CyberOptics Corp. shares have tripled in value this year, performing better for investors than any other Minnesota-based company, and one of the reasons is a new device that makes very fast, very accurate 3-D scans of physical objects.
It resembles a microwave and can be used by engineers and designers to scan an object, producing a file that can then be manipulated in a computer-assisted design program.
The company, based in Golden Valley, is at the leading edge of research in projection profilometry, through which an object is measured by being lit up and having the reflections of its edges and curves captured by sensors. CyberOptics has released several products over the past two years that take advantage of its expertise in a specific technique called multiple-reflection suppression, or MRS.
With the technique, CyberOptics’ sensors and scanning devices can get a more accurate reading of a 3-D object because they reject certain surfaces. For instance, its scanners that look at finished microchips are able to tell the difference between solder joints and metal circuits.
“We have multiple products that use that technology and all of them are growing rapidly,” Subodh Kulkarni, chief executive of CyberOptics, said in an interview last week after the company announced its latest results.
Through the first nine months of the year, CyberOptics’ revenue was up 77 percent to $52 million and it earned more than $5 million, a reversal from a $2 million net loss in the same period last year.
The company has seen its new products that use MRS technology get taken up by several types of customers. It has long had a solid business for its sensors in the semiconductor equipment industry. With the MRS products, it signed an exclusive deal with KLA-Tencor Corp. to supply the sensing engine in that firm’s chip inspection devices, which are used at the end of the assembly process by major chipmakers.
“That’s been a very successful partnership,” Kulkarni said. “That started last year and is definitely one of the key drivers of our growth.”
He estimates the company is just a few years away from providing chipmakers with MRS-based sensors accurate enough to see the ultrasmall circuits, just a few microns across, during the chip fabrication process itself.
Meanwhile, in May, CyberOptics started selling the CyberGage 360, the microwave-like scanner that can be used in many industrial and design settings. Designers have become accustomed to scanners that took hours, required attention from a dedicated operator who had to move the object around to get all sides of it. “We can do the same thing in less than three minutes with no dedicated operator,” Kulkarni said. “That is extremely disruptive.
And the company is also finding demand for the sensors in other manufacturing environments. One of its biggest orders this year, Kulkarni said, came from a consumer electronics company that is using the sensors rather than people to perform the final inspection on finished goods.
He said CyberOptics is demonstrating how the sensors can replace manual inspection for medical-device firms and even food processors. Raspberry inspections on Wisconsin farms, he noted, now use lasers to identify unsuitable fruit. “An MRS sensor can do it far more accurately,” Kulkarni said.
The hardest work in developing the sensors, he said, has been done by CyberOptics mathematicians and computer scientists. Researchers in universities and industry for about two decades have been refining the calculations used to identify surface reflections.
CyberOptics’ scientists “did an analytical technique to reduce the complexity of the equations quite a bit,” Kulkarni said. “You have to give credit to our Minnesota mathematicians.”
There are limitations to the MRS scanning technique, he noted. Highly reflective objects, in which the light comes right back to the camera, can’t be measured accurately, for instance.
Even so, the market for 3-D scanning is huge and growing. “We’re a relatively unknown player today,” Kulkarni said.
Meanwhile, CyberOptics is also experiencing strong growth of a wafer-like sensor it designed last year for chipmakers. Called WaferSense, the product measures the vibration, leveling and humidity inside the machines that turn plain silicon wafers into chips. Chipmakers need those machines to perform consistently and send the WaferSense product through a machine multiple times a day to spot any sign of trouble.
CyberOptics was started in the 1980s by a University of Minnesota electrical engineering professor named Steven Case. Its originally made laser-based products that makers of computers and other electronics to line up components on electronic circuit boards. It entered the chip manufacturing market in 2004 when it first combined a miniature sensor with a Bluetooth wireless transmitter and placed it on a wafer-sized substrate.