Optimax Maximizes Learning to Succeed

The corporate culture of this optics manufacturing company emphasizes learning and its rewards.

 

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The founders of Optimax Systems Inc. were former Kodak opticians and small business people in Rochester, N.Y. who wanted to use the latest manufacturing technology to set new standards for service to optical components customers. The Rochester location provided easy access to the ground-breaking work being conducted at the University of Rochester’s Center for Optics Manufacturing—which was the catalyst for a new generation of precision optics machines called Opticam. However, at its inception in 1991, Optimax was more of a weekend hobby than a business for most of the participants.

Around this same time, Mike Mandina, Optimax’s current president, found himself unemployed and looking for a means to send his kids through college. Mike had been a principal in an optics design and prototype start-up called Cormac in 1976. The company was sold to Melles Griot in 1981 and became part of the Melles Griot Optical Systems Division in Rochester.

It is not uncommon in business for managers and corporate policy to be at odds, especially during times of stressful market conditions. Such was Mike’s situation at Melles Griot. It’s not that he or the company was right or wrong; they just had different visions. Mike had clarity about the kind of company he wanted to be associated with. His next venture would need to have a pay-and-reward system that enabled the people doing the work a comfortable lifestyle; the workforce should be highly motivated to perform at a high level by an extraordinary bonus plan; and employees would need to feel empowered enough to differentiate themselves internally. Most important, he wanted to provide the highest quality product to his customers and the fastest service in the industry.

With these founding principles in mind, Mike and his colleagues began the arduous work of building an optics manufacturing company. Mike’s track record with key suppliers was extremely helpful in creating lines of credit. In the beginning, Optimax was primarily funded through vendor relationships, sweat and VISA/MasterCard. The first five years were all about learning how to build a workforce and harness Opticam technology, which is a computer-based numerically controlled (CNC) process for machining brittle optical materials.

Optimax bought their first Opticam machine in 1993. It was too large to fit in their humble facility in the basement of a barn, so it was operated over at the manufacturer’s facility, formerly CNC Systems and currently OptiPro Systems. In 1995, Optimax moved into a renovated cabbage canning factory.

In 1994, Optimax was fortunate enough to participate in a Department of Defense Technology Reinvestment Program grant as the small business partner. This was Optimax’s first attempt at asphere lens manufacturing.

Five years later, Optimax needed marketing and sales expertise as well as state-of-the-art fabrication know-how. It was at this time, and in relatively quick succession, that Rick Plympton and Bob Wiederhold joined Optimax. Rick had been working in technical sales and had just come off an assignment in Europe. Bob had a history of success at a number of world-class optics manufacturers. With the core team and progressive culture established, Optimax began promoting “Precision Lenses in 1 Week.”

In 1999, Optimax purchased Gould Precision Optics in Binghamton, N.Y. Gould had expertise in flats and cylinder optics primarily for the semiconductor market. Unfortunately, the telecom bust forced Optimax to close the facility in Binghamton and move to the new building in Ontario, N.Y.

Originally 15,000 square feet, the building in Ontario was expanded to its current size of 40,000 square feet in 2001. Optimax has seen sales increase to more than $10 million and the workforce expand to more than 150 employees.

Of all the things Optimax does, the most important is its acknowledgment that no one in the company knows everything and that a culture of continuous learning is required to prosper. If the leadership is willing to learn, the workforce will do the same, and the company can compete more effectively in a global market.

The company has a generous tuition reimbursement program in place, and Optimax has a training department dedicated to optics manufacturing and metrology. Professional development is also supported through company-sponsored team leadership training and reading groups. Each employee has regular career path reviews.

A culture of continuous improvement also helps expand manufacturing capabilities. For example, Optimax invests in developing proprietary solutions such as the VIBE polishing technique. VIBE is a high-speed process for making ground surfaces shiny in seconds, in contrast to the hours of machine time required for conventional polishing. The innovation of VIBE is that the polishing lap moves randomly over the optical surface, traveling only a short distance from the starting position.

Unlike the gentle oscillation of conventional polishing laps, the VIBE lap moves vigorously about its central position in a high-speed vibratory motion. Given a small compliance in the lap, the local slope can be maintained while the surface is polished. This makes VIBE a versatile technology that may be applied to aspheres and conformal optics as well as spheres, cylinders and plano optics.

In 2006, Optimax received United States Patent 6,942,554 B1 for its work in developing the apparatus and process for polishing a substrate using VIBE. Select optics have been finished to high-precision tolerances using the VIBE technique for years. However, by working with researchers starting with plano optics and moving to spheres and aspheres, Optimax has been able to further improve VIBE processes and define parameters. The company is beginning to leverage VIBE into the growing market of asphere and conformal optics.

Today, Optimax uses more than 100 opticians to machine optical components up to 300 mm in diameter—including aspheres, cylinders, spheres, prisms, flats and optical coatings. Optimax’s customer base is diverse, spanning the defense, aerospace, semiconductor, medical and R&D markets. The company remains dedicated to small volume, high-quality and quick delivery of precision optical components.

[ Joseph Spilman is a sales engineer at Optimax. ]

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Optimax Maximizes Learning to Succeed

The corporate culture of this optics manufacturing company emphasizes learning and its rewards.

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