Change is in the air

June 1, 2004
Vendors adjust to new military, security, and commercial opportunities.

Vendors adjust to new military, security, and commercial opportunities.

When SPIE changed the name of its AeroSense show to the Defense & Security Symposium (Orlando, FL; April 12–16), it first seemed an awkward title that would lose the broader sweep of topics that had also been covered. But the name change seems well suited to this year's exhibitors and attendees, and to current government priorities as funding from the military and U.S. Department of Homeland Security finally begin reaching the optoelectronics marketplace.

Attendance figures alone make the case that repositioning the show was a good idea. Total attendance was close to 5000, representing a 20% increase in both technical and exhibit-only attendees. Even more persuasive was the 40% growth in exhibitors to a total of 294, and the steady and enthusiastic floor traffic.

Numerous exhibitors showed imaging systems and components for applications such as nighttime surveillance, illumination, targeting, and naval operations. And, ironically, many of the same companies that have been focused on security and military applications were broadening their reach in commercial product lines.

DRS Technologies (Parsippany, NJ) is one of the world's largest manufacturers of infrared technology products, most of which are not much seen—or at least acknowledged—outside of military circles. At the Defense & Security Symposium, James Baird, general manager of DRS Infrared Technologies, talked about how the company was entering the commercial infrared market. The company's core focal plane array is 320 × 240 pixels, which DRS produces in quantities of a few hundred per month. Baird says they are ramping up to 3000 per month in their Dallas, TX, facility. Over time, the company plans to introduce larger arrays, more integrated modules, and systems for security, firefighting, and industrial markets.

Competition is heating up for companies like DRS (which was formed from the IR pieces of Texas Instruments, Hughes, and Boeing). These companies have a long and successful history of working with the military but mixed experience in the commercial world where low cost, marketing, and ease of use are critical. Still, since the commercial IR market is growing, they see opportunity.

Another case is Sofradir (Châtenay-Malabry, France), a company formed in 1986, with more than 80% of its sales to the military, primarily in Europe. Recently, the U.S. government's displeasure at France's failure to support the war in Iraq has had an impact on sales to the U.S. military. The company's mainstay detectors are based on mercury cadmium telluride detectors, and Sofradir introduced its TV-format (640 × 512-pixel) Scorpio focal-plane-array detector at the Defense & Security Symposium. In 2002, Sofradir spun off Ulis (Voreppe, France) to focus on the commercial market. Like James Baird at DRS, Philippe Bensussan, Sofradir's president and CEO, believes that manufacturing is his company's core strength. Unlike Baird, however, Bensussan says he has no plans to be anything more than a merchant supplier of detectors.

Finding new markets has required these companies to seek new business models and products. Janos Technology (Townshend, VT), a maker of IR optical components and assemblies, announced its own enterprise-wide makeover, but is taking a different route from DRS and Sofradir. Instead of aiming at markets it will aim at attracting specific customers who, for example, make IR cameras and systems. Mark Lenhart, director of marketing at Janos, says that his company will now provide much more than single components and prototyping services, and will establish close working relationships with its customers to provide integrated subsystems and modules.

Immediate plans for Janos include moving to a high-capacity facility in Keene, NH, and growing rapidly through joint ventures and acquisitions. The company itself was recently acquired by The Monroe Group (Northbrook, IL), which buys and rejuvenates small companies using most of the existing management. As Lenhart points out, the IR and defense industries are now rationalizing the vendor networks that supports them. This is what automobile makers did eight years ago, and, given the current political and economic realities, it's what will transpire in the defense world over the next few years.

CONARD HOLTON is editor in chief of Vision Systems Design; e-mail: [email protected].

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