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Maestro of motion control

Maestro of motion control

Pittsburgh, PA--At a time when many companies have trimmed staff and reduced worker benefits, Aerotech Inc. is a bit of a throwback. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, this motion control company has never laid off an employee. Moreover, it offers such extras as free educational benefits, shares of company stock based on service, and, for engineers and other key employees, incentive pay based on sales of products they've helped to create and market.

Technical niche Wide range of products for very high accuracy motion control: air bearings, controllers, interferometers, motors, positioning systems, software support.

If this employee-centered environment seems too good to be true, you need to meet the company's president and founder, Steve J. Botos. You see, the 57-year-old Hungarian immigrant has never forgotten what it was like to be a worker himself.

As a child in Budapest, Botos watched the Communist regime take away his family's property and businesses. During the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Botos marched, picketed, and brought food and water to the "freedom fighters." Soon after the revolution was defeated, Botos, fearing for his safety, fled the country for Austria. "It was easy to see that there was no hope for me in Hungary," he recalls.

Broad line. Now, nearly 40 years later, Botos and the company he founded can look forward with a lot of hope. Botos has carved out a solid niche in the field of very high precision motion control. Among Aerotech's products:

Brushless servo motors incorporating rare-earth neodymium magnets.

  • Brushless linear servo motors and brushless servo amplifiers.

  • A wide range of stages and positioning systems, including a new air bearing X-Y positioning system.

  • Machine controllers that can synchronize as many as 16 axes of motion.

  • A new laser interferometer featuring resolution to 0.6 nm for enhanced positioning in such applications as semiconductor manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the company has grown to 190 employees and annual sales of more than $20 million, including successful operations in Europe and Asia. Next year, the company breaks ground on a new 40,000-square-foot expansion.

All this from a man who started his company with a simple, two-axis electromechanical positioning system that sold for about $300.

"Steve Botos has contributed technically to every single product this company has developed since day one," says Marketing Director Ken Wyman. On a typical day, Botos might spend time in the morning working on his pet project, a new CNC lathe called the Lensgen(R) 200, which makes interocular lens implants. In the afternoon, he might pour over sales figures--or meet with co-founder Emery Hornok about a manufacturing problem.

He's also a big cheerleader, say Aerotech engineers. "He's the first one in your office when you land a new account," says Ron Rekowski, engineering manager for the Advanced Systems Div.

Rekowski belongs to a cadre of 30 engineers--most of them in their late 20s--who give Aerotech the capability it needs in mechanics, electronics, optics, and software. Aerotech paid for Rekowski's master's degree, as it has for several engineers.

Working for a small company also gives Aerotech design engineers the chance to get involved in more aspects of product development, including marketing, manufacturing, and customer interface, says Raijun Chu, who joined Aerotech right after completing his Ph.D studies in electro-optics.

"The biggest challenge any company has is to build a successful team," says Botos, "and it's very rewarding to see our young engineers blossom." Included in this engineering corps is Botos' son, Mark. Son Steve manages marketing operations and is helping to spearhead ISO 9001 certification.

Coming to America. Botos knows firsthand how education boosted his own career. After fleeing his native Hungary, the young man in 1959 made his way to Pittsburgh, where relatives lived. Within a few months, he had passed his high-school equivalency exam, taken his college SATs, and started a job with a firm that made inertial guidance test equipment. He also earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh the hard way--taking courses at night. It took him nearly seven years to get his degree, including a stint in the Army.

After the service, he rejoined his company, Goerz Optical, which depended heavily on the defense industry. Yet despite the wild ups and downs of the defense cycle, Goerz wasn't interested then in turning its technology to civilian uses, recalls Botos.

Frustrated, he and co-worker Hornok, also from Hungary, quit their jobs and pooled their savings to build a $20,000 prototype of a positioning system for industrial use, which they fabricated in a garage. Having a working prototype made it easier to get additional funding of $300,000 from friends and a venture capital firm.

With the leverage of such prestigious early customers as Du Pont and IBM, the company grew steadily. "To the best of my knowledge, we were the first company to use closed-looped servo technology for linear positioning," notes Botos. "That gave us four times the performance of traditional stepper systems."

Trying times. The young company got its first big test in 1982, when a flood of imports devastated the U.S. machine tool industry. Aerotech workers went on a reduced four-day work week and took a 10% pay cut. Management, pushing hard to find new customers beyond the machine tool field, worked six- and seven-day weeks and took a 25% pay cut. The strategy worked, and in 1983 the company restored regular schedules and compensated employees for lost wages.

Now, Aerotech has branched out into far more sophisticated applications. For example, General Motors chose the company's Unidex(R) 31 machine controller for the synchronization of eight belts used to grind eight cam lobes simultaneously. In the medical field, Aerotech serves as an OEM--rather than a supplier--on its new Lensgen lathe for contact lens manufacture. The machine incorporates many Aerotech products, including: software, linear brushless servo motor, backlash-free slide carriage with 15 nanometer linear-position transducer, and the Unidex(R) 550 controller, an open, PC-bus system.

But the real "creme de la creme" of Aerotech is its ability to offer total positioning solutions in high accuracy applications. Wafer manufacturing, for example, requires travel distances in the range of 200 mm and positioning accuracy of around 5 nm, as well as extremely tough geometric accuracy for wafer straightness and flatness. For such applications, Aerotech offers air bearings, controllers, laser interferometers, servo drives, linear motors, and software support.

Though an intense, highly focused man, Botos runs his company with great patience. Product groups enjoy wide authority to develop products, plan marketing, and hire staff. He is pleased with Aerotech's steady record of 10 to 12% growth in annual sales and has no desire to trade the family environment of this employee-owned company for the revved-up demands of a public company.

"We'll stick to our knitting," says Botos, "and concentrate on this high-precision niche." With an expanding range of products and global markets, that will be challenge enough.

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