By Eric Peterson | Jun 15, 2020
Electroforming and other contract manufacturing services
Founders Clint Tinker and Mark Bergh started Optiforms after the duo left Pichel Industries, another electroforming-focused manufacturer in Temecula. "They went into direct competition with Pichel, opened up a small shop and started making primarily theater projection mirrors," says Thompson.
At the height of that market, Optiforms and two other companies dominated the market with metal mirrors. Nearly every movie theater in the U.S. had mirrors from one of the big three players. Optiforms built a new, 30,000-square-foot facility in 1996, when projection mirrors represented about 75 percent of sales.
But everything changed when digital projectors became the norm in the 21st century, and glass mirrors replaced nickel. "Unfortunately for us, the theater projection business started to dwindle, and that was due to the new [digital projection] technologies," says Thompson. "The mirrors were much more subject to heat, so that industry switched to glass, which is much more stable."
Optiforms' volume dropped from a peak of nearly 5,000 mirrors a year to 20 today. "That's all for old-school people trying to bring back 35-millimeter or eight-millimeter film projection systems just as a novelty," says Thompson. "We had to diversify the business relatively fast in order to survive that."
Based on legacy capabilities bolstered by a key acquisition of a projection competitor, Optiforms pivoted to aerospace and defense as the mirror market waned. "It was a very interesting turnabout," says Thompson. "We needed to find something that would utilize our core competencies that's different than theater projection, because if we relied on that business, we were going to be closing our doors in a couple years."
The key core competency at hand: electroforming, an electrochemical additive manufacturing process to make nickel parts with a mandrel in a bath. "It's a much more cost-friendly equivalent for glass," says Thompson. "The beauty of electroforming is it will create an exact replica of that surface. Now you have the ability to repeat that surface over and over without having to polish each part one at at a time. The dollar value's very good. It also lends itself to much more complex shapes that you can get with glass."
Aerospace and defense emerged as primary targets, and Optiforms found a good match in cold shields for infrared (IR) cameras. That market now accounts for about 40 percent of the company's business.
As competitors were sourcing mandrels from contract manufacturers with long lead times, Optiforms brought mandrel production in-house as a differentiator. "Clint was very willing to invest in that process," says Thompson, noting Tinker bought out Bergh in 2007 and expanded the building to its current 62,000 square feet in 2008.
The shift in strategy involved sustained effort to build relationships with big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, L3 Technologies, and Raytheon. "That was a very, very hard bridge to construct," says Thompson. "It took many, many visits, many, many phone calls."
It also involved a big investment in quality assurance equipment as well as ISO 9001 certification and ITAR registration."The components we were making for theater projection from a tolerancing standpoint were not anywhere in comparison to making a cold shield that goes in an IR camera," says Thompson. "It's much more sophisticated and needed much tighter tolerances, so we had to learn that technology, we have to learn how to measure that technology, so there was another huge investment in the quality assurance side of our business through equipment and manpower to effectively measure what we sell."
He adds, "What gave us a leg up on the incumbent supplier was our quality is much better and even if we made a mistake, we were able to recover from that relatively quickly and get them good parts much faster."
Optiforms followed the IR camera market with vertical integration from shielding into housing assemblies and other components, and added machining and other technology to support a broader portfolio. Case in point: In late 2019, Optiforms invested in a new $475,000 DMG MORI monoBLOCK 5-axis CNC machining center along with other leading-edge technologies.
"Because we were so successful in the cold shields, they were willing to give us a crack at building other things," says Thompson. "We started getting into componentry that was at a much higher level than the cold shields we were building. That's been over the last three years. We've been able to take that success and diversify our platform and the products here."
Optiforms also supplies medical manufacturers and the semiconductor industry. "Medical's huge for us, semiconductor's huge for us," he notes. "We're starting to dabble a little in waveguide, which is also primarily military. We've gotten quite adept at working in those markets and we have very good relationships, which has allowed us to open up communications for new opportunities. That seems to have worked very well for us."
One recent example is "a communication chassis for L3 Harris," says Thompson. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have even thought of that."
That success led to other projects. "It just continues the diversification, which is key for us," says Thompson.
Thompson says the company's sales have increased by nearly 60 percent since 2016 as the staff has grown by 15 employees.
But productivity gains have outpaced all else, he adds. "We've gotten really efficient at what we do, so adding head count has not been an issue. The payroll-to-sales ratio actually went down from 48 percent to 40 percent right now."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is technology obsolescence in the IR industry," says Thompson. "That would be the biggest threat to us: if they came up with a technology that replaced the cooled technology in IR cameras."
He continues, "The other thing that's a big threat to us is if the defense industry stopped trying to innovate, that would be deadly to us. They're constantly pushing the envelope, and we follow right along with them."
That said, diversification since the projection business faded would buoy Optiforms more than was the case a decade ago, he adds.
"A lot of people see additive manufacturing as a threat [to electroforming]. Additive manufacturing is great when you're building prototypes, but if you want any kind of accuracy when you're dealing with really tight tolerances, it's astronomically expensive and cost-prohibitive right now. I wouldn't see anybody switching to production on that for another 20 years."
Opportunities: Vertical integration with existing medical and defense clients. "The true growth is going to come from continued partnerships in the defense and medical industries," says Thompson.
He also points to satellite waveguides as a high-potential area for Optiforms. The company has done some work for General Dynamics and other companies. "As they get more complex and you get more stuff in space, the need to control that without noise gets more in-demand, which requires much higher-end waveguide technology, which is what we do," he explains. "There are 20,000 people making waveguides but they're for bandwidths that don't require very tight tolerances. . . . We've done some very large bids on those jobs, but they're very difficult to build."
Needs: "A skilled workforce," says Thompson. "We don't teach trades anymore, so I can't go out and hire a conventional machinist. It's virtually impossible to find them."
He adds, "Electroforming is such a unique process that we virtually end up training every single employee who comes to work for us. It's not a skill they're going to bring to the table. So when we're doing our interview process, we're looking at other aptitude skills, how they interface with people, what are their interests. We lean towards the people who are really heavy into the hobby sides of their lives: They like to tinker with motorcycles or they're into building cars or they want to build this Erector set that takes three months. Another thing we look for is a great attitude. The learning curve here is neverending."