November 2022
Young professionals are in high demand at VIAOPTIC in all areas. (Photos Ralf A. Niggemann)

Bright Perspectives

Is it a cool thing to work for one of the leading experts in Polymer Optics? Absolutely! How VIAOPTIC manages to hold their ground as a successful medium-sized company in competing for the best workforce.

The success story of VIAOPTIC began almost 20 years ago. After moving to Leitz Park in 2009, it has taken its course with virtually no restraints. 120 new jobs have been created since then. With the planned extension building, they will have a significant requirement for many more skilled professionals. Finding them, however, will not work without effort. How to accomplish this task, that’s what we talked about with the two managing directors Bernhard Willnauer and Uwe Bommersheim.

The success of a company depends significantly on the dedication, the motivation, and the contentment of their employees. This is a platitude which one is wont to hear in many so called “Sunday speeches”. But how those things are actually accomplished from Monday to Friday in the everyday life of a company often remains unknown. On July 15th, 2022 (not a Sunday!), the technology group Continental honored Wetzlar company VIAOPTIC GmbH with the award “Supplier of the Year” for their particularly outstanding accomplishments in the category “Decorative Plastics” – and managing director Bernhard Willnauer accepted the award online. “This award is a terrific appreciation of our work and it makes us very happy”, he said. “We owe this award to the whole team and the brilliant job they do in Wetzlar. The commitment and expert knowledge of our employees are key to our success.”

For the time being, you just have to assume that Bernhard Willnauer was serious in his praise. But during our conversation it soon became clear: his employees really matter to him. Our proposal to talk about technological market leadership in the Polymer Optics sector or to celebrate some business management success stories is brushed aside in a friendly but firm manner. No, he wants to talk about what it means to hold one’s ground as a medium-sized company when competing for the best skilled workforce.

Growing demands in the business segment of Polymer Optics

The company does a lot to succeed in this respect. As it is, VIAOPTIC desperately needs qualified employees in order to satisfy the growing demands of the constantly expanding business segment of Polymer Optics. Just a few years ago, polymer optics were considered being inferior as compared to glass lenses. This has blatantly changed with the development of new technologies and fields of applications. “Of course, you are not able to get around glass if you want to produce high-precision lenses for high-performance camera optics. But there are clearly more optical applications which can only be achieved with plastic lenses or plastic prisms”, Bernhard Willnauer explains.

In the case of projection lenses for automobile headlights, for example, it is not only optical precision that matters but it is also crucial to save weight through the application of plastic modules. A so-called curved display in premium vehicles, for one, is backlit by optical fibers consisting of millions of lenses which only have a diameter of 0.1 millimeters. This is something which can likewise only be realized with polymers. Apart from these most sophisticated automotive solutions, VIAOPTIC also produces integrated assembly groups for safety light grids and polygons for bar code scanners with extremely high requirements to evenness so as to ensure a long transmission range and great reading accuracy. In addition, there are Fresnel lenses for motion detectors, optical assemblies for counterfeit money detectors in pay machines or special polygons used in automatic doors for scanning the coverage area in front of the door. “By now, we are extremely diversified and have to fulfill a variety of specifications in line with that”, Uwe Bommersheim points out.

Experience, competence, and expert knowledge in the company

To be able to manufacture those polymer lenses and assemblies, the company requires expert knowledge. And such expert knowledge is in high demand on all levels at VIAOPTIC: among the specialist employees and the management, project and department managers as well as skilled workers from the metal or polymer sectors. “Our core business is definitely driven by production. But to some extent, we also perform development services for our customers”, says Uwe Bommersheim. The percentage of female employees in manufacturing is comparatively high because many activities hinge on accuracy, dexterity and a calm hand. “We certainly also work with automation”, explains Bommersheim, “but this doesn’t pay off with quantities below 200.000 pieces. Automation helps us to remain competitive and to mitigate the increasing demand for personnel.”

Currently VIAOPTIC is training five people as industrial mechanics in the discipline tooling technology, process technicians for polymers, and industrial management assistants. To pass on the experience, competence, and expert knowledge in the company to new employees, especially of the younger generation, is a key objective for Bernhard Willnauer: “We rely on company-internal training – on the one hand for reasons of specialized qualification, and on the other hand with an eye to integrating our apprentices into the company. For us, this means a greater effort but it is also a token of appreciation. Here, no-one is just a sideline or, in the worst case, not getting any farther than to the coffee machine and back.”

Contemporary working methods, tools and services

At VIAOPTIC, appreciation has a lot to do with transparency, trust in people’s capabilities, and personal responsibility. The employees are actively involved in the continual improvement process. A regular exchange takes place within the departments to synchronize key figures but also to voice criticism and make suggestions for improvements. Of enormous importance in doing so is also and especially the communication between the executive floor and the employees. “For this purpose, we established a Broadcast Group as central source of information for mobile terminals”, Uwe Bommersheim recounts. That way, the employees receive relevant information directly without any rumors taking on a life of their own and – just as in the game of Chinese whispers – resulting in something completely different in the end.

The application of such instruments and tools is part of VIAOPTIC everyday working life. The newest tool in the company is a carpool App which VIAOPTIC developed together with the affiliated companies in Leitz Park so that their employees are not driving to work each one alone in their own car. Moreover, the company offers the leasing of company bikes. The road up to Leitz Park may not be that long but for many a person it may be quite too steep. Having an e-bike available makes it much easier to decide to go to work by bike. And that in turn is not only good for people’s health but also a benefit for the environment.

Flexible and future-proof working environment

Absolutely crucial are flexible working time models which fit in with the employees’ various realities of life. “By now, no-one will respond to any job offer that doesn’t include the option of working from home”, is the experience of Bernhard Willnauer. The longest-serving employee has been in the company for 49 years and maybe he doesn’t know anything else than pursuing his work from day to day at regular working hours. But it is the young people who appreciate flexible working time models and put great store on the compatibility of family and career. It is no secret that such a balance turns employees into a content and more productive workforce.

“We offer all that to win the best employees over to us and retain them in the company”, says Bernhard Willnauer. So that VIAOPTIC will be able to keep on growing in a healthy manner in the near future, one would like to add. It is not to be expected that the momentum in the sector of producing Polymer Optics will cease – especially since new fields of application are constantly opening up for the experts from Wetzlar in the automotive sector, in sensor systems and medical engineering, in home automation and on the lightning market. That is also why VIAOPTIC is planning to expand their building on Leitz Park by an additional 60 percent of usable floor space. The new building is to be erected in 2023 and should be ready for occupation in the first half of 2024. Of course, from this one cannot infer the certainty of guaranteed jobs. But you can certainly not go wrong when looking for a future-proof job at VIAOPTIC.

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