Donnelly Optics Corp. has entered the growing digital-imaging market by developing a standardized plastic lens that could spar with glass for the attention of computer and electronic-equipment suppliers.
Donnelly Optics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Holland, Mich.-based automotive supplier Donnelly Corp., is banking that its injection molded polycarbonate lens, called the DonOptics EL-100, will transform the fledgling company into a profitable one.
The lens maker has recorded nearly $2 million in start-up operating losses, absorbed by its parent company, to develop unique, high-precision lens systems, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Still, Donnelly is happy with the progress of its optics division, said Donnelly spokesman Randy Boileau. Its losses were anticipated as Donnelly Optics developed technology for future applications, he said.
``They are right where we expected them to be,'' Boileau said.
The three-element, diffractive lens is the Tucson, Ariz.-based company's first off-the-shelf product since it officially opened its $2.8 million plant in November. Production is expected to begin in mid-March after the company completes sampling of the new product, said Donnelly Optics sales manager Michael Hauer.
The compact product, considered to have crisper resolution than a glass lens, is targeted for such uses as digital still cameras and computer-based video conferencing and surveillance equipment. Donnelly considers the product to be the first plastic digital-imaging lens system using diffractive optics technology, he said.
``Currently, we have orders with four companies, but there's no telling how high the market can grow,'' Hauer said. ``The digital-imaging market is expected to take off, and we'll get to the point where almost every new computer will ship with a video camera on it. We plan to evolve with that market.''
The company cited numbers projecting that digital cameras will grow from 1 million units in 1997 to between 6 million and 14 million units in 2000.
According to industry sources, Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., the world's largest maker of computer chips, expects to use Donnelly Optic's plastic lens system. The optics supplier designed and produced the early lens subsystems for Intel's 971 PC Camera Kit, which captures digital still and video images and transmits them over personal computers.
The portable computer camera kits, to be made by outside vendors, will hit retail stores this year. Analyst Alexander Paris of Barrington Research Associates in Chicago said Donnelly Optic's new lens will be used with Intel's products, which also include video conferencing systems.
``I expect them to get a purchase order soon with [Intel],'' he said. ``Intel has expressed satisfaction with Donnelly's prototypes and sees lot of opportunity for the lens. It could ultimately be the big order that helps the company turn the corner to profitability.''
The firm uses about half of its 47,000-square-foot space in Tucson, Paris said. The division had operated at Donnelly's Michigan offices before being spun off.
The facility includes 12 injection presses with clamping forces of 55-250 tons, said Jon Nisper, director of engineering and research development. Expansion is planned for the adjoining grounds, and the firm could make tens of thousands of plastic lenses a month once the product gets off the ground, Hauer said. Initial production was not disclosed.
The company said it also has developed the auto industry's first plastic projector-type front parking and turn-signal lenses, used on a 1998 Lincoln Town Car from Ford Motor Co. The facility includes a polymer characterization laboratory, a precision tooling shop and a metrology lab.
The all-plastic lens was designed specifically for digital imaging. Previous models, using PC or acrylic materials, had difficulty perceiving color, Nisper said. Frequently, pictures came out blurred or with rainbow images, he said.
While the technology took more than six years to develop, the initial product was designed in less than a month, Nisper said.
Donnelly's system molds in a diffractive element on the back of the lens to correct for color. The three-lens system eliminates several pieces from a typical glass lens, which actually includes four to six lenses, and requires no reflective coating, grinding or polishing, Nisper said.
And unlike a glass lens, the plastic product does not need an expensive device that manipulates the image to keep it from looking distorted, he said. Diffractive technology allows Donnelly to mold the filter into the lens element itself.
``The cost savings really come into play with injection molding,'' Nisper said. ``The whole lens is small and compact, with the length of the lens only about 14 millimeters.''
The product can be screwed directly into existing video conferencing equipment and still cameras, Nisper said. That makes it a direct replacement for glass systems that initially are installed on those systems, he said.