Optics firm moves to expand

2011-12-20T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:38:18Z Optics firm moves to expandDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 20, 2011 12:00 am  • 

When an out-of-state company swoops into town and buys up a local firm, there's always fear that the acquired business - and its jobs - will move away.

That's especially true with high-tech manufacturing companies, which may be acquired for their core technologies with little regard for continuing operations. And it's particularly worrisome when the company involved is a high-tech star, founded on homegrown technology.

But in a glimmer of good news for the local optics industry, one of the region's biggest optical instrument makers has not only decided to stay put after a takeover - it's in expansion mode.

Bruker Nano Surfaces Division, a maker of three-dimensional microscopes and other instruments for precision surface measurement, recently moved into a larger space on the south side of Tucson, after mulling a possible move to Oro Valley or to Santa Barbara, Calif.

Bruker Corp., based near Boston, came to Tucson in 2010 when it acquired the local metrology business of Veeco Instruments for $229 million.

The operation has deep roots in Tucson, the University of Arizona and the local optics industry.

Veeco Metrology was formed in 1997 when Plainview, N.Y.-based Veeco Instruments Inc. acquired locally based Wyko Corp. Wyko was co-founded in 1984 by UA College of Optical Sciences Dean James Wyant.

At the time, Bruker said it planned to continue the Tucson operation and keep most of its employees.

But you never know.

And it turns out that, when Bruker Nano decided it needed to expand its facilities, Tucson was up against offers from Oro Valley and Santa Barbara, where Bruker still operates Veeco's former atomic-force microscope business.

Bruker Nano ultimately chose to stay in Tucson, where it has expanded its workforce from about 70 to 90 people, including many UA optics graduates.

And it's still looking to expand its workforce at its new location, at 3400 Britannia Drive, near South Palo Verde and East Valencia roads just a couple of blocks from its old site on East Elvira Road.

Robert Loiterman, vice president and general manager of Bruker's Tucson operation since July, said the decision to stay in Tucson was partly based on the local workforce and the company's long relationship with the UA.

"There's a commitment to the employee base here. There's a relationship we have with the university that we want to continue to make better," said Loiterman, a veteran of the semiconductor equipment and medical-device industries.

"There are resources and capabilities here in Tucson that we didn't want to lose touch with."

Bruker's instruments still use some of Wyko's original technology for white-light interferometry - technology that can precisely measure surfaces using the interference properties of light waves.

A move to Oro Valley wouldn't have been a blow to the regional optics industry, but it would have been a hit to Tucson's south-side high-tech corridor.

In 2009, optics instrument maker KLA-Tencor Corp. closed a plant on the south side that employed about 100 workers. In 2008, the south side lost Aurora Optical, a maker of camera-lens modules that employed about 40 people.

Oro Valley, home to Ventana Medical Systems-Roche, has been aggressively courting high-tech companies. In September 2010, California-based optics firm Oclaro Inc. announced it would move the remainder of the former Spectra-Physics laser-diode operation to Oro Valley - from the south side.

But the south side has one advantage over Oro Valley - Tucson International Airport.

The company's new, roughly 45,000-square-foot space was renovated for Bruker, with a spacious lobby, an instrument demonstration center with views of the surrounding mountains, and a production floor that will soon include a clean room.

"We close a lot of deals when the customer actually comes to see us," said Stephen Hopkins, Bruker Nano's marketing communications supervisor. "We're close to the airport. It's easy to fly them in, and they drive over and see their samples run (on the demo instruments)."

John Alfson, Bruker Nano operations director and a UA grad who started with Wyko just before its acquisition by Veeco, credited city officials for expediting the company's permits so it could quickly upgrade and move into the building.

Bruker's decision was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting event by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and Ward 5 City Councilman Richard Fimbres, who thanked the company for keeping jobs here.

Longtime local optics guru Bob Breault of Breault Research Organization said Bruker's expansion here is good news for an industry where companies are currently hamstrung by a lack of financing.

"Keeping the big players, keeping this kind of instrument maker here in town is very, very beneficial," Breault said. "We need to keep the knowledge base of the people."

Bruker's Loiterman said the company's own research shows a potential market of about $250 million in annual sales, including applications in the semiconductor, solar, automotive and precision machining industries.

The company is looking to expand into new markets, such as medical devices, Loiterman said, citing applications in profiling the critical surfaces of replacement hip joints.

"Our main goal is to expand that total available market, because if you look at all the different markets we could potentially be serving, it adds up to well over a billion dollars."

"There are resources and capabilities here in Tucson that we didn't want to lose touch with."

Robert Loiterman,

vice president and general manager of Bruker's Tucson operation

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

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