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Jenoptik restructures and debuts polymer division

06 Sep 2006

Having recently established both polymer and micro-optics divisions and invested heavily in new facilities, Jenoptik is repositioning itself to capitalize on demand for both custom and mass-produced optical products. Matthew Peach visited Jena in eastern Germany to interview two of the company’s directors about the reasons for the developments.

In May, the Jenoptik group opened Europe’s largest dedicated plastic optics R&D and manufacturing facility in Triptis, about 20 km from the company’s historic base in Jena, Germany. The 8000 m2 production facility is home to the new Jenoptik Polymer Systems (JPS) division as well as injection moulding machines, state-of-the-art coating systems, assembly and optics design technologies.

Plastic optics are increasingly being deployed in medical equipment, cars, multimedia devices (such as webcams and camera phones) and in industrial measurement technology and mechanical engineering. In medical technology, applications are mainly in optoelectronic systems for single-use diagnostic devices.

Other growing activities at Jenoptik include the newly formed 60-strong micro-optics division, which has recently acquired US-based MEMs Optical. Jena Optronik is also a significant subsidiary specializing in space, aerial optics equipment and software for aerial analysis.

Elsewhere in the group, around 1200 employees at Jenoptik’s Laser and Optics division are manufacturing primarily OEM laser components and subsystems for a worldwide customer base. In 2005, this division reported sales of approximately €150 m and achieved an operating result of nearly €15 m.

In the laser field, Jenoptik concentrates on new principles, such as high-performance diode and thin-disc lasers. Key applications are in materials processing and medical technology. In the optics field, the group also develops, produces and markets high-quality optical and micro-optical components made of both glass and plastic.

OLE: How have you reshaped the Jenoptik group to adapt to significant market changes?

Alexander von Witzleben, managing director of Jenoptik: There has been a massive change in the philosophy of the business. In the 1990s, we had a big problem in the core of Jenoptik: basically our business was dying. There was some military-related business for historic reasons but there were hardly any new sales. After the Internet and telecoms bubbles burst, I decided that we should sell our engineering division M&W Zahnder, a transaction that we closed in May.

How has the reorganization affected Jenoptik’s business and revenue?

We have gone back to our optics roots. Between 1998 and 2006 the business was showing double-digit growth and there was a good mix of clients. We have seen euro;450 m in sales for 2006. Jenoptik is growing organically at about 10% per year and I expect to see company sales hit €0.5 bn in 2007.

We have spent a lot of money recently and we now have significant capacity in Germany, giving us a good base to sell more materials. An increase in sales is the main development I wish to see rather than more fabrication facilities.

The photonics industry is growing by 10-15% per year, depending on which sector you look at. I believe that this trend will be stable for the next 5-10 years.

Which markets do you believe show the most potential?

There is significant growth in the semiconductor manufacturing sector, which includes developments in microelectronics - although we don’t touch the switching of optical telecoms signals. By the semiconductor sector I mean areas such as DRAMs and PCB technologies, which also require optics for their design and associated production lithography direct imaging machines as well as inspection.

We are also interested in displays, especially where they require laser power and specialized optics. Laser annealing is a key issue in the displays sector - such as the cutting of glass by lasers. Another important related area is laser dicing of semiconductor materials.

What does Jenoptik feel about the emerging markets in China and India?

All geographical market sectors are in our sights including the emerging markets. Sooner or later, China and India will have an equivalent rate of car and mobile-phone ownership to that of our local markets and in North America.

However, I have some concerns about China such as maintaining protection of our intellectual property. I am not convinced that we could manufacture anything more cheaply in China because the kind of people that we need to do this cost about the same wherever you are. Also, mass production, which might afford some economies, is not really the overall aim of Jenoptik.

What are the key markets for polymer optics?

Daniel Böhme, one of the managing directors of JPS: Applications are diverse and include everything from cameras, sensors and vehicle-based viewing systems to disposable endoscopy tools, colour detection for printing applications and high-quality gratings for spectroscopy.

One important issue here is weight - a polymer’s weight is much lower than that of glass. But probably the most important point is flexibility. This factor enables more complex designs to be incorporated into a small device. For example, you can design polymer light guides that would not be possible in glass.

With polymers you can add integrated mounting and snap-in functions for easier assembly. And if you want to make the optics in high volumes, it is easy to mass-produce millions of the same optics from one tool.

In the future there will still be markets for glass products but they will be different markets from polymers. For example, higher power laser applications could not use polymers because of the need for power dissipation.

What are polymer optics made of?

Typical materials include PMMA, PC and Zeonex - materials with suitable diffractive properties. Glass and PMMA do not behave in the same way, which means that you need to have different designs because of the materials’ different refractive indices.

Is JPS developing its own polymers?

No, but we are working with companies and bodies doing research, such as the Fraunhofer institutes and some others in the Thuringia region. There is a lot of R&D into novel injection-moulding materials.

What volumes of polymer optical components is JPS manufacturing?

We are producing hundreds of different products. An important issue is that we have to support the customer with an international supply chain. Some of the products we are producing (such as disposable medical diagnostics devices) can have runs of between 5000 and 80,000 items per week.

What are some of the key trends in polymer optics?

Polymers are gradually replacing glass in various applications. For example, polymers permit complex shapes that glass cannot and also allow more customized manufacture of optical components.

Also, a polymer optical device is a custom product but with the capability of mass production. Typically it would be an OEM manufacturer who is now purchasing components or systems from JPS - our new customers are not optical specialists.

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