Earlier this year, AOS’ Flemming Tinker was interviewed by CEO/CFO magazine. This article is part 1 of the conversation.
CEOCFO: Mr. Tinker, what was the vision when you started Aperture Optical Sciences?
Mr. Tinker: The vision of the company was to create an organization that would enable the exploration of creative solutions to difficult problems facing the optics industry. The market opportunity that we saw was to produce precision aspheric optics from new ceramic materials that were insensitive to temperature and chemical environments; in other words, optical components that could operate in extreme environments like space.
CEOCFO: How has that worked out? Where are you today?
Mr. Tinker: Today AOS provides some of the most innovative custom precision optical systems made anywhere. Our products are used in satellites for commercial Earth Imaging and Satellite communications, and by research laboratories around the world using high-energy lasers to develop new technologies in energy, materials, and biophotonics.
We employ advanced manufacturing technology including robotics for making ultra-high accuracy mirrors and telescopes that can operate in extreme environments such as Space, Particle Accelerators, and Lasers that can initiate nuclear reactions. We are doing business in thirteen countries around the world. Seventy percent of our business is exported.
CEOCFO: Would you tell us about silicon carbide? What is special about it? How has it enabled some of your projects?
Mr. Tinker: Silicon carbide is about four times stiffer than steel. It is second only to diamond in hardness. It is chemically inert and it has very high thermal conductivity – it transmits heat, about one hundred times better than glass materials. In other words, if you wanted to make a telescope or an imaging system that needed to operate in an aircraft or in a satellite or in an environment that experiences extreme changes in acceleration or temperature, silicon carbide would preserve the image quality while metal materials and glass would deform and lose focus. The material robustness enables designs for many complex airborne systems. It also allows us to make telescopes lighter and that is key to success in space. Because we can make components more rigid with less material content we can ultimately make systems lighter. That is key for anything in flight such as an unmanned vehicle. The lighter the vehicle the longer it can stay in flight without refueling. If it is in space the lighter it is the less expensive it is to put in orbit.
CEOCFO: What are the challenges in working with this material? What do you need to understand to come up with a product made with this material, but the right way?
Mr. Tinker: You have asked the perfect question, because all of the things that make silicon carbide wonderful for many applications make it very, very challenging to fabricate. For instance, since it is nearly as hard as diamond, diamond is the only thing we can use to cut and shape it. Since it is chemically inert, we cannot use chemical processes to fabricate it. Since it transmits heat very quickly, we cannot use thermal forming processes to make it, and since it is very stiff we cannot bend it. Therefore, the same things that make it a wonderful material for the product,
present extreme challenges to the manufacturing process. This is what has made the material so difficult to exploit in commercial product applications. We started the company because we believed that we could solve this problem and that we could develop a manufacturing process for this material that would bring it out of the laboratory and into the commercial product space. That is effectively what we have done.
CEOCFO: When you know what you want to get at the end what do you start looking at to formulate?
Mr. Tinker: First we’ve assembled a talented team and created an environment where disciplined creativity can thrive and mistakes are forgiven. We’re not afraid to make mistakes – we learn from our mistakes and press on with greater insight – this is essential to solving the toughest problems. Next, our manufacturing solutions typically begin with how to measure and qualify the product performance – if we can’t measure what we do, then we can’t control the result. We’ve learned how to use diamond-based abrasives very effectively, and we use robotics to control the shaping and grinding and polishing processes. The robotics have automated our processes, decreasing the labor content and improving consistency of results.
CEOCFO: Are all engagements customized? Are there certain set products? What is the relationship with a client?
Mr. Tinker: Nearly all products are customized. However, we have a platform of capabilities and solutions that we present to our customers that enable a merging of their very unique demands with our in-house solutions. We design our own telescopes and systems and present those solutions to our customers – but most of our products are customized in some way. Because of this we consider ourselves as partners with our customers – we share their goals, their risk, and their ambitions.
CEOCFO: Are customers fairly sophisticated in knowing what they want?
Mr. Tinker: Our customers tend to be very sophisticated. However, they are more sophisticated in the applications for which the products will be used in, rather than the manufacturing processes that are required to make them. The most elegant designs are those that will function, but are practical and efficient to manufacture. Therefore, we work with our customers to provide manufacturing input that helps to reduce overall cost and maximize performance. There really is a collaborative design effort that takes place on nearly every project that we work on.
CEOCFO: What is the competitive landscape for AOS?
Mr. Tinker: There are many companies in the world that employ optical technologies and many companies that produce optics. However, we provide value to our customers by providing what is unique about us. We are as much a service provider as we are a product provider. We do not have too many peer competitors, because the type of things that we do are generally done by much larger companies than ourselves. So much so we do not consider ourselves to be competitors with other companies in industry. Rather than concentrate on competitors, we think about solving our customer’s problem. We focus our attention on what our customer needs, the solution that we can provide, and the value that we can provide for them. If we do that well and if we truly do have the right solution we will earn our customers’ confidence and business.