacturer.

At the same time, the Internet helped transform the optics industry from a cottage industry with small regional manufacturers to a national and global marketplace. With the technology to provide small-volume, high-quality optics quickly in a global market, the manufacture of prototype optics became Optimax’s niche.

Our strategy then was to create value in the market with our ability to make prototype optics quickly.

Tolerancing for prototypes

The "Prototype Optics in 1 Week" campaign was supported by the Optimax Manufacturing Tolerance Chart, which Rick developed to provide optical engineers with reasonable tolerance options and specifications that we could cost-effectively meet within the bounds of our quick-delivery capabilities.

The chart helps many engineers, experienced and inexperienced, quickly tolerance prototype optics such as aspheres, cylinders, and spheres for manufacturability.

In the late 1990s, because of the high demand for quick delivery of prototype optics, Optimax grew from 20 to 100 employees and began making cylindrical and aspheric optics. That led to a need for an even more reliable and faster manufacturing process.

Bob Wiederhold, operations manager, joined us in 1997 and initiated our journey into systematic improvement. Bob often reminds us that measurement, not argument, leads to advancement. We also experimented with unconventional surface-processing ideas like spirograph motion, ultra-sonic and belt lapping.

In 2005, Optimax patented VIBE polishing for high-speed removal of optical material and fine finishing of high-precision optical surfaces. With VIBE processing, we can produce non-spherical optics from hard-ceramic optical materials in one tenth the time of conventional processes. Producing a polycrystalline alumina (PCA) tangent ogive in this way, for instance, is vastly more cost-effective for our customers because it reduces our labor costs.

Many forms of innovation

As our facility size grew, so did the queue time in the production process. Because this was counter to our quick-delivery value proposition, we shifted from departmentalized manufacturing to lean manufacturing.

Streamlining the shop floor layout into cross-functional and lean manufacturing cells was a difficult transition, but the training we provided successfully supported a cultural shift in the workforce from “I’m a grinder” to “I’m an optician.”

workers on the shop floor at Optimax
Optimax has streamlined its production processes so that R&D and manufacturing teams work together.

However, an optician cannot reliably produce a high-quality optical form, particularly with aspheres and free-form optics, that cannot be measured. Optimax created processes and instruments for that by collaborating with university researchers and industrial partners, including University of Rochester, Arizona State University, and University of Central Florida.

The addition of sophisticated metrology equipment has given us the ability to measure optical components to a fraction of a wave. That equipment includes Zygo’s VeriFire Asphere (VFA) interferometer and QED’s Subaperture Stitching Interferometer (SSI) which improve the manufacturing of fractional wave aspheres. QED’s Q22-Y machine expands the capability of manufacturing high-precision spheres and aspheres, increasing speed and producing results better than λ/20 p-v on diameters up to 200 mm or more.

QED’s Aspheric Stitching Interferometer (ASI) can measure aspheres and spheres with up to 1000 waves of departure. The most current CAD, CAM, and CMM software enhance complex shaping operations, and Zygo’s PVr software helps provide the most accurate inspection data.

In 2004, Optimax also began improving manufacturing methods for HEL and DUV optics, creating unique, proprietary processes to increase transmission and optical component lifetime while decreasing absorption, mid-spatial error, and slope. For example, we developed our own coating chambers to deliver laser-damage-threshold, anti-reflection coatings to the National Ignition Facility and Omega EP laser lines.

Focus on research

Optimax productsAs Optimax matures, we remain focused on optical component manufacturing while diversifying our capabilities to include new optical materials, including glasses, ceramics, and crystals. After years of trial by many in the industry, R&D and manufacturing engineering teams have developed manufacturing technologies to process hard ceramics, such as AlON, Spinel, CeraLumina™, and Ceramic YAG into precision optical components.

Optimax makes off-axis aspheres by using raster grinding and polishing the off-axis segment of a lens with CNC machines. EUV toroidal optics made with proprietary processes are being used in a synchrotron. More innovative machining and metrology processes are yet to come for high precision, non-rotationally symmetric optical surfaces such as toroids, off-axis aspheres, and free-form optics.

One way we cultivate a culture of continuous technology advancement is through Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants. We have received several grants since 1994 and have three projects currently under way for an aerodynamic infrared dome, conformal optics, and an optically precise conformal sensor window.

Although much of this research is funded by the U.S. Defense Department, new manufacturing capabilities are often applied outside the defense sector. For example, fractional wave aspheres that Optimax produced under a 1997 SBIR project have become industry standard for LASIK and cataract procedures.

As optical engineers’ preference for specifications, such as irregularity and cosmetics, continue to tighten, Optimax has expanded its capabilities. In January 2010, we updated the Manufacturing Tolerance Chart to reflect currently achievable tolerances, and the products we can deliver in our one-week delivery timeframe have grown from basic commercial- and precision-tolerance optics to 10th-wave (1/10 wavefront peak-to-valley) optics.

Workforce training

None of this growth in capability and manufacturing methods could have occurred without employees with strong technical skills in math, science, and computer technology and strong analytical and problem-solving abilities.

In older, departmentalized factories, a new technician is taught a single step in a complex process. In lean manufacturing, the technician must understand the entire manufacturing process.

In general, we cannot go out on the street and hire people with the skills that we require, so Optimax built a training program to educate, mentor, and strengthen its workforce.

photo of Optimax employees wearing tie-dye shirts

Our on-the-job training program teaches the skills necessary to perform every operation, from polishing and machining to inspection. External courses reinforce the need for lifelong learning and provide employees with leadership and professional skills for career development.

The realization that our team can’t know everything has been the driving force behind Optimax’s collaboration with local schools and community colleges to develop courses and programs that will provide technicians with the advanced manufacturing skills needed for success in the global marketplace.

Optimax employeeBecause building the workforce pipeline with skilled technology workers is so important to our future, Mike and others founded the Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturers’ Enterprise (FAME). FAME focuses on collaborating with workforce educators and local colleges to train advanced manufacturing technicians and create awareness of employment opportunities.

We instill the Optimax culture and the expectation of personal accountability and integrity in each employee through mentoring. An environment of safety, trust, and mutual prosperity is crucial to team success.

A few years ago, Mike drove home a point about not taking what doesn’t belong to you by asking Rick for a $50 bill and taping it to the wall in the shop. It’s still there.

An empowered workforce is the company’s greatest asset. At its best, this means having clearly defined roles, openly sharing information, being accountable, recognizing and appreciating team member strengths, and focusing on a team effort to satisfy the customer. Optimax reinforces this by rewarding every employee with a monthly profit-sharing check.

Today, Optimax has nearly 150 employees, including more than 100 opticians. Continuous improvement is at the heart of everything we do. Optimax is constantly seeking improvement with current processes to reduce cost and improve quality while actively developing manufacturing solutions for emerging market needs.

We frequently take on the work that is beyond current manufacturing technology. We love a good challenge.

Innovation at Optimax

SPIE corporate member Optimax is based in Ontario, NY. Its 20th anniversary celebration this year is focusing on the innovation that differentiates the company in the market.

The optics manufacturer specializes in small volume, high quality, and quick delivery of prototype optical components.

“It is ironic that Optimax has become the largest independent optics manufacturer in the USA with more than 100 opticians,” notes CEO Rick Plympton.

“Optimax has developed a unique corporate culture and team that reliably provides optical components made to customer specifications.”

Toroidal optics
Brookhaven physicists with Optimax component
Physicists Peter Takacs of Brookhaven, Dan Fischer of NIST, and Steven Hulbert of Brookhaven install the Optimax-made mirror at the Brookhaven National Synchrotron Light Source.

Image courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

Optimax developed capabilities to manufacture synchrotron mirrors for Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in New York.

Optimax manufactured toroidal optics last year to be included in an x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy microscope at BNL. The finished optic had a clear aperture of 103.5mm x 31mm with 100nm thick gold coating.

The project opened the way for Optimax and U.S. companies with similar capabilities to manufacture synchrotron optics that could meet the specialized needs of the numerous synchrotrons around the world.

Top workplace

Optimax was one of the top 20 companies chosen for Inc. Magazine’s 2010 Top Small Company Workplaces competition for “recognizing innovation and leadership in establishing a great workplace.”

The company’s workplace practices have also been highlighted in a case study of successful organizations by the non-profit Winning Workplaces.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

Rick Plympton, Mike Mandina
Rick Plympton is CEO of Optimax and Mike Mandina is its president. Both have BS and MBA degrees and started their careers on the production floor. They also serve on a number of non-profit boards. Mandina, who managed two optics manufacturing businesses before joining Optimax, was inducted into the New York Business Hall of Fame in 2008 for his role in the development of FAME and was named the 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201101.15

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