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Aspherical lenses

Technology

Lessons from a master of digital-first

Published 6 October 2023 in Technology • 7 min read

IMD’s Tomoko Yokoi talks to Sven Kiontke, the founder and CEO of asphericon, the German specialist in aspherical lenses and optical systems.

Nowadays, every manufacturer aspires to be digital. Research published earlier this year by Gartner found 80% of CEOs in the sector are ramping up their investment in digital technology.

The leap from analog is, however, a daunting one. Challenges ranging from shortage of capital to a paucity of digital skills threaten to dent CEOs’ ambitions. IMD’s recently published Digital Vortex research, based on surveys of hundreds of business leaders worldwide, ranked manufacturing 13th out of 14 sectors in terms of its current pace of digital transformation. 

One man untroubled by these pressures is Sven Kiontke, CEO and founder of asphericon, a specialist in high-precision manufacturing of lenses and optical equipment. From its beginnings more than 20 years ago, and well before the digital wave crashed through the manufacturing landscape, Kiontke has run asphericon as a digital business. 

A computer scientist by training, Kiontke founded asphericon in 2001 in Jena, the Germany city that has been at the center of the optical industry since the mid-19th century. His ambition was to produce aspherical lenses – non-standard lenses manufactured to precise but irregular specifications – using machines controlled by software, rather than human operators. He developed the code for the task himself, turning down attractive job offers to invest all his time and energy in the venture. 

Fast forward a decade or so and Kiontke’s vision had become a reality – a reality that others were looking to emulate. “In 2012 I took a call from a market researcher who asked me when asphericon might adopt some of the practices of ‘Industry 4.0,’” he says. “I had to ask him what the term meant but, when I explained we had been running our manufacturing digitally for more than 10 years, there was a long silence.” 

Asphericon, in other words, has a genuine claim to be one of the world’s first digital manufacturers. So, what advice does Kiontke have for manufacturing businesses now scrambling to follow his lead? He points to seven key lessons that he’s learned along the way. 

Digitize for the business, not the technology providers 

Developers often produce breakthrough technologies and then search for a problem to which these technologies are the solution. But for many manufacturers, the key is to identify the issue that needs fixing and then look to develop the technology that provides the solution. 

“Aspherical lens production was a manual process, requiring highly experienced operators to proceed by trial and error – polishing a little more here and a little less there,” says Kiontke. “We know we had to create a deterministic function that would work time and again.” 

“Our next issue was the measurement machine, using which you had to move one pixel at a time. Operators were spending more time measuring than machining, so we locked ourselves in a room for a week and developed software to automate the whole process. It saved a huge amount of time and money, and it massively improved quality.”  

The lesson, then, is that digital transformation starts when manufactures identify the specific problems they face. 

Automate, automate, automate 

Digitization in manufacturing often begins as a piecemeal process, with manual interventions still required at significant moments in the value chain. But the digitization of each additional step in the production cycle will deliver additional benefits. Moreover, a successful transformation will manage the cycle as a whole. 

problem fixing
For many manufacturers, the key is to identify the issue that needs fixing and then look to develop the technology that provides the solution

“If you can automate it, automate it; if you can put it into software, put it into software,” urges Kiontke. “You save money, you get reliability, and you can get independence.” 

That final point is significant. “We’ve reached a stage where I could build an automated manufacturing facility anywhere in the world, comfortable in the knowledge that our software can run it,” says Kiontke. “If I have a large customer in the US, say, who wants to manufacture locally, I can even license him or her to run the factory themselves, built on our knowledge and ability.” 

Plan for skills shortages 

Digital transformation requires technical expertise, and many manufacturers cite an inability to recruit such talent as a major stumbling block in their transformation programs. What businesses can do is ensure existing staff are ready and able to use new technologies once implemented. 

“Right from the start, we planned to reduce the process of using our technology to as few steps – or clicks – as possible,” Kiontke says. “We wanted to reduce the time it took to train new operators, and then to support them on the factory floor.” Instead of the typical 3.5 year training period for a skilled worker, asphericon’s system streamlines the onboarding process so it is possible to get a new employee up and running in four weeks. Step-by-step digital processes effectively automate expertise. 

It’s also important to see digitization as a means of supporting the workforce that will improve recruitment and retention, adds Kiontke. “The conversation in Germany is increasingly about work-life balance and I don’t want my people to be working night and day,” he says. “Digital technologies and roboticization enable us to increase capacity without demanding ever more from our people.” 

Draw on the knowledge of your partners 

The manufacturing sector, to an increasing degree, depends on shared knowledge and expertise; industry-wide product specifications and agreed standards of production quality, for example. It is, therefore, in everyone’s interest to build a critical mass of digital competency – including on the part of the customer.

“In 2010, we hired a PhD-level expert and asked her to curate all of the knowledge and experience we had built up with customers over our first few years,” Kiontke says. “Then, we designed training and courses, which technicians worldwide could take, on how to use aspherical lenses in their supply chains.” 

After two decades of accumulating data on production techniques and individual projects, we are uniquely well-placed to advise customers on whether their designs will behave in the way they expect – and whether their cost estimates are realistic

The goal was to build understanding of a new way of operating for the whole industry. “Maybe some of the people we trained would go on to place orders with some of our competitors, maybe not,” says Kiontke. “But we gained a huge amount of trust for the innovation we had pioneered.”  

Double down on data 

The answers to many manufacturing problems are hidden in plain sight. As manufacturers digitize their facilities, they will generate new data each day. That data may well provide the insight necessary to improve the manufacturing process further, refining product design, and driving additional innovation. Capturing, managing, and analyzing the data, therefore, becomes crucial. 

“We started building our database from the moment we launched,” confirms Kiontke. “We sought to capture information from every machine we used and each new lens we manufactured.” 

One area where this has helped asphericon is in product design. The company’s engineers need far less training to help customers design products because the  data itself drives the task. 

Be alert for new business models 

The known benefits of digital manufacturing are greater efficiency, improved accuracy and quality, and more advanced products. In the process of innovating to secure those gains, moreover, new opportunities will almost certainly emerge.

“After two decades of accumulating data on production techniques and individual projects, we are uniquely well-placed to advise customers on whether their designs will behave in the way they expect – and whether their cost estimates are realistic,” says Kiontke. “Well before they move into production, we can tell them whether something will work.” 

That expertise has seen asphericon develop a whole new consultancy arm to its business, advising customers on maximizing the viability of their projects. For example, the business has worked closely with manufacturers of space satellites, which include multiple aspherical lenses. “They trust us to tell them whether their satellite is actually going to fly.” 

Aim for security by design 

Digitizing the business inevitably leaves manufacturers open to new vulnerabilities. Connected devices can be targeted by bad actors – from cyber attackers with extortion in mind, to industrial espionage by ruthless competitors. Machines linked by the internet of things (IoT) are widely regarded as weak points in digital infrastructures. 

Rather than trying to retrofit security measures, it is, therefore, vital to make security one of the foundations of your digital transformation. 

Asphericon has based its transformation on these seven pillars of digital wisdom. Its longevity and continuing success, which has never deviated from digital principles, suggests that businesses looking to follow the same path should consider putting them in place to support their own transformational journeys. 

Authors

Tomoko Yokoi

Tomoko Yokoi

Researcher, Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, IMD

Tomoko Yokoi is an IMD researcher and senior business executive with expertise in digital business transformations, women in tech, and digital innovation. With 20 years of experience in B2B and B2C industries, her insights are regularly published in outlets such as Forbes and MIT Sloan Management Review.

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