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ULO Optics buys back independence

09 Feb 2006

ULO Optics, formerly Umicore Laser Optics, thinks that independence is the way to beat the competition and has just completed a management buy-out. James Tyrrell speaks with Paul Maclennan to find how the UK firm plans to tackle its low-cost rivals and why CO2 lasers can hold their own against competition from fiber.

On the surface, the combination of cut price Asian competition and rapidly advancing fiber laser technology paints a grim picture for the future of a UK developer of CO2 laser optics. However, ULO Optics with its energetic management buy-out team at the helm strongly disagrees.

"We've just recorded our first month as ULO Optics and it has been amazingly positive," Paul Maclennan, ULO Optics' sales director told Optics.org. "We are now top three worldwide in terms of manufacturing optics for CO2 lasers." He predicts that the UK-based firm will turnover EURO 4-5 million this year and despite advances in fiber lasers sees the CO2 laser sector as a growing market.

"I still think that the CO2 laser has a place in materials processing, with a wide gambit of materials from plastic and wood through to stainless and mild steels," commented Maclennan. "It is by no means the most efficient machine, but it is amazingly versatile and the cut and weld quality distances itself from YAG and fiber lasers."

Umicore bought ULO Optics, then known as V & S Scientific, back in December 2000. "Having acquired a zinc selenide (ZnSe) manufacturing facility in the 90s, I think Umicore saw our CO2 optics expertise as being a way of adding value [to the material]," said Maclennan. "Unfortunately the ZnSe facility closed shortly after the acquisition."

With Umicore's focus shifting elsewhere, for example the company is now a leading reclaimer of precious metals, a management buy-out looked like an attractive solution for both parties.

Maclennan now expects to see benefits such as a big reduction in administration overheads and more flexibility in terms of policy making. However, like all lens manufacturers, ULO Optics will still remain at the mercy of raw material suppliers. Maclennan is confident though that the company's robust second sourcing policy offers protection.

Another shrewd decision by the firm was to move production from a single to a twin shift. "We had been looking towards China to bring costs down, but decided to bring almost everything in-house and manufacture in the UK," explained Maclennan. "We can guarantee quality and rigorously schedule production, which means that we are not letting anyone down in terms of specification and delivery."

He concedes that staff costs have increased, but feels that this premium is more than covered by the gain in manufacturing efficiency. "We can use each machine 16 hours per day instead of eight," said Maclennan. "It makes such economic sense that I am surprised more people don't do it." In fact, he reveals that his industry colleagues are watching the firm's progress with interest.

"This is going to be a staging post year for us, with the view to expand quickly over the next 24-36 months," he revealed. "Our fastest growing market is America, although we are looking to promote our business in Germany. Italy is also growing fast and we are looking towards Poland as being a rapid growth sector." In the longer term, ULO Optics believes that one day it could even tackle the Asian market.

James Tyrrell is News Editor on Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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