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Q-switch expert eyes up European market

02 Nov 2004

Jacqueline Hewett visited the headquarters of the Gooch & Housego group to find out about its history, its range of acousto-optic products and its plans for the future.

From Opto & Laser Europe November 2004

A market town in the middle of the English countryside is the last place you would expect to find one of the world's leading makers of precision optics and acousto-optic devices. But that's exactly where you'll encounter Gooch & Housego - a company founded just after the Second World War that now claims to supply over 90% of the acousto-optic Q-switches used worldwide.

The company's track record in precision optics is equally impressive. It has just secured a $700,000 (€559,200) contract for quartz crystal waveplates from the US National Ignition Facility and G&H's broad customer base ranges from renowned laser makers such as Rofin-Sinar and Spectra-Physics to car makers such as Lotus.

Having made four key acquisitions, bringing its workforce to 266, the G&H group has recorded a turnover of ?8.86m (12.75m) for the first half of 2004 - up 21% from ?7.31m in the same period of 2003. Its next moves include relocating to larger premises in the UK, extending its product range and targeting new markets.

Such goals are a world away from those of the firm's beginnings. As Gareth Jones, the group's chief executive officer explains, it all started when quartz crystals were used during the war for radio communications, including bombing raids. "The radio's transmit and receive frequency was changed for each raid and this was controlled by quartz crystals," he said. "Quartz crystal frequency control was being used seriously for the first time in a real application and they used people who had optical skills."

Individuals working on this technology, including Archie Gooch and Les Housego, were evacuated to Ilminster - a small market town in Somerset - during the Blitz to escape the bombing. After the war, the pair decided to stay in Ilminster and formed a business making high-value, high-quality precision optics in low volumes.

G&H's involvement in quartz crystals continued through to the early 1970s when they were used as ultrasonic delay lines in televisions to sharpen images. "The technology was the precursor for acousto-optics," said Jones. "We started making acousto-optic devices in 1982. That grew to provide around half of our turnover by the early 1990s. It effectively doubled the size of the company. Today, acousto-optics is two-thirds of our turnover in the UK and it's more than half of the actual group turnover."

On the basis of this meteoric growth, G&H started thinking about acquisitions and a flotation. The company's first move was to acquire Optronic Laboratories, US, in 1995. "At that time, we were looking for a foothold in the US," Jones told OLE. "Optronic gave us the higher added-value systems that we had never had in G&H. It extended the company from being a components business to one that also has instrumentation capabilities."

G&H filed for an IPO in 1997. At that time, the company had 131 employees and an annual turnover of approximately ?6.7m.

Next in line for acquisition was US-based Cleveland Crystals in 1999. "We identified that [Cleveland's] electro-optics and non-linear crystals were complimentary to the UK technology set," said Jones. "It would have taken us 10-20 years and a lot of money to develop those technologies. Acquisition was a quicker way to develop strength."

NEOS Technologies was the one instance in which G&H acquired a direct competitor in the acousto-optics field. Jones says that the senior employees in the firm were looking to retire and exit the business. When G&H got wind of this, it started talking to NEOS and snapped up the business in 2000.

In July this year, G&H made its fourth and most recent key acquisition: Landwehr Electronics of Germany - a specialist in radiofrequency (RF) microelectronics. "This takeover was not designed just to consolidate our acousto-optic position and strengthen RF technology within the group," said Jones. "It also offered us a foothold and springboard in mainland Europe."

With three firms based in the US, it's not hard to see why Jones is keen to make the most of Landwehr. The figures also speak for themselves. In the six-month period to March 2003, 60% of the group's sales (?4.5m) were to the US, while the UK came in at 16% and the rest of Europe at 10%.

The group's biggest customer is also in the US: NIF - the inertial confinement fusion (ICF) facility being built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in California. Having developed the ability to grow and process crystals for ICF applications, Jones says that Cleveland will be supplying components to NIF until at least 2008.

An important point to note is that the group is not reliant on one particular sector. It splits its principal markets as follows: 50% commercial, 28% research, 16% defence and 6% medical. Consequently, the group has a vast customer base and its products are found in broad-ranging applications.

An interesting example is the car maker Lotus. G&H supplies optical components for engines which are used to analyse combustion technology, fuel efficiency and fuel injection technology. Pistons or cylinder heads with glass windows are used to see exactly what is going on inside the engine.

"The cylinder could also be made of glass so that you could use laser velocimetry to measure parameters such as the swirl and combustion rate," said Jones. "The world's leading automotive companies such as BMW, Audi and automotive research organizations like AVL use this technology to improve fuel efficiency and performance."

The group's most important product is the Q-switch - a component that is used inside a cavity to change the laser's output from a continuous beam to a pulsed one. The group's Q-switches are found in industrial lasers used for materials-processing applications such as marking, welding, cutting and drilling, and in medical lasers for ophthalmic surgery and photocoagulation.

According to Jones, the group has seen a major increase in demand for Q-switches and acousto-optic products in the last 12 months, with NEOS in particular seeing a 25% increase. "I think demand mirrors the upturn in the semiconductor market. It's certainly a significant driver," said Jones.

To cope with this demand, NEOS has recently moved in to a new 20,000ft2 facility in Florida, US, which effectively doubles its floor space. G&H also has plans to relocate to a purpose-built facility.

As well as keeping up with demand, Jones is keen to see the group extend its product range and move into new territory. "For example, G&H's products are predominantly for the visible and near-infrared," he said. "We want to develop our business in the UV and further into the infrared."

One broad sector that Jones is keen to exploit is imaging. While he was reluctant to go into further detail, a specific area G&H is considering is hyperspectral imaging.

"We produce spectroscopic instrumentation at Optronic Laboratories, but we don't currently produce spectroscopic imaging instruments," said Jones. "Acousto-optic tunable filters give you spectroscopic imaging capabilities. Put these two together and enter into the medical field, and there could be an interesting future."

The European market is clearly on this agenda and in the group's sights. "We sell acousto-optic Q-switches to all the major German laser companies, but we don't sell a lot of our other products," explained Jones. "We need to actively pursue selling components, nonlinear materials and electro-optics. I'd like to see our group European sales double over the next three years."

Company timeline

* 1948 Gooch & Housego is founded in Ilminster, UK

* 1953 Gooch & Housego becomes a limited company

* 1995 Optronic Laboratories, US, acquired

* 1997 Gooch & Housego initial public offering

* 1999 Cleveland Crystals of the US is acquired

* 2000 NEOS Technologies of the US is acquired

* 2004 Landwehr of Germany is acquired

The Gooch & Housego group Gooch & Housego

G&H is the group's UK parent company. Based in Ilminster, UK, the firm employs 109 people and has expertise in designing and making acousto-optic devices such as Q-switches, modulators, tunable filters, frequency shifters, deflectors and a range of precision optical components and assemblies. It also has knowledge of processing both soft and hard crystals such as sapphire.

Cleveland Crystals

Cleveland Crystals is based in Ohio, US, and has 56 employees. It is one of the leaders in the growth and fabrication of large-aperture KDP and KD*P crystals for inertial confinement fusion applications. Cleveland also boasts two claims to fame: it can grow the largest KDP boules in the world and it was the first commercial producer of BBO in the US. Other capabilities include production of electro-optic Q-switches and infrared waveplates.

Optronic Laboratories (OLI)

OLI is based in Florida, US, and has 38 employees. It specializes in products such as photometers, spectroradiometers, and test and measurement systems for LEDs and displays. Its high-end kit provides repeatable research-grade measurements in the UV-VIS-NIR-IR wavelength ranges for research, academia, industry and the military. OLI also offers calibration services.

NEOS Technologies

NEOS is based 60 miles away from OLI in Melbourne, Florida, and has 46 employees. Its range of acousto-optic products includes modulators, deflectors, Bragg cells, multichannel A-O systems, Q-switch systems and mode lockers with RF drivers as complete turnkey systems or OEM modules.

Landwehr Electronics

Landwehr is based in a suburb of Hamburg and has 17 employees. Its main activities are developing high-frequency micro-electronics for laser control systems using acousto-optic devices. Typical products include high-power, high-speed switching Q-switch drivers, acousto-optic modulators, acousto-optic frequency-shifters and acousto-optic tunable filters.

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