Donnelly Optics Corp., a start-up company in the plastic optics field, has kicked off the initial phase of an expansion project expected to move the high-tech lens maker at laser speed during the next two years.
By the end of 1999, the company expects to purchase as many as 250 injection molding presses — mostly all-electric machines — and reap sales of more than $200 million. The first part of that three-step expansion, a 47,000-square-foot manufacturing center, opened in May at the company's Tucson, Ariz., headquarters.
The facility will make 1.7 million plastic optical units for both 1997 and 1998. The company is spending $15 million for the current expansion and expects to invest another $30 million to $35 million next year to expand the center to 67,000 square feet.
Long term, the company plans to open a separate, 200,000-square-foot campus in 1999 that will include about 200 injection presses. The $50 million project — the cost does not include equipment purchases — is planned for a 30-acre site in the Tucson area. The company currently is scouting locations.
The growth of the relatively new company also will raise employment from about 50 now to as many as 800 by 1999, said Robert Deutsch, vice president for sales and marketing.
The firm, which is owned by automotive window supplier Donnelly Corp. of Holland, Mich., is banking its growth on a patented, advanced optical system that it has developed. The system involves high-precision injection molding of thin thermoplastic materials using diffractive optics technology that manages wavelengths of light passing through each part.
The complex technology improves the efficiency of light transmission to double that of existing processes and halves the cost of making optical lenses and modules, according to Donnelly Optics President George Ebel.
The company's products, which replace glass and polycarbonate lens systems, are being sold to the automotive industry for use in headlamps and turn signals; for computer and videoconferencing imaging systems; and to aerospace and medical fields for diagnostic and other equipment. The products include optical lenses and the surrounding casings, called modules.
In January, the division became a wholly owned subsidiary of publicly held Donnelly, and self-reliant. To raise cash for its expansion, Donnelly Optics plans to make an initial public offering in 1998, Ebel said. The amount to be raised and timeline for the IPO still must be decided, he said.
Since January, the company has grown about eightfold by opening the new facility, said Ebel, who did not disclose current sales volumes.
``I'd characterize our company's growth as phenomenal,'' Ebel said. ``The technology goes far beyond anything available today. It crosses a lot more than automotive applications, and Donnelly realized that it was best for us to be on our own.''
The initial $15 million expansion includes a 32,000-square-foot injection molding clean room containing 18 Cincinnati Milacron Roboshot horizontal electric presses. The presses, which are being installed now, have clamping forces of 55-250 tons, said Robert Austring, Donnelly Optics vice president of manufacturing facilities. All the presses will be running by the end of August.
By mid-to-late 1998, the company will complete the second phase of the expansion by adding 20,000 square feet and installing 38-40 presses with clamping forces as large as 400 tons. Those presses also will be electrically driven, Austring said.
By mid-1999, the firm plans to open the 200,000-square-foot campus, Ebel said. The site will include five buildings and allow the company to expand even more into industries such as medical and aerospace, he said.
Once that facility is completed, the 67,000-square-foot location — which will include as many as 53 presses at three buildings — will be devoted to a single, unnamed customer. Other operations will be moved to the new campus.
Besides molding operations, the company will develop raw materials for the diffractive process at a polymer characterization laboratory. Currently, the optics molding process uses polycarbonate, acrylics and styrene acrylonitrile, among other materials.
The company also will produce its own specialized tooling at a diamond turning lab that applies microstructures to the cut steel through special five-axis lathes. The microstructures are rings or boundaries that help curve the light source through the molded parts, Austring said.
The centers also will include automated materials-handling, assembly and packaging areas. However, the electric presses are the key to making precision parts, Austring said. The demanding work requires that injection speeds must not vary more than 0.005 percent, and temperatures must be controlled to within plus or minus one-tenth of a degree.
The presses include a closed-loop controller that allows good repeatability and surface replication, Austring said.
Cincinnati Milacron has sold more than 7,000 Roboshot presses worldwide, said Robert Kadykowski, vice president for the Cincinnati-based company's specialty equipment business. The equipment is made in Japan by Fanuc Ltd. and distributed by Milacron.
Kadykowski verified that Donnelly Optics had ordered 18 Roboshot machines this year and plans to double that quantity next year.
``After that, it's only speculation,'' he said. ``We don't have more orders on our books.''
The optics firm plans to offer what it calls full-spectrum solutions to its customers that take optics products from conception to assembly. The company holds the patent to the diffractive molding process, which uses a much thinner resin material than typical polycarbonate shells. Ebel said that, to his knowledge, no other company has developed similar optics technology.
``Because we have the patent, other companies will either have to pay us now or pay us later if they use the process,'' Ebel said. ``I can't pin a number of our future growth, except to say that the market is there, the technology is there and we're right on top of it.''