Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

From the Finger Lakes to Outer Space, Optimax is Changing How We Live and See the World

Optimax president Mike Mandina, left and CEO Rick Plympton

Optimax, a company that started in a barn in Webster, New York has grown to become the nation’s largest optical components manufacturer. And it’s getting even bigger.

Now based in the Finger Lakes community of Ontario in Wayne County, Optimax plans to double the size of its facility to 120,000 square feet and add 59 jobs to its current employee base of 300. The expansion represents a $21 million investment in the regional economy.

Founded in 1991, Optimax designs and manufactures precision optics for research and industry. Its lenses are used in medical devices, semiconductors, and aerospace and defense applications.

NASA’s Mars Rover and Pluto New Horizons programs used lenses made by Optimax (images provided by NASA)

The company is a key supplier to NASA and has supported dozens of its projects over the years. Optimax camera lenses made it possible for the Mars Rover to take its first images of Mars. And its lenses onboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are helping to map the far side of Pluto.

“It’s a real joy to be able to work on programs where we’re literally helping mankind see things for the first time,” said Rick Plympton, Optimax CEO.

Creating a winning leadership team

Plympton is a Finger Lakes native who grew up in Bloomfield. He leads Optimax along with the company’s president Mike Mandina.

Optics is seemingly part of Mandina’s DNA. In 1976, one year after receiving an associate’s degree in optics technology from Monroe Community College, Mandina started optics company Cormac Industries. It was eventually sold to a California-based firm Melles Griot, and Mandina became general manager of Rochester operations. In 1984, he hired Plympton, then a student at Finger Lakes Community College, to work at Melles Griot.

Mandina left the company to join then-startup Optimax in 1991, and five years later, recruited Plympton to lead marketing and sales..

With a relationship spanning 34 years, the two have formed a formidable partnership, and were recently inducted into the Rochester Business Hall of Fame.

Innovating to advance new technologies

Optimax specializes in developing prototype optics. Recently, it’s been working on lenses for virtual reality (VR) systems.

“VR technology was something people tried to develop years ago and it didn’t go anywhere,” said Plympton. “I think this time around, it’s going to take off, and it’s going to find applications in areas like entertainment and training.”

Optimax is also developing prototype optics for use in autonomous vehicles.

“These optical technologies are going to change how we live our daily lives,” he said.

Manufacturing these lenses, which can be smaller than a grain of rice and as big as a serving platter, requires advanced technology and a high level of precision.

It’s cutting-edge, but also serious, work.

“We make lenses that go into Lasik eye surgery instruments,” Plympton said, as an example. “So you can imagine that the lenses we provide have to be really, really good.”

Optimax’s commitment to innovation is reflected in its work with leading research universities, as close as the University of Rochester and as far away as the University of Arizona. It applies the latest research to maintain its competitive advantage in the industry.

While the company’s focus is small-volume production of 1-100 units, it has added capabilities for production and larger diameter optics.

Its latest expansion will provide even greater capacity, which Plympton noted is already in demand.

“Half of the new capacity has already been called for by our current customer base,” he said. “We’re building out because our customers are encouraging us to do it to support their projects.”

Optimax’s emphasis on customer satisfaction has fueled its growth, said Plympton. That includes delivering high-quality products, quickly – in as little as one week.

“Anytime we get the opportunity to serve someone, we want to make sure we provide optics that are 100 percent to spec and on time, so that we give our customers the best opportunity to be successful,” he said.

Building a skilled workforce

While Optimax has experienced significant growth – it was just ranked as one of the top 100 fastest-growing companies in the Rochester area – it can only grow as fast as it can hire skilled workers. That is why Optimax is focused on preparing the region’s workforce for high-tech manufacturing jobs.

Optimax president Mike Mandina helped found the Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturers’ Enterprise, or FAME, to improve collaboration among companies and workforce educators to build a pipeline of talented candidates.

“Mike founded FAME to get small to midsize businesses together to drive a cohesive message, so educators could update their programs to better prepare young people for today’s work environment,” said Plympton.

He said local high schools, colleges and universities – including Finger Lakes Community College, Monroe Community College, the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology – have been great partners in this effort.

“There’s been wonderful collaboration through FAME to update programs from high schools up to universities,” he said.

Leading the world in optics technology

The Finger Lakes region is considered a world leader in optics, photonics and imaging technologies, with more than 150 such companies. Sixty percent of the nation’s optics degrees are earned at the University of Rochester.

“The Finger Lakes region is a great place to do business because there is so much technology per capita here,” said Plympton, who earned his optics degree at the University of Rochester. “You can look at larger cities like Chicago or Boston or Dallas, and they don’t have nearly as much technology per capita as we do here.”

Another big benefit, he said, is the collaboration among business leaders, and within organizations such as New York Photonics and the local chapter of the Optical Society of America.

“As a business owner, I never have the feeling that I’m doing it alone,” Plympton said. “There are other people we can go to for support.”

“On the personal side, it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family. The cost of living is relatively low compared to other urban areas and the lifestyle here is just phenomenal.”


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Krista Gleason is a contributor to the Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal. She is a freelance writer and owner of Gleason Writes in the beautiful Finger Lakes.

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