29 Jan 2003
Creating custom-built solutions rather than developing off-the-shelf products is the strategy behind the success of precision glass specialist Anteryon. Jacqueline Hewett reports.
From Opto & Laser Europe February 2003
The firm now boasts a 200-strong staff, annual revenues of €20 m, and clients such as semiconductor giant ASML and imaging-instruments maker Leica. Anteryon's core markets - medical scanning and bar-code reading - have spawned new uses for its precision optics, including the manufacture of lenses for reading CDs and accurate laser positioning equipment. The firm's CEO, Geoff Bertenshaw, is optimistic that Anteryon's customer-orientated attitude will ensure growth in years to come.
Pushing the boundaries The turning point in the company's evolution came in 1998, when it splintered from Philips to become a separate entity. "We said that our technology and products had a wider range of applications outside Philips than inside," explained Bertenshaw. "In the last three to four years we have pushed the boundaries to find new applications for our technology. This is where our growth has come from."
The transformation to a free-standing company was completed in 2001, when the firm became Anteryon. Bertenshaw says that the name change emphasizes the firm's commercial freedom from Philips. "We are now simply a company where all of the shares are owned by Philips. We operate separately from the rest of Philips and do not belong to any Philips division," he said.
So what's the secret behind this successful transformation? According to Bertenshaw, Anteryon works closely with its customers and offers them fast turnaround times. "We have an in-house design team and we can do everything, from designing the prototype through to manufacturing the product in high volumes," he said.
Anteryon's strategy is to offer customized design solutions. "We believe that there is a strong value in having a close supplier-customer relationship," said Bertenshaw. "We only make products against a customer specification. We have no standard products and we have nothing in stock."
Bertenshaw adds that Anteryon has some unique capabilities that allow it to make sophisticated optical parts, such as custom aspheric lenses, in a short cycle time. "We have a large capacity for what's called replicated lens technology," he told Opto & Laser Europe. "We can cycle a design for a customer within a few weeks."
He compares this to the long lead times and restricted choice that customers may face when buying lenses elsewhere. "If you go to an agent they will offer you a long list of off-the-shelf lenses and you might find what you want, or you might not.
"When people approach Anteryon we try to get into a co-development process and consult on the product's design. We say: 'Tell us the function that your optical light path is trying to achieve, and we'll design it better for you'."
The core business This approach has seen Anteryon's glass-based precision optics move into a wealth of applications, mainly focused in precision glass, mastering substrates (making master templates for pressing copies of CDs, for example), fused fibre and optical devices.
Another core business is fused fibre. These devices contain millions of parallel glass fibres that are compressed under vacuum. "The attraction is that you are able to transmit pictures at very high efficiency," said Bertenshaw. "Each fibre acts like a pixel. Essentially you provide an image that can be translated easily into an electronic image." These fused-fibre devices are one of the core components in the Philips Medical Systems X-ray body scanner and find other uses wherever researchers want to filter or collimate light, such as in image-intensified electron microscopy and CCD imaging.
The company has also established a strong presence in mastering substrates, an area that has dramatically grown since the introduction of CDs in 1976. When manufacturers press CDs, they replicate the pattern of pits and grooves on a master copy made of glass. And this is where Anteryon comes in.
"We supply the basic glass disc onto which manufacturers build the individual recording," said Bertenshaw. "The discs are flat, have well-defined surface properties and are chemically stable."
Anteryon also supplies precision lenses and components for a range of industrial instruments, such as surveying equipment used in civil engineering and laser positioning equipment for precision cutting. Its other strengths lie in the submicron machining of glass and the replication of high-precision optical structures.
Such a broad spectrum of applications has seen the company through the current economic slump. Although Bertenshaw admits that the business has suffered from the telecoms and semiconductor downturn, the effects have not been dramatic and he says that the firm is still profitable.
Areas of new growth Another threat to the company's profitability is the danger of market evolution making Anteryon's technology obsolete. Bertenshaw sees these trends in both the bar-code and body-scanning businesses.
To compensate for this, the firm is looking to replenish its product portfolio and identify growth areas. The trick, says Bertenshaw, is to work in an innovative area and find a cluster of development programmes that can run simultaneously. The areas that Anteryon currently has its eye on are displays, biotechnology and optical communications.
Anteryon plans to use its replication technology in industrial displays to improve the clarity of images on liquid-crystal displays (LCDs). "We are making replicated diffuser panels to fit in front of LCDs that improve the viewing angle and clarity of the picture," said Bertenshaw. "There is a growing market for display systems in the retail business."
Biotechnology also offers opportunities for high-precision optics. Anteryon says that it could provide micro-optics for specific applications, such as developing cameras to travel along blood vessels - a niche, high-value, innovative application.
Although the market is depressed, Bertenshaw says that the use of optical-signal processing in telecommunications has a great potential for growth. "This technology will evolve from today's combination of electrical and optical switching to purely optical processing," he said.
The company is also interested in moving one step up the supply chain into a new area that Bertenshaw calls optomechanical subassemblies. He says that Anteryon is currently looking for partners to do industrial designs for packaging, so that a structure can be manufactured in volume.
Bertenshaw sees a tremendous future for optics. "There is a situation unfolding in the next five years where more and more optical products will play a key part in things that are currently performed by electronics," he concluded. "I see a lot of scope for the future and I'm very optimistic."