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The Polaroid instant camera, the computer screen glare guard and the rear projection television long ago grabbed consumers’ attention before giving way to subsequent waves of technology. But the multi-chambered manufacturing line that made the optical components for such devices is still pumping out glass products in a weathered factory in south Santa Rosa.

In the late 1960s, the cost of developing the 100-foot-long production line represented a huge wager for Sonoma County tech pioneer Optical Coating Laboratory Inc. By all accounts, the bet paid off handsomely, providing the company with a breakthrough for making high-performance mirrors and anti-reflective glass in a series of dust-free, vacuum chambers — with electron beams vaporizing aluminum and other coating materials.

The line’s operators call the system the MAC, short for the Multi-layer Automatic Coater, and this spring it gained its third set of owners in its 44 years of operation. The manufacturing line went from OCLI to JDSU when the local company was sold to the Milpitas-based tech giant in 2000. And in early June, JDSU sold the equipment and subleased the rented factory space on Giffen Avenue to MAC Thin Films, a startup company in Santa Rosa.

Roughly 90 percent of the new company’s 45 employees previously worked for JDSU, and before that many had been employed for years with OCLI. That combined experience already has helped MAC Thin Films generate sales worth $2 million per quarter. In the coming year, revenues are expected to reach an annual rate of $10 million.

“We were able to hit the ground running,” said MAC Thin Films CEO Mark Madigan.

With the MAC and a smaller system for custom projects, the company today makes front-surface mirrors for copiers, bar code scanners and video projectors, as well as specialized screens for jet cockpits, armored vehicles and MRI machines. Some displays prevent electromagnetic interference or keep liquid crystal lighting components warm in subzero conditions. Others allow medical technicians and doctors to easily view images at twice the resolution of high-definition TVs.

Madigan, who worked in management for OCLI and JDSU for 28 years, acknowledged that the MAC has been around for decades. But he said its thin-coated mirrors and anti-reflective glass still “represent global benchmarks” for performance, and the MAC continues to put out “an economically viable product line.”

Good news for county

The fact that a new company has kept the manufacturing line running is good news for Sonoma County, said Dick Herman, president of 101 MFG, a Petaluma-based alliance of manufacturing executives. Not only does the new business keep jobs here, but the company eventually will be looking to grow and take advantage of emerging technologies and devices that can benefit from its products.

“You’re going to have to think of new applications,” Herman said. “You’re going to have to think of new customer bases.”

The new company already is benefiting from the risk that OCLI founder Rolf Illsley took nearly a half century ago.

OCLI had been in the county about 15 years in 1966 when Illsley conceived the idea for the MAC. At that time, thin-coated glass typically was made in a single chamber where workers could apply only one coating at a time.

Illsley, now 93, said Friday in a brief interview that he was seeking a more competitive manufacturing process in order to allow OCLI to expand from military contracts to more commercial applications. As such, he wanted to develop a way to continuously feed glass through a series of vacuum chambers, sending it in bare at one end and coming out the other side coated up to six times with precise amounts of reflective or anti-reflective qualities as required by customers.

The MAC cost $2 million to build, Illsley recalled. At the time, he said, that amount roughly equaled the net worth of his business.

“If it had failed,” he said, “there is a chance that the company would have failed.”

But Illsley and his workers succeeded and in 1970 brought to operation “a revolutionary concept,” said former OCLI CEO Herbert Dwight.

“It was a huge investment for OCLI at that time,” said Dwight, who was with the company from 1991 to 2000. “It was truly unique and a major contributor to OCLI’s growth and profits for many years.”

New business opportunities

The MAC soon gave OCLI new business opportunities, including the chance to manufacture special mirrors for the Polaroid SX-70 that debuted in 1972. The sleek instant camera, whose film developed images before users’ eyes, is considered among the most sophisticated and innovative consumer products of its time.

The MAC and the discovery of color-shifting pigments were two of OCLI’s biggest breakthroughs, Illsley said. The pigment still is made today by JDSU and used by the U.S. and more 100 other nations to produce currency whose color-shifting inks serve to thwart counterfeiters.

Today Sonoma County is home to about a half-dozen thin-film companies, including JDSU.

But both here and abroad, nearly all thin-coated glass manufacturers use a different process for applying coatings. And the MAC remains unique as an inline system that applies the coating materials via vaporization, similar to steam collecting on a bathroom mirror.

The line is best suited for medium-sized manufacturing, said Madigan. As such, it hasn’t been imitated by large-scale glass coaters, who see more opportunity today in the mass production of coated windows for offices and homes.

Similarly, the MAC’s relatively small scale gave it a lower priority at JDSU. More than a year ago the company decided to focus “on select growing markets” that best fit its technology and expertise, according to a statement last week from its top executive in Santa Rosa.

“While we are very proud of the legacy and the longevity of the MAC platform, its capabilities and the markets it served no longer offered a path for us to meet our new strategic objectives,” said Luke Scrivanich, vice president and general manager of JDSU’s Optical Security & Performance Products business segment. He noted that company officials were pleased to wind down the line’s operations in a way that “enabled the buyer of the MAC platform to employ local Santa Rosa employees.”

When put up for sale, the MAC offered the opportunity for strong sales based on its decades of production and reputation for quality, Madigan said. That helped him persuade a handful of investors in the U.S. and abroad to join him in buying the equipment and forming the company. It also helped him gather a team of managers and workers to launch the new business.

“They knew there was a very loyal customer base,” he said.

The equipment’s purchase price was not disclosed.

Each week MAC Thin Films sends several 20-foot-long shipping containers filled with coated glass to China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Besides Asia and the U.S., the company ships products to such countries as Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany.

The MAC is an experience

Encountering the MAC is an experience for both eyes and ears. Two sheets of cleaned glass each measuring 25 by 32 inches travel on special heat-resistant frames into the system’s first chamber. Next comes a whoosh as one might hear on a submarine, as pumps suck virtually all the air from the chamber.

As the glass sheets move through the other chambers, a total of 11 huge pumps help maintain the vacuum.

For mirrors, aluminum is vaporized and rises to precisely coat the bottom of the glass. Up to four additional coats of other materials may be added in similar fashion, Madigan said.

Looking through small portholes into the chambers brings to mind the Babylonian fiery furnace where walked the Hebrew captives Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego.

“It looks like there’s little fireworks going on,” said Madigan.

Over the years, the MAC has undergone considerable improvements and now produces coated glass at eight times the original rate, said Mike Biagini, the line’s manufacturing supervisor. In 44 years, he said, the MAC has produced more than 10 million sheets of coated glass.

By Illsley’s calculations, the line’s output probably could cover an area of 2 square miles.

MAC Thin Films isn’t the first group that wanted to buy the line, Illsley said. He recalled a phone call a few years back from someone who wanted to purchase the MAC. The caller asked whether Illsley would like to become an investor.

His response: “At my age, I’m not interested in making any investments.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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