Glass Fab CEO Robert Saltzman started his optical materials supply company in his garage in 1974 after learning about glass molding and optical materials working at Fischer Optical and Bausch & Lomb.
By automating almost all of Glass Fab's milling equipment over the last 35 years, Saltzman's company now produces more than one million blanks per year, and he is looking at making Glass Fab the most high-tech business of its kind.
In April, Saltzman (RS) sat down with Dirk Fabian (DF) of SPIE to talk about entrepreneurship, careers, and trends in optics for SPIE Professional. Here is an extended interview.
DF: What was it like going from one person who's producing blanks and operating everything to hiring that first employee? What kinds of decisions did that entail?
RS: It [was] a matter of getting business. And I guess one of my talents is that I was not only able to tinker and machine … but to sell.
DF: The optics business in Rochester has gone through its ups and downs. How has your company survived these ups and downs?
RS: I founded a highly niche business. We provide a service in between the manufacturer of the materials and the people who make optical parts, lenses, and windows. We fill a niche because very few people can machine parts like we machine. There are probably only two or three companies that do what I do. Big manufacturers like Schott will cut blanks. They have a division in Switzerland that is my competitor. Schott is not only a supplier of glass, they're a competitor. Corning is both a competitor and supplier. We are a distributor for Corning fused silica. Corning cannot make the small parts. They make big parts for the NIF, Lawrence Livermore; they do a lot of that stuff. But the work that we do, there are only two or three people that compete with us.
DF: Do you feel pressure or motivation to move the manufacturing elsewhere? To outsource?
RS: No. we have no desire to move our manufacturing elsewhere. We have had people come to us and say, "Why don't you set up a factory in England or in the Orient?" The answer is no because our labor costs are very low [in Rochester]. We are doing almost everything with automated equipment and with very low overhead. We can compete anywhere in the world, and we do. People know who we are in the optical industry. People who grind and polish recommend us to other people. Everyone knows everyone else; their problems; their strengths.
DF: What are the challenges you see for the business in the next 10 to 15 years?
RS: My goal for the last five years, since I'm slowly approaching full retirement, is to make this company the most high tech company that does this type of work. We are almost all automatic now with CNC machines. … A lot of them I've designed myself. So that's been my goal, to be able to do with our equipment, very, very, very high-tech and very tight tolerancing work … and do it with as little labor as possible. … There's a saying: Things don't get better. They get different. Life doesn't get better, it gets different. … You have to ride the ups and downs. We have a recession right now, but this company is not going out of business. It still has a backlog. It's still making money. Things will turn.
DF: What do you think was the critical phase of your business' development?
RS: When I went from hand producing blanks to automatically sawing lenses and glass. … The first three CNC bandsaws that I bought was the move that got us more and more business. So those three are now 23 machines. We had one chopsaw, one large bandsaw. We now have six. We've gone through two different high-pressure water cutters. We actually sold the first one and bought a brand new, more high-tech one. Our edging equipment is all new. … We've automated almost every aspect of our business.
One thing I realized early on was that energy costs were going up exponentially. The traditional ways of making the optical blanks involved molding or cutting them out of large blocks, but by using high-speed automated tools, we could cut blanks to much higher tolerances, reduce waste, and provide a blank that needs much less finishing.
DF: What kind of education would you advise for people getting into business? What helped you?
RS: It's not education, but personality. I've been a tinkerer all my life. … When I was 10, 11 years old, I could take clocks apart and repair them. … I had a little workshop. … I have a nice workshop now. I do a lot of wood working. I enjoy working with my hands. It's just a combination of mindset. I love selling. I love the engineering part of it. I still make drawings. I still design things. A whole bunch of things. As a matter of fact, my son is very much like me. He's got that same spirit. And so it's worked out well. … If he wasn't in this business, I would have sold it. I'm 78 years old. … I still carry a 17 handicap on the golf course. .. I work hard to be healthy.
DF: What has been the prime appeal to starting your own business?
RS: Not wanting to be beholden to anyone. I'm my own boss. That's the American story, the American dream.
Growth at Glass Fab
Glass Fab Inc. is a world leader in providing fabricated optical blanks and other optical materials for customers across the globe. Its physical facilities have grown from a shop in Robert Saltzman's garage to six bays in a manufacturing building in Rochester, NY (USA), to its current Rochester plant spanning about 28,000 square feet with state-of-the-art cutting and measuring equipment.
Saltzman says the city of Rochester has been a tremendous help in its economic growth, assisting Glass Fab in finding a location and the financing for its current facility, a formerly abandoned building.