Axsys bullish on military market for 2009

NASHUA, NH—Any draw-down of U.S. troops in Iraq that occurs post-election won’t crimp military and defense spending, say executives at Axsys Technologies (Rocky Hill, CT, and Nashua, NH).

NASHUA, NH—Any draw-down of U.S. troops in Iraq that occurs post-election won’t crimp military and defense spending, say executives at Axsys Technologies (Rocky Hill, CT, and Nashua, NH). The U.S. Armed Services are hungry for advanced capabilities to keep ahead of enemy combatants. Spending on optics and optoelectronics-based technology will continue long past any potential troop exodus from the Middle East. That is the feeling of those in the know, such as Thomas Breen, VP of sales and marketing of the Surveillance Systems Group at Axsys Technologies.

“The U.S. wants every single soldier out there to have their own thermal weapons sights,” says Breen of forward-looking infrared (FLIR) weapon sights used on automatic weapons, machine guns, and rifles. Although the U.S. federal inventory has approximately $500,000 of thermal imaging goggles, mostly based on photomultiplier-tube technology, the U.S. Army “bridge” program, called Thermal Weapons Sight (TWS) II, is designed to bring the newer FLIR thermal weapons sight technology to its troops as soon as possible, recognizing its far superior ease of use in the field, comfort, weight, and power efficiency. Not only does the U.S. plan to place the sights on every weapon, they expect to use up to 20,000 of them as driver’s view sights on tanks. “Manufacturers have gone crazy trying to ramp up,” says Breen. Or maybe he just means Axsys, due to the $13.5 million infrared lens order they received in May from the Army’s TWS II program. “The market is at the very front end of the cycle, just past development. It’s not yet a mature market so we have years of contracts yet to fulfill.”

Axsys claims to have the largest diamond-turned manufacturing floor in the U.S. if not the world, with 24 processing machines that carve precision germanium infrared lenses 18 hours a day. These thermal lenses are used in night-vision cameras, lens assemblies, and remote sensing systems on Army and Marine Corps vehicles, helicopters, and in handheld devices. In law enforcement, thermal sensing systems are mounted beneath helicopters on a gyro-stabilized gimbal, enabling remote detection of perpetrators sometimes before they can hear the helicopter. Such technology is called a “force multiplier,” a term that used to apply to tactics, but is now the buzz word in military, defense, and law enforcement. Force multiplying technology enables existing troops and law enforcement agencies such as the Border Patrol to do the job of a much larger force with the same number of personnel. “This is why our manufacturing floor is going to remain busy, draw-down or not,” says Breen.

Other programs keeping contractors like Axsys busy includes the U.S. Army’s Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) program. The CROWS technology enables a gunner in a tank to drop down into the hatch and be concealed without losing the target. In May 2008, Axsys received a $16.9 million follow-on order to produce dual-field-of-view infrared lenses for the CROWS program.

Although the U.S. has a head-start in developing advanced sensing technology, the commercial sales potential is handicapped. For example, the technology can be supplied to foreign allies on vehicle platforms, but not for individual weapons. “The last thing they want is a thermal sight stolen from a fire-fighter duct-taped onto an enemy’s weapon.” Even with that commercial market handicap, Axsys, a publically traded company, saw compound annual growth (CAG) of 28% from 2003 to 2007. “We expect tremendous growth over the next two years with the demand for high-end vibration-stabilized cameras mounted on helicopters for law-enforcement agencies, traffic monitoring, and the movie-making industry,” says Breen. And in this tough, down-turned economy, that makes the diamond-turning capabilities of Axsys a gem.
—Valerie C. Coffey

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