As early as 1974, John Wilson—the founder of North American Coating Laboratories (NACL)—started to envision new concepts to be used for specialized coatings for eyeglass and sunglass lenses. Little did he know that his use of anti-reflective coatings to enhance the visual acuity of glasses would soon become the bedrock of newer opportunities and set a successful stream of product offerings for his company. Back then, new optical plastic materials were replacing the use of glass for eyewear, and John was developing improved coatings to provide similar benefits and increase the scratch resistance. Through his company, he operationalized the manufacture of high-quality sunglass products for key distributors which ultimately led to the expansion of many of NACL’s coatings into other non-eyeglass related industrial optics. Over the next few years, as John worked to establish a legacy, Brian Wilson, his son, got familiar with every aspect of NACL. The now CEO of the company, Brian mentions, “Growing up in the family business, I was always fascinated by the equipment and coatings that NACL was producing. I used to clean machines and learned to run and assist in repairing the equipment.” Based on his interest, it was a natural choice that Brian obtained his Optical Engineering degree at the University of Rochester, joined the family business, and helped it expand to other sectors that now represent 85 percent of their business. “We developed a technology that would allow us to provide plastic lenses with the same optical and physical performance characteristics as glass lenses. This was the perfect base layer for the other types of coating we now offer,” states Brian.
Be it iPhone screens, sunglasses, cars, virtual reality devices, or military equipment, NACL manufactures protective optical coatings that can be used in each of these cases”
What steers this family-run company ahead of the competition curve is its portfolio of products and services, unparalleled customer service, and a team of experienced and competent experts. “We offer a much wider range of coatings than others in our industry,” says Brian. “Be it iPhone screens, sunglasses, cars, virtual reality devices, or military equipment, NACL manufactures thin-film optical coatings that can be used in each of these cases.”
NACL’s experience in both dip and vacuum-applied processes enables it to provide optical coatings for a variety of customers in the polymer and glass optics markets and establishes it as one of the leading organizations in the optical coatings field. While the vacuum-applied coating supplies’ precision control and instrumentation are equipped for coating large and small parts in all production quantity ranges, the newly expanded dip coating lines utilize the fully automated, computerized processing to provide extreme precision capabilities for customizing plastic and glass substrates. NACL has the expertise to apply a coating to numerous types of polymer and glass substrates ranging from polycarbonate and acrylic to silicon and propionate. Further, they also offer the most extensive variety of anti-reflective and hydrophobic sunglasses and specialty lens treatments available today on prescription lenses.
The firm’s coating competencies include protective, scratch-resistant, reflective, anti-reflective, filter, conductive, indium tin oxide (ITO), and chemically resistive coatings. Having evolved with the optics industry transitioning from glass to plastic, NACL offers a dip-applied hard coating—polysiloxane—which gives a glass-like finish to plastic optics while increasing its durability and chemical resistance and adding capabilities such as scratch resistance. The firm also delivers ITO, a transparent conductive coating that conducts electricity and is applied to different cellphone touch-screens. Further, NACL provides Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI) and Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) coatings for military applications. They service clients in the automotive, aeronautic, consumer electronics, military, medical, and ophthalmic fields. “Our customers range from the ‘big three’ automotive manufacturers to high-end sunglass designers,” adds Brian.
Customer-centric Delivery Strategy
NACL’s unique ability to adapt to the up-and-coming trends in optical technology is supported by a very quick turnaround time and a responsive customer-focused approach toward product delivery and support. “We’ve been running three shifts a day for more than 40 years, and this round-the-clock operation mode gives us the operational flexibility to respond to any customer request quickly. These are acknowledged within five minutes, and some products can be delivered within a day,” says Brian. “We’re nimble and flexible enough to accommodate our customers’ needs in order to keep them ahead of the game.”
The company can usually answer any specific customer requirement through their in-house support team, either from their standard formulas or by creating a new one. In one specific instance, NACL collaborated with a military contractor that proposed a novel solution to an ongoing problem in the field: soldiers had to swap their rifle scope every 12 hours, as day turned to night.
We’ve been running three shifts a day for more than 40 years, and this round-the-clock operation mode gives us the operational flexibility
Keeping Pace with Virtual Reality
Having carved a unique niche in the coating technology landscape, NACL is establishing a name for itself by collaborating with many of the large players in the augmented and virtual reality space. The firm’s ability to coat polymer-based optics with high-performance optical coatings quickly and precisely has set them apart from their competition in the optical coating industry. Due to the rapid prototyping nature of the augmented and virtual reality industry, being able to perform on short notice and consistently deliver quality is a considerable advantage that NACL offers its clients in this space.
Another unique differentiator for NACL is the heritage and experience they have gained in the ophthalmic industry. Practically, all augmented and virtual reality systems ride on an ophthalmic or visor-based mechanical platform, so many of the techniques that NACL has perfected for coating optics on ophthalmic and visor platforms correspond seamlessly to the burgeoning industry.
Located east of Cleveland, OH, NACL’s factory has room and plans to expand. “Our range of comfort lies between 300 nanometers to three microns of wavelength range, but we now want to get into the infrared ranges of 5 to 12 microns, which would open up a whole new customer base,” continues Brian. Another solution they would like to develop is a domestic, permanent anti-fog coating solution, in response to many customer requirements. Brian sums up their entire business philosophy in these words: “We’re here to help.”