The penny does not drop with most people if you mention the name Anteryon, but everyone is familiar with CDs. Since the 1990s, Anteryon – then still part of Philips – made millions of lenses a year for the CD players. Nowadays, the optical modules are mainly found in industrial applications: for the accurate measurement of land, measuring the freshness of fruit and vegetables, medical scanners for tissue research, or as a tool for eye surgeons. In addition, Anteryon supplies precision glass and sensors for ASML machines. The company ceased to manufacture just lenses and lasers, and Philips’ spin-off increasingly develops and assembles complete optical systems.
“Such a system must seamlessly connect to the customer’s application,” says Edwin Wolterink CTO of the Eindhoven-based company. This summer Anteryon moved to the Brainport Industries Campus where it rents almost 4,000 square metres, including a cleanroom of about 1,900 square metres. Here Anteryon has options to grow quickly. Wolterink proudly talks about a detection system for a milking robot that Anteryon developed for a customer: “Such a system must be reliable and precise, it must be able to recognise udders and measure whether the robot arm is not putting too much pressure. In a barn, it is damp, dirty and there is not always a lot of light. How do you translate that into the design? What do you have to consider? It is completely different than manufacturing just one lens. We develop, assemble and test systems or products so that they can be used plug-and-play for our customers.”
To make this possible, Anteryon has an R&D department of about 35 people where employees work on customer questions, but also have room for research into technologies in which the company sees a future. “We always want to have or invent the newest and best technologies. But it’s all about the translation: from broad technology to a practical and producible solution. Therefore, we work a lot together with our customers,” Wolterink says.
“Everything needs to be smaller, more precise and sharper. We too will go along with this,” says Wolterink about the future. And that works quite well, the smallest lens they Anteryon produces is smaller than 1 mm and can be processed in the cleanrooms to a maximum of one-tenth of a micro (1 mm is 1000 microns). By way of comparison: a human hair is about 100 microns thick. Wolterink: “If you have to find out how small this is, you’re in the nanometre sphere. In the camera of a phone, there are five different lenses; all have a different function and shape, that’s real precision work. Some modules project more than 40,000 spotlights, which are converted into digital points. It makes facial recognition possible, and it also allows you to map a space very precisely in 3D.”
Something else Anteryon is working on: a medical scanner that can tell by the colour of the tissue whether a body is healthy. “It works with hyperspectral imaging, making things visible that you normally can’t perceive; adjustable colour filters detect the slightest difference in contrast. This technique is also used to measure whether fruit is fresh. The ultimate challenge is to make the technology so small that surgeons can distinguish between healthy and diseased tissue during on-site surgery,” Wolterink says.
The automotive industry is also an interesting market, he believes: “Here too, you see more and more sensors and cameras: cameras in the dashboard or steering wheel to check whether a driver is awake, parking assistance via cameras and sensors that ensure that drivers stay in the middle of the road. All this is developing into self-propelled cars, but they do depend on good sensoring and connectivity. We’re working on reducing the size of a lidar system – a kind of radar – so it fits in cars.”
Not only surgeons and motorists benefit from smaller optical modules, Wolterink knows: “Farmers or forensic investigators, for example, can also benefit from this. Now, in the event of a death in a lab, measurements have to be taken to determine how long the corpse has been dead. With pocket-sized sensors, you have an immediate answer. And farmers can hang optical modules from a drone to better monitor their land”, Wolterink uses as an example.
More and more of these industrial applications also end up in consumer electronics. Wolterink: “The optical modules of telephone cameras are increasingly capable of measuring spaces. It’s just a matter of time before consumers can check whether a room is really clean, that you can use your phone to measure bacteria.”