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Edmund Optics thrives on imaging applications

11 Jan 2006

Think "Edmund Optics" and the words "catalogue firm" probably aren't too far behind. But, as president John Stack tells Jacqueline Hewett, there is a lot more to the company.

Edmund Optics is probably best known for its extensive catalogue of optical components. But over the last 15 years the company has steadily diversified into imaging, and its optics are now the linchpin in markets ranging from factory-floor automation and machine vision to biomedicine and military.

The company has also built up a tremendous amount of design expertise and boasts intellectual property in everything from high-precision prism manufacturing to metrology applications, such as high-volume lens testing. The future also looks rosy owing to Edmund's aspheric technology, which will be crucial in everyday applications, such as the tiny cameras that will be deployed in cars to monitor blind spots.

"The significant thing that people don't always realize is that Edmund is one of the world's leading suppliers of precision optics," John Stack, president of Edmund Optics told OLE. "We have the largest inventory of off-the-shelf optics in the world. 98% of our optics inventory is in stock so we can ship pretty much everything the same day. Our goal is to have global same-day ship capability. There is a significant amount of infrastructure behind the catalogue."

Global operation

The infrastructure that Stack refers to is Edmund's far-reaching network of sales offices and its commitment to customer service. Having started off as a North American company, Edmund now has offices in the UK, Germany, Singapore, China and Japan, and a global workforce rapidly approaching 500.

"In 2000 we made some strategic acquisitions and our manufacturing space ballooned up to 100,000 sq. ft," said Stack. "Very quickly we became one of North America's largest optical manufacturing facilities. We also started to add an extensive engineering force, and we now design and manufacture almost all of our optics."

It is clear that Edmund's design expertise lies in imaging applications. One up-and-coming area that the company is concentrating on currently is asphere technology. Aspheric lenses have a non-spherical shape, which removes the need for multiple lenses and leads to both lightweight and high-performance components.

"The capabilities of the first CCD and CMOS sensors really were below what the available optics at the time could deliver," explained Stack, "but as CCD and CMOS technology has improved, you have got to start implementing aspheres in the optical train in order to achieve better performance."

One of the target markets for this technology is the automotive industry, where imaging systems are being deployed in cars as value-added features. Two tiny cameras could soon replace the car's wing mirrors, for example, or a camera behind the main rear-view mirror can monitor rainfall and turn on windscreen wipers. The key is that the lenses must be small and offer high performance.

"If we want to make lenses and put them in small packages, we have to implement something other than spherical surfaces," said Stack. "If you want to make a lens with very good light-gathering capability, you have to push [lower] the f-number, and aspheres are a critical component in doing this."

Stack also believes that Edmund is in a position to advise OEMs. "It's not just the asphere itself," he explained. "We have all the know-how that will actually get people to integrate aspheres into products and make them cost-effective to manufacture."

Another area high on Edmund's list is developing specialized optics for line-scan cameras. As these sensors have grown in terms of size and number of pixels, they have all-but outstretched the available optics.

"Line-scan cameras are critical when we talk about LCD inspection and assembly lines," commented Stack. "We are releasing a lens in January that will be twice as fast as any lens out there for these large-sensor markets."

In addition to developing new products, Edmund has been forced to develop quality-control test kits to verify all of its offerings. As Stack explains, Edmund Optics lives by the mantra "if you can't test it, you can't make it". So as production volumes rose, there was a pressing need for flexible and fast methods to gauge the quality of lenses.

This prompted the company to develop a high-speed system for measuring the modulation transfer function of a lens. The result was an instrument that can process one lens every 7 s in comparison with traditional methods, which can take as long as 20 min. It also added some metrology intellectual property to Edmund's business, which it is now looking to license.

The diverse nature of Edmund's business places it in an enviable position. "We are lucky in that no single market completely dominates any part of our business," said Stack. "Military is hot just now but that is not the only thing that has been surging forward. We have certainly seen traction in the biomedical area. About the only market that is truly soft right now is semiconductor - but that's a universal truth for everyone."

Stack also says that, although the majority of Edmund's sales are currently in North America, it has seen significant growth in Europe and Asia. "We contribute a lot of our growth in Europe to our service," he said. "There are US companies in Europe but they still try to service their customers from the US. We have a very strong leadership position within the company in Europe and Asia. We try to think globally."

So what does the future hold for Edmund Optics? According to Stack, there are three targets over the next two years. The first is to improve customer service by opening new sales and engineering facilities and increasing inventory in Europe and Asia. The second is to increase manufacturing capabilities, which Stack says will happen throughout 2006 and 2007.

The final target is new product growth. "Our pipelines are absolutely full," said Stack. "There are a lot of new products coming out in a range of areas. We will also be releasing new intellectual property in 2006 that will again show some new directions in terms of technology and products."

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