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SA electronics companies profile: Optocon Systems

8 March 2006 News

The electro-optics industry can also be included with electronics and Dataweek has taken this stance for many years. The company Optocon was formed in early 1998 when CSIR Defencetek decided to close down its prototype optical workshop, which had operated since the early 1950s. A favourable agreement was worked out with Defencetek and Optocon was established as a private company still operating from the same premises on the CSIR site, retaining all the precision optical cutting, grinding and polishing equipment, together with coating plants required to ensure its continued existence.

It should be noted that the CSIR (NPRL) and the optical workshop staff were also instrumental in the creation of Denel's own electro-optics manufacturing plant, Eloptro, in 1974. CSIR also trained some of the best precision optical technicians in the world. Training was carried out in-house with after-hours Technikon courses. All applicants had at least already completed their apprenticeship as precision machinists at the CSIR's apprentice training facility.

While CSIR itself remained a significant customer, Optocon established relationships with many other local companies to manufacture electro-optical systems to their requirements. These companies included the then Denel Kentron, IST, Grinaker Avitronics, MIT, the University of Stellenbosch (the SUNSAT satellite), and many other local companies, both large and small. Recent major successes include the manufacture of thermal imaging optical subsystems for both Kentron and IST, the manufacture of the unique Spotter system for Kentron's Cumulus Division and the manufacture of an ultraviolet imaging camera for another local customer. The latter saw the largest diameter refracting lenses ever produced in South Africa.

Recently, Optocon was bought out by another local company which has invested significantly in diversifying the company's capabilities. The new company now trades as Optocon Systems (www.optoconsystems.co.za). A permanent optical designer is now available together with significant skills in electronics and specifically, electronic detector-based imaging systems. It is expected that Optocon Systems will soon be producing thermal imaging systems (binoculars) based on silicon microbolometers (for use in farm security) and the future may also see systems using the much higher resolution (spatial and thermal) cooled detectors based on mercury cadmium telluride (CMT) technology. Thermal imaging systems offer a significantly greater performance at night than imaging systems based on traditional night vision technology using image intensifiers.

When it was part of CSIR, the main function of the present Optocon was prototype development, with the product being transferred to the then Eloptro for production. Examples of this included new night vision goggles for the SANDF with a large exit pupil size and a new generation binocular night vision surveillance device. Night driverscopes were also developed for the Eland and Rooikat vehicles while all of the optically-guided (thermal imaging) missiles produced by Kentron had their optics designed and prototypes manufactured at the CSIR. CSIR was also involved in the development of the first optical guidance system for the ZT-3 (now Ingwe) anti-armour missile and the guidance optics for the Raptor glide bomb developed by Kentron.

There were exceptions to this technology transfer rule such as the Long Range TV System (LATV3) and the mini-LATV, where small production runs were implemented. As prototype developers, the skills acquired by the precision optical technologists was much more extensive than usual and they can handle any optical material from the UV through to long-wave infrared. This includes the optical working of 'difficult' materials such as calcium fluoride, some of the special Schott glass types for the visible and materials such as zinc selenide and zinc sulphide in the infrared. Zinc selenide is often shunned by other optical workshops as it can cause serious lung disease if the correct precautions are not taken during grinding and polishing.

As for the components themselves, they ranged from standard lenses through all types of prisms and a specialty was the polishing of laser rods (such as Nd: YAG). Sizes of components varied from the miniature (1 mm sided prisms) through to over 700 mm (the diameter required for a special telescope mirror for the SAAO).

These capabilities have been retained within Optocon Systems today, although the main focus now is on series production of systems (such as the Spotter for Denel Cumulus). In addition to optical component and system manufacture, Optocon Systems possesses a comprehensive thin-film coating facility. Using these high vacuum plants this allows the deposition of anti-reflection coatings on optical elements, together with the manufacture of beam splitters and metal and dichroic coatings. The company is also capable of producing custom filters for any part of the UV-visible-IR part of the optical spectrum.

The staff of Optocon Systems can handle the integration of electronic systems (such as CCDs or IR detectors) and possess a high level of opto-mechanical design capabilities. While the other electro-optical company in the country, Eloptro, is part of Denel, Optocon Systems is privately-owned and will not develop products that could be considered as competing with those of its customer base. This obviates the need for other local companies to look for overseas suppliers of optical and electro-optical systems.

Optocon Systems has the skills to provide a complete service to its customer base, assisting with the preparation of specifications, performing the detailed optical design, manufacturing and testing prototype systems and then where necessary manufacturing production runs. Where optical designs include aspherical surfaces, diamond-turned mirrors or very large windows for thermal imaging systems that require hard carbon (diamond-like) coatings on the exterior surface, the company has the required overseas partners to perform these tasks.

The new MD of Optocon Systems is Tristan Goss, who has extensive experience in the design of electronics for, and integration of thermal imaging systems using cooled detectors. His experience includes the special camera developed for Mupsow (Kentron's medium range guided bomb) and all the variants of the Kenis range of cameras, including the manufacture of systems for the UK's TIALD programme.





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