AFE receives EPIC Phoenix Award 2013 recognising entrepreneurship in photonics

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On the 13 December, the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) presented its 2013 Phoenix Award to Nick Martin, CEO of Advanced Fibreoptic Engineering (AFE) in the UK, to reward the company’s entrepreneurship spirit and persistence. The award was presented at EPIC’s 10th anniversary celebration event in Brussels by Drew Nelson, President of EPIC.

As a company, AFE experienced many ups and downs during its growth but finally managed to become a successful business. This reflects EPIC’s intention that the award will encourage entrepreneurship in the Photonics industry, demonstrating that it is not always easy and many hurdles are to be expected along the way.

In 1994, an electronics distributor called GCA Electronics was operating from the premises of AFE in Witney, Oxfordshire, selling infrared LEDs as one of their product lines. The company soon realised that there was a growing demand for fibre optic packaging of these components and manufacturing soon dominated the business.

The company then became GCA Fibre optics and its success attracted the attention of the Uniphase Corporation, who acquired the business in 1995. In 1998, Uniphase merged with JDS Fitel, forming JDS Uniphase (JDSU). In 2000, JDSU decided to close the Witney facility and transfer production to a new facility in Yarnton in the UK, which opened in January 2001 at a cost of $18 million. Three months later, the facility was closed as the telecom bubble exploded, which caused serious consequences for many photonics companies throughout the industry.

During 2001, a management buyout created the company Afonics, who returned from Yarnton to the smaller Witney facility. Afonics grew strongly from 2001 through to 2005, but never achieved profitability and went into administration in May 2005. Advanced Fibre optic Engineering (AFE) was formed in June 2005, with seven key staff and worked very closely with a few large customers to rapidly set up a much smaller and efficient business.

Many hard lessons learned from Afonics have been successfully applied to the AFE business. In the early days it was essential to ensure that costs were controlled, and that products were built and supplied to customers on time with high yield. Monitoring and maintaining high levels of yield, low cost and on time shipments continues to be central to its manufacturing. Maintaining good customer and supplier relationships has been, and continues to be, an important part of its success.

The business is currently in its ninth year of profitable trading and has grown steadily, doubling sales since 2005. AFE currently employs 32 staff plus four contract staff and have a turnover approaching US$8 million. AFE recognises that the experience and commitment of all its staff is essential to its continuing success and have recently started working towards the Investors in People Standards. In 2010 and again in 2013 AFE was awarded an ‘Outstanding Supplier’ award from Fluke Networks, out of a supply base of 2,500 suppliers.

The company has continued to develop its original component business and alongside that have developed an expanding module design and assembly business. AFE is continually looking outwards for new market opportunities whilst ensuring that it supports all of its existing customers.