FEATURE
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Experience is everything

Warren Clark explores the history of Lambda Photometrics, a UK distributor celebrating 30 years in business

In the world of photonics as it is today, it is difficult to imagine a time when the landscape was almost barren of suppliers and, in particular, distributors. For an industry which, even now, is yet to celebrate its golden anniversary, the 1970s represented the tough teenage years as it struggled with its identity and attempted to find a foothold in the world. It was in this environment that Lambda Photometrics came into being, thanks to the vision of Bob Carless, who left his job as managing director of Spectra-Physics in the UK, to set up this newfangled idea of a UK photonics distributor.

As the company celebrates 30 years in business and Carless prepares to retire fully (he has spent the past few years lending his considerable experience to marketing activities on a part-time basis), his decision has undoubtedly proved to be a good one.

Back in 1977, distributors in the UK were few and far between, and apart from Laser Lines and one or two smaller players, Lambda Photometrics was one of the very first companies to see an opportunity in this area.

At the outset, Carless used the contacts he had built up at Spectra-Physics to begin representation of Zygo, Quantel and Inrad – companies which Lambda still represents today. Very soon after, he successfully brought on board two sister German companies, Polytec and Physik Instrumente (PI). The former manufactures vibrometers, while the latter produces micropositioning equipment. This deal was to have a significant bearing on Lambda in the future.

In 1981, Adrian Harrison joined Carless to take the grand total of employees to three. Harrison began life at Plessey Company in 1973, fresh from graduating with a degree in applied chemistry from Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University). After a period ending with him feeling ‘trapped in a laboratory’, he left to join Spectra-Physics in 1979, by which time Carless had already gone. However, one of the products that Carless was distributing used Spectra-Physics lasers, and the two came across each other when dealing with sales support issues. ‘Eventually, he persuaded me to come and join him at Lambda – a good decision on my part, as I’m now managing director and have been for some 14 years,’ says Harrison.

It was around this time that Lambda Photometrics began to diversify its portfolio by taking on one or two fibre optics suppliers, such as Photodyne and Photon Kinetics. It was an area of the market that was to serve it very well over the ensuing years, particularly during the telecoms boom of the late 1990s. The consequent crash in this area came very close to taking the company down with it. ‘One of our greatest achievements,’ says Harrison, ‘is surviving that period without having to make staff redundant or even close the company altogether. Like everyone else, though, we did have to endure a couple of tough years.’

Harrison progressed to sales director and, by 1993 – and after 15 years of successful independence – Carless began thinking about taking a back seat. At the time, Polytec and PI were looking for a way to get more control over their distribution channels, so a combination of opportunity and good timing saw Carless sell the company to its current owners. The founder then stepped aside into a marketing role, handing over the reins to Harrison, who shared the position of managing director with Carless for three years, before taking sole responsibility from 1996 to date.

He presides over a company that now has 26 employees, a size at which it has been stable for around 10 years or more. Throughout the life of the company, its main focus has been on the scientific laser and electro optic businesses, though they have had periods in other markets too. ‘We did dabble in the medical market on three separate occasions,’ says Harrison, ‘including a time doing CO2 lasers and a period selling ruby lasers for tattoo removal. We’re not involved in them any more, but we feel we were in those markets at the right time – and got out at the right time too, once the market became saturated, as was the case.’

Now, the company is divided up into six groups: micropositioning, vibrometry, photonics products, fibre optics, vision products and a separate division looking after Zygo products. Of these, vision is a notable recent addition.

‘We started to get into vision in the late 1990s, before there was any thought of a crash in the telecoms market,’ says Harrison. Lambda now represents some fairly big names, including Schott, Sick IVP, MVTec and Prosilica, and vision represents around 15 per cent of the company’s turnover. ‘It’s certainly a growth area for us,’ he says.

Given the long association with PI, Harrison is also pleased to see significant growth in the micropositioning and metrology markets. ‘This is largely down to an increase in interest in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology, mostly at the research end,’ says Harrison.

Indeed, academic research and government laboratories together account for around half of Lambda’s customer base, with the rest spread across a broad range of industries, including manufacturing.

Looking to the future, Harrison underlines the potential still to be fulfilled in the vision and metrology markets, but believes that there are tough times ahead in the distribution of basic photonics products. ‘There are all sorts of threats to traditional distribution in that section of the market,’ he says. ‘For components, the internet is making it much easier and more transparent for customers to compare products and pricing.’

Indeed, in response to that, Lambda is planning to launch a webshop later in the year for its lower value, fast moving components. ‘There’s value in being able to purchase those types of products via a website, but for larger systems it just won’t be appropriate.’

So, if the internet does provide a threat to distribution in general, is there still a place for companies like Lambda Photometrics in the future? ‘Very much so,’ says Harrison. ‘A distributor is able to provide a complete solution. We can help with the specification of a system, choice of components and installation, and, what’s more, we can provide service and support for the whole lifetime of a product. Our four-strong support team is on hand to save both us and our customers a great deal of time and money by getting products up and running again quickly, should anything go wrong.’

Relationships with suppliers are also key to successful distribution. ‘In most cases, our suppliers see us as part of their company. We’re invited to technical training seminars, and they’ll come along to customer visits too, where appropriate.’ In fact, while never wishing to turn away a representation opportunity, Harrison recalls one or two occasions when his company has effectively sacked a supplier because they didn’t match up to Lambda’s own standards, be it through product quality, available support or, in one case, failure to deliver a product at all.


Lambda is planning to start web-based sales for some of its products

Almost without exception, the majority of Lambda’s 35 or so suppliers have come seeking distribution in the UK and Ireland. A few also allow distribution in Northern Europe, where they do not have any other representation, and some have a separate agreement covering Ireland.

After 30 years then, why do customers keep coming back to Lambda Photometrics? ‘Well, in a nutshell, it’s down to a broad portfolio of products, the comfort of dealing with a company that has that 30 years of history, and the solid reputation that we have built up over those years.’