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Adapting to new ideas is the key to staying on top in optics

18 May 2007

What’s the best way to prepare yourself for a long and rewarding career in optics? Berndt Zingrebe, managing director of Sill Optics, and who celebrates 25 years with the company this year, shares his secrets.

Berndt Zingrebe joined Sill Optics in 1982 and took over the top job in 1994. Based in Germany, the company dates back to 1894 and today it makes precision components for industrial machine vision, lasers, medical instrumentation and metrology, to name just a few applications.

How long have you been involved in optical engineering?
Next year I will celebrate 50 years in optics. My background is in production and I am also skilled in mechanics. I have a lot of experience in organizing optical shop floors in Germany, but I have also worked in Taiwan, Singapore and India.

When I took over as managing director in 1994 we had a turnover of €73 m and now it is nearly €712 m. We have grown from 45 to 125 people and that includes 18 apprenticeship training positions. In fact, a total of 28 apprentices have finished during this time. Most of our new operators have been trained in-house.

What qualities do you feel are important for a long career in optics?
In Germany we have special engineering schools and then we have another way in the form of an apprenticeship programme, which produces very skilled workers for production. Some engineers will have a preference for sales, production or development, but in general all engineers must have at least a basic knowledge in optics. You should also know how to manufacture your ideas and make sure that your know-ledge is more than purely theoretical.

You need to keep an eye on the latest technology and to take additional training as required. On the production side, we have recently completed an in-house course in magneto-rheological finishing that has been designed for our new polishing machine from QED Technologies, US.

We have invested in this kind of technology both to see how it works and to find out what the benefits are in terms of manufacturing. It means that we can improve the quality of our products and also tackle higher-specification demands from the customer.

What are the key aspects when dealing with customers?
It is important that you start very early in the project cycle. Our engineers will go to the customer and look at the application so that we know what the customer is planning to do with the new component. Customers can visit our production facilities to see what is possible. It is really important that you know each other. If the engineer understands the customer then he or she can send them a good proposal.

What makes an effective optical engineer?
No matter where you are from and what area you work in, all engineers have to be able to communicate. For example, the production team needs to know what the development group expects from them and vice versa.

Engineers must be open to new ideas and they must be able to react to the information that they get from the shop floor. Being flexible really is the key point, even if you are presented with a project that demands a higher specification than you have shipped in the past. The engineer must be willing to fit the specification, which may involve investing in new machinery and new technologies.

Not everyone enjoys this flexibility and some engineers make the decision to join larger companies where they are involved in fewer projects. It is important that new recruits fit our team here. Partly, it is a fundamental way of thinking, but I would say that it takes at least two years of training here to react very flexibly.

We are a production unit so we need skilled workers, but we also need MBAs with a good working knowledge and experience in optics.

What changes have you noticed in the customer’s attitudes and demands over the past 25 years?
The customer likes to have the product faster and to sometimes receive a module rather than just a single component. The product should be compact and come assembled with some electronics or with a small computer. This is where we have developed our capabilities.

Some customers like to have the shipment just in time and this was a learning process for our company, but we have managed it now. We have invested in a bigger facility so that we have more production space for machinery and can undertake more proposals. Over the last 13 years we have invested more than €710 m in equipment and I think that we now have one of the most modern manufacturing units in Germany. Investing in production is a big part of our strategy. We are also investing heavily in testing apparatus to help us to achieve higher specifications.

We are too small to have a major influence on the market. Instead, we react to what our customers do. All of our cus-tomers are preferred customers, but we try and make sure that we have the right mix. We don’t have any one customer that represents more than 4% of our turnover.

• For more information on the company and its products, see www.silloptics.de.

• This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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