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Several years ago, Neal Elli, president of Empire Precision Plastics in Rochester, NY, began pondering ways he could better define the company with a niche. Something to make Empire Precision more than just another 'me too' molder.

Clare Goldsberry

May 15, 2014

6 Min Read
Empire Precision Plastics develops training program; expands optics molding business

Several years ago, Neal Elli, president of Empire Precision Plastics in Rochester, NY, began pondering ways he could better define the company with a niche. Something to make Empire Precision more than just another 'me too' molder. 

"I wondered what could I do that would have a real impact on how we do business and the services we offer that would set us apart from the crowd, when I then thought about optics," Elli said. "Optics seemed to be a fit for us because not only is optics manufacturing a strength in the Rochester area, but also because we are precision molders of very tight-tolerance, high quality small parts."

Two years ago, the 22-year-old custom injection molding company purchased Lightwave Enterprises and moved that company's operations into Empire Precision. Now Elli is embarking on a mission to grow the optics side of the company's molding business and introduce a new comprehensive training program.

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This part -- an optical array -- was once an assembly of glasses lenses and a series of precision machined parts that Empire Precision converted to plastic.

"We've added equipment and staff, and our DNA is Scientific Molding, but I wanted to reset everything to our brand of processing," Elli explained. "I wanted to have that incorporated into our optics manufacturing. To do that we're re-launching our Scientific Molding training course to include optical molding, all rolled into one course for our technical staff. We're also re-launching our certified operator program to incorporate the optics into that as well."

The new program was made possible by funding from a Rochester (NY) regional photonics accelerator grant and developed with the support of High Tech Rochester. It will ensure that critical molding processes are executed consistently from lot-to-lot. The total expense for the training program is approximately $100,000 this calendar year. Bringing in the trainer for the Scientific Molding processor portion is about $15,000 and the grant will pay for one-third of that. "It's a huge investment for us and it's great to be able to work with one of the Rochester high-tech organizations that help make manufacturing - especially Photonics - successful," Elli commented.

Training curriculum is built on Empire's use of the PDW, or Process Development Workbook, a rigorous approach to Scientific Molding. The application of parameters such as machine run-time, mold flow temperature and other factors results in better part quality and consistent processing performance, gives Empire Precision a technology edge.

"We used to be just a precision molder, but had no niche," said Elli. "What's unique about us now is that we are the only precision molder that does optical parts, giving us the ability to do a variety of lenses and mirrors, along with the components that hold the optics in place in their applications.

"We're just now starting to get traction in the market and this in-house training will help Empire's processing staff apply Scientific Molding procedures to achieve precise opaque and optical parts," Elli added. "We are grateful for the support and funding that will allow us to quickly develop the skills of our new engineers and technicians, especially as we expand our optical capabilities."                                 

Developing the optical molding niche

Molding optical lenses and mirrors isn't your typical molding job. While many molders want "flat black and ABS" type molding, molding optics means adhering to a much higher level of quality and precision. Elli explained that molding optical lenses means holding surfaces to 'angstroms.' 

"We're really trying to replicate the surface geometry to a level of precision that is typically not needed in a regular precision-molded part," he noted. "We design the runner and gate system so the tool has a very long open time compared to typical precision molding, so that what we get is ability to have surface replication with uncanny accuracy."

Additionally, it isn't so much just holding the surface tolerance; injection molding lenses has the potential to introduce stress into the part. "If we have an optical part that light passes through, any internal stress caused in the molding process can distort the light," Elli said. "It's not just the geometric accuracy we need but the reduction in internal stress, too."

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Empire Precision performs single point diamond turning operations for a higher level of accuracy. 

In the right application, advantages of molding optical components in plastic rather than making them in glass include cost effectiveness and providing additional design freedom. There is greater simplicity of putting a 3D shape into a molded part that in some cases is more difficult than in glass, given some of the geometries required.  "We make these odd shapes possible in plastics," said Elli.

"Some in the plastics industry believe that optics has a lot of the black art to it, but I don't believe that," said Elli. "It's a scientific process. I believe in systems and processes and want to incorporate that level of precision in the optics molding that we have in precision molding of the other parts we mold."

In addition to lenses, the company also molds optical mirrors. "Optics is all about the light - focusing the light, diffusing it, creating a filter with it, or putting a thin-film coating on it to reduce reflection," explained Elli.  "In plastics, you have the affect of a polymer element and then you have additional properties by coating it - we do thin-film coating to create a specific effect."

Materials commonly used for optics include acrylics, PMMA, PC, PS, cyclic olefin, and even engineering thermoplastics such as Ultem. Optics is "creeping into just about everything," Elli added, from camera lenses in mobile phones, to LED lighting components, medical devices for diagnostic and surgical laparoscopy instruments, automated vision systems, robotics, night vision instruments to heads-up displays in automotive instrument panels and more.

Upgrading facility

In addition to the training program, Elli is looking toward upgrading the facility to the next level by installing a white room in the near future, specifically for the optical parts. The company currently does medical molding and the thin-film coating of lenses in a controlled environment. Currently, the company operates 38 injection molding presses ranging from 20 to 300 tons, and employs about 75 people. Empire Precision also has a tool room where the company has the capability to build molds, including the molds for optical components.

Empire also performs single-point diamond turning done with a "super accurate lathe that cuts to amazingly tight tolerances and done in a controlled environment," explained Elli. "The temperature in room can't be off more than +/- ½ degree as the machine requires climate control to get that accuracy."

"I believe the synergy of precision molding and optics will be a huge advantage for us and our customers as we move forward," he added. "We have an ambitious program to grow our business."                                                      

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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