50 Years is Just the Beginning
Omega Optical Inc. is a Vermont-based optical filter manufacturer that has been active for over 50 years, and is leveraging its unparalleled body of knowledge and experience to push the industry even harder.
President and technical director Bob Johnson started Omega Optical in 1969 with the mission of developing the technology to produce state-of-the-art optics products. He began in the industry with the original Thin Film Products, Inc. Group, an organization that evolved out of the legendary and historic Manhattan Project. Johnson worked with the group for around four years before starting his own company, initially intending to base operations in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
Omega eventually found its first home in southern Vermont, in a barn belonging to Johnson’s parents.
Since then, according to Johnson, In the 50 years of his relationship with Omega, a unique aspect of the company has been the way that it has evolved both with and ahead of the industry through these five decades. Indeed, some of its equipment dates all the way back to the 1950s and 1960s, and now complements its state-of-the-art fully automated systems.
Hard challenges, please
Johnson describes Omega Optical as a company best known for taking on difficult challenges that vary in scope, from the minute and detailed work of exploring the internal working of biological cells and atoms to exploratory missions into outer space. “Omega Optical,” according to Johnson, “will take on a near-impossible task and do our best to solve it.”
The company boasts a broad range of technologies and competencies. It can replicate a part or piece of equipment regardless of age and develop it to fit into the next generation of devices.
Vice President of Sales, Marketing, and Quality, Bob Mann, attributes Omega’s abilities to its unique position in the optical industry. He notes that managing all its different focuses has led to an incredible depth of knowledge on optical filters, especially when compared to what’s generally available from the competition.
Mann observes that many of the company’s competitors specialize in one type of filter, or application, but Omega has had its filters turn up almost galaxy-wide – from their use in the Mars Rover, in the Hubble Telescope, and even in the investigation of the tail of Halley’s Comet (one of the company’s earliest projects) to filters used for spectroscopy and LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) work.
Of course, this is what has built the immense body of experience held by the personnel of Omega in so many different areas.
Across a spectrum
Mann breaks down the company’s current market spread: Roughly 40 percent of its business lies in the life science and biotech sector; around 27 percent in vision-related facilities; 20 percent in the industrial sector; 10 percent in defense and aerospace; and the rest in astronomy (both hobby grade for consumers and professional products such as specialized filters in the world’s observatories), and a small amount of consumer optical-filter work.
In the last few years, Omega has become more involved in the LIDAR and environmental sensing market which, Mann observes, is astoundingly large. There are a myriad uses, for example, in such applications as measuring the condition of roofs and houses, and measuring the condition of crops in the field by way of drones. Filters are instrumental in these and many other applications.
Omega is also seeing a larger quantity of filters being produced thanks to the rapid shrinking in size of current-day products. Some 10 to 20 years ago, Mann recalls, the physical size of optical filters was much larger, while the capacity of the company’s equipment base did not allow competition in terms of production quantities. These constraints have changed radically, allowing for Omega to take full advantage and get to the front of the field.
Freeing the workforce
The progress of outfits like Omega Optical is crucially dependent on the technologically-minded people who are attracted to work for them. Over the past half-century, Bob Johnson has striven to create a workspace that prompts workers to make greater individual contributions toward the overall goal of solving problems in a solution-oriented approach.
The result is that within the company there is constant encouragement for workers to learn and grow in their positions, making the most of the knowledge they bring. According to Bob Mann, Omega has “a unique culture that stands out among other technical companies [and is] very positive.”
Johnson goes deeper, describing the workplace culture as one without a lot of structure; one where capable people are free to explore a problem and devise unique solutions.
According to Johnson, the work is so esoteric that there isn’t a large body of trained people to pull from when hiring, so this freedom is necessary to keep the bright minds in Omega on the team. Johnson himself still happily serves in an occasional hands-on role.
Building a knowledge bank
The company is currently making great strides in growing its skill bank, but Mann admits that southern Vermont is not an area of the United States traditionally recognized as a technology hub. Expansion has historically been a challenge for the company. Finding appropriate people to hire in the area can be tough but the company has put together a pitch for living in Vermont to attract people from outside the area to work with Omega.
Even though the equipment and ability to take on a lot of big jobs currently exists, there are also ongoing technical challenges; however, these challenges present great opportunities for workers to learn and grow with the shared experience of Omega’s experts.
With such a breadth of technological knowledge held within the company, and such a long list of competencies, it can be hard to guess what a given customer may or may not know and understand of Omega’s products and services. For this reason, the company is constantly striving to improve its reach and ways of communicating its capabilities to all customers, present and potential.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenging costs and restrictions, Johnson has also seen it generating new opportunities for Omega, such as investigating the contagious potential of the virus, creating devices for testing, and even the utilization of UV light to selectively penetrate and inactivate the virus.
The company is investing a lot of energy in developing custom linear variable filters, a product that Omega has been making for around 40 years. Recently, the density of content has increased so dramatically that the company can now build these filters to scan a spectral harmonic and more within just a few millimeters of a surface area.
The future is growth
Johnson sees “an unlimited number of potential opportunities for growth” in the current climate, with the company on track for 10 to 15 percent growth. This could increase dramatically as these opportunities become commercial.
Bob Mann sees Omega’s recent 50-year celebration as a moving testament to what Bob Johnson has built, along with the people who’ve put their expertise and effort into the company. And Johnson points out another reason that Omega’s influence remains so strongly felt across the entire sector – that so many people at all levels in the industry have called the company home at one time or another.
Throughout its history, this formidable company has produced over 30 million individual filters for myriad projects and applications.
But as long as Omega Optical remains engrossed in so many different projects, solving countless problems daily for its clients, Mann is adamant that the company will never become complacent and rest on its laurels.
Far from slowing down, Omega Optical shows every sign of picking up the pace as it drives forward, producing the quality products and providing the experience its customers have come to expect for decades now.