When North American Coating Laboratories got its start in 1974, the company focused solely on coating eyeglasses and sunglasses. Today, eyewear makes up less than 20% of its business, whereas the rest includes a huge range of industrial products — from rifle scopes to watch crystals to security cameras.
“I mean, the list kind of goes on and on,” said president and CEO Brian Wilson.
And in recent years, the company has added a new area of expertise: virtual reality.
North American Coating Laboratories offers vacuum-applied coatings for both plastic and glass components and dip-applied hard coatings, which add capabilities like scratch resistance for plastics. Its ability to coat both materials makes it stand out, Wilson said.
Its plant at 9450 Pineneedle Drive in Mentor employs about 30, an increase of about five in the past year and a half. The company was much larger when it was mass producing sunglasses, but that ended in the early ’90s, said Dan Fiore, director of business development.
Fiore said the company has grown in other ways, too, investing about $1 million in the past two years in upgrades like a revamped office kitchen and in equipment like a new cleaning line. Wilson said the company doesn’t share annual sales, but that it has seen significant increases in profitability in recent years.
Business grew organically over time, said Wilson, who is the son of the company’s founder. Companies knew they could get anti-reflective coatings on their sunglasses and sought out how to apply those coatings to new products, a shift that started in the mid- to late ’80s.
And as North American Coating Laboratories grew to serve more industries, it also expanded the type of coatings it offered to include products like indium tin oxide for touchscreens, which Wilson described as a clear tint that conducts electricity. Wilson said military and automotive are the largest industries the company serves, but that the virtual and augmented reality industries are next in line.
There’s a lot of opportunity in that space, as there are so many companies working on virtual and augmented reality products, Wilson said, whether it’s for entertainment purposes or industrial applications. So far, the company has worked on a variety of prototypes in this space, such as Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens, Fiore said.
Wilson said it likes to get in the “ground level” with these companies, so it can make the best use of employees’ decades of expertise. Fiore said the next step for the company will likely be in autonomous cars.
But while North American Coating Laboratories is working on the most cutting edge of technology, the company really values the basics.
North American Coating Laboratories prides itself on its responsiveness and the speed with which it gets back to customers, Wilson said. The company often responds to requests for quotes within an hour, he said, and employees will respond during off-hours. That makes it a good fit for these high-tech industries.
“They have to be the first one with their product out the door in order to capture the market,” he said. “So that’s why they’re willing to pay big money to get things in here and turned around in a day or two, and back to them, and then going to the next version.”
And virtual and augmented reality is a good industry for North American Coating Laboratories to serve, because these customers have venture capital to spend, Wilson said.
The company runs three shifts, which means it can finish projects quickly. Employees are cross-trained and expected to pitch in where needed. Overall, the company prides itself on service and turnaround time, Wilson said.
Ned Nestorovic, president of Seattle Photonics Associates in Washington, uses North American Coating Laboratories for the majority of the plastics coating work his optical engineering, design and prototype company needs. Nestorovic said Seattle Photonics makes prototypes for a wide variety of optical products, from camera lenses to laser-based systems to microscopes, and he appreciates how quick North American Coating is to respond, because products can never get made quick enough in tech. He also likes that the company is flexible and works with him if the plans for a coating aren’t going to work. That “interactivity” is critical, he said.
Scott Payette, vice president of optical components at Wilcox Industries Corp. in New Hampshire, said he likes the company’s quality, and on the occasion that there is a problem, North American Coating Laboratories is very upfront about getting it resolved. He’s been at Wilcox for less than two years, but has worked with North American Coating at a previous job. In his more than 20 years in the industry, he said he hasn’t come across anyone better for coatings.
Relationships are another traditional value that’s been key to North American Coating Laboratories’ growth. People tend to move around in the optics industry, Wilson said, and they often take North American Coating with them.