Specialty Glass And Optical Coatings: Trends And Technologies

Blake Fennell

A Q&A with Blake Fennell, President and CEO, Abrisa Technologies

Blake Fennell comes to Abrisa Technologies following a 17+ year career at Melles Griot, a manufacturer and distributor of photonics-related components and subsystems, including lasers, optics, optical systems, and electro-optical components. He held multiple senior leadership roles, serving as VP and general manager, chief operating officer, and chief executive officer. Following the acquisition of Melles Griot by Norwest Equity Partners in 2007, Fennell served for an additional four years as president of the Laser Group within CVI Melles Griot, a California-based manufacturer of lasers and laser-based light engines serving the biomedical instrumentation, industrial, aerospace/defense, and micro-electronics industries. In all of these roles, Fennell demonstrated a strong commitment to growth through innovative manufacturing, redesigned supply chain logistics, and sales/distribution programs, which served his customers well, encouraging strong growth of the businesses he has run.

Abrisa Technologies designs, distributes, fabricates, strengthens, coats, and screen prints all types of specialty glass products. They have strategic distribution relationships with Corning, SCHOTT, and Asahi Glass Company (AGC) and have the ability to offer high ion-exchange (HIE) aluminosilicate thin glass along with soda-lime, borosilicate, and many other specialty glasses. This, coupled with their thin film optical coating capabilities, such as indium tin oxide (ITO), anti-reflective (AR), hot and cold mirrors, UV, dichroic, IR, and anti-fog, uniquely position Abrisa Technologies in their market space. Their coatings are applied via e-beam and ion-assisted deposition to provide consistent and stable films. 

In this Q&A, Fennell discusses trends in both the optical coatings industry and the design and manufacture of glass-fabricated optical products, key customer needs he is seeing in the market, and his vision for the market and industry over the next five years.

What are some of the trends and new technologies you are seeing in the optical coatings industry? What are some things to consider when evaluating this new technology?

One trend of particular interest to Abrisa Technologies is occurring in the display industry. Display technology is accelerating at a rapid pace, and one item that involves our company is display glass. The requirements here are for very thin, strong, and durable glass that is scratch, abrasion, and shock-resistant. We offer the display industry our HIE, chemically strengthened aluminosilicate thin glass. We are fortunate to be distributors for Corning Gorilla Glass, AGC Dragontrail, and SCHOTT Xensation. All three of these HIE substrates are in high demand, and we have the in-house capability to fabricate, strengthen, screen print, and coat the glass for an integrated solution used by optical bonding companies and display manufacturers. AR coatings and index-matched indium tin oxide (IMITO) can be applied using our custom large-area coaters. In addition, we can also apply hydrophobic and hydrophilic films, improving readability.

We are also seeing the need for precision thin film coatings for large optics. In recent years, we have coated complex films for large-area gratings and trim filters for military applications, and we see this continuing into the near future with some growth opportunities.

Conductive coatings with good near-infrared (NIR) transmission are also of interest to the photonics market. ITO is the most common transparent conductor used for visible wavelength applications, but its properties are not ideal for NIR applications, so our ZC&R division is looking into an alternative for indium oxide to improve the NIR performance. These new films will soon be available to serve the military and telecommunications markets.

What trends do you see in the design and manufacture of glass-fabricated optical products?

The display industry represents some exciting opportunities for Abrisa Technologies. We are fortunate in that we are authorized distributors for AGC's Dragontrail, Corning Gorilla Glass, and SCHOTT Xensation. All three of these are very thin (as thin as 0.55 mm), chemically strengthened aluminosilicate-based thin glass substrates that are just what the display industry requires for both indoor and outdoor display applications.

At Abrisa Technologies, we chemically strengthen these HIE glass types to the manufacturer’s specification and then have the capability to provide an integrated optics solution due to the fact that we can fabricate the glass by providing polished edges and screen-printed borders as well as add AR and hydrophobic coatings that enhance screen readability and make them easier to clean.

This thin, strong, and durable glass is more scratch and shock-resistant and, with the value-added requirements of fabrication and coatings, the optical bonding integrators can purchase their display glass from one source without having to piecemeal out their requirements. This gives them more control over quality, delivery, and hopefully price as well.

What are some of the key customer needs and pain points you’re seeing in the market? Are they changing?

Products and requirements have evolved over the years, but when all is said and done there is one thing that remains fairly consistent: Customers are looking for a supplier who can be a reliable partner. This is one area where we plan to differentiate ourselves. Customers want short lead times, on-time delivery, high-quality products, reliability, reproducibility, and consistency in price. This is what makes Abrisa Technologies a strong partner.

What can you take from your experience at CVI Melles Griot and apply to your role at Abrisa Technologies?

I think the most unique thing that I have to offer coming from my former company is a different point of view ‑ a “fresh set of eyes” so to speak. I want to challenge the status quo and empower everyone to become strategic thinkers who are proactive rather that reactive, putting the customer and their needs ahead of everything else. We will create a customer-centric culture with a sense of urgency and invest in our employees to give them the skill sets required so that we can have the operational excellence to position and structure our company to remain in the growth path of our customers and markets.

Areas I plan to explore and put emphasis upon for Abrisa Technologies include expanding our capabilities and product portfolio, diversifying our markets, and broadening our geographical reach. We will also be looking at our sales channel to maximize resources to grow revenue.

I have just restructured Abrisa Technologies to better support our customer base. We have hired a world-class VP of operations and reassigned several key people to proactively drive development, program management, quality, and procurement to support continuous improvement and cost management. These changes will quickly begin to pay dividends.

To sum up, my tenure at CVI Melles Griot has given me the depth of experience to make Abrisa Technologies a world-class manufacturing industry leader. My vision for the future of this company is to elevate and motivate each and every member of my team to ensure the utmost in customer service and position our technology capabilities to be a one-stop shop for our customer base.

How do you envision the market and industry evolving over the next five years? What will Abrisa Technologies need to do to prepare for this future?

Innovation and vertical integration will be required in order to remain competitive. Our goal will be to enhance our existing capabilities and add new product offerings to our portfolio in order to provide more options to guarantee that we are the vendor of choice for an integrated optical solution.

The photonics industry has been consolidating over the past several years, and many of the larger companies are no longer willing to customize products for their customers. Abrisa Technologies is uniquely positioned and has the technical knowledge and willingness to partner with our customers on custom opportunities.

Low-cost manufacturing is critical for high-volume opportunities. Abrisa Technologies will need to manage our cost points and partner wisely to successfully compete on a global basis.

We plan to focus our efforts and investments on continuous innovation in glass fabrication techniques and thin film coating technologies. Finding niche markets and securing tier one customers that our capabilities, competencies, and product offerings are specifically tailored for is our focus.

Lastly, Abrisa Technologies will have an unwavering focus upon helping our customers succeed. I truly believe that putting the customer first and creating a solutions-oriented partnership is the best strategy for success in today’s very competitive marketplace.