Having spent several years under the wing of a specialist IPE group, the inventor of the opto-electronic welding mask, Optrel, regained its independence in November 2010. Over the course of several months the single-product Swiss company underwent a reorganisation and returned to the world welding market in force, building new growth on the back of the values it is famous for innovation, technology and faultless manufacturing.

In 1986, three professionals in the electronics sector came together to found their welding mask manufacturing company in Wattwil, in the Swiss canton of Saint Gallen. The launch in that year of opto-electronic welding masks, manufactured using technology perfected by optrel, created an instantly recognisable brand. Indeed, compared to the previously available passive filtering technologies, the advantages brought about by the innovative new masks in terms of functionality and comfort could be said to be revolutionary.

Independence and growth
Twelve years after it was founded optrel was bought out by Bacou, an individual protection equipment specialist which later became Bacou Dalloz and then Sperian Protection (today it is called Honeywell). optrel then regained its independence in November 2010 when it was bought back by the sons of one of the company’s founders, Marco and René Koch, now optrel president and board member respectively. Since returning to being an entirely independent, familyowned company, optrel has quickly gained a level of success which has not been seen in the brand’s 24-year history. Everything is different now – with the exception of the opto-electronic mask production unit which has never left Wattwil – and the new managers of the Swiss SME know how to hold their own. As Daniel Ritler, CEO of the company says: “optrel’s reputation is built on its production values.”

“Despite the significant cost of Swiss labour, the idea of moving our opto-electronic production facility has never crossed our minds,” he adds. In just a few months optrel made great steps in the reconstruction of its sales force, repatriation of its logistics platform to the Wattwil building and the creation of a new marketing strategy. The company has come on in leaps and bounds but its reorganisation is not yet complete, particularly in terms of logistics. optrel currently employs 60 people, 50 of whom are based at the company’s historic site covering central services including sales management, production shops, the R&D department and the logistics platform.

Since leaving the relative security of being part of an international group, optrel’s main goal – to become a profitable SME – has almost been reached. Mask production has increased significantly over the last year and the company’s turnover has seen double-digit growth.

A multi-regional brand
Although well-established in its home market, the company sells 95% of its products to foreign countries. Mask sales are handled in various ways depending on the market. In Europe, where optrel makes most of its turnover, the manufacturer sells masks directly in countries where development potential is stronger, such as Germany, Italy, the Nordic countries, Great Britain, Slovakia and France. This is also the case with Russia. In other countries such as Spain and Portugal the brand is sold through agents. optrel also has a presence further afield through exclusive partners in the US, where a logistics platform is supplying the North American market. The brand has also recently gained a foothold in Asia via an importer in China.

The entire range
In the global welding mask market, optrel is atypical in terms of its size and that it only produces one product. It also stands out as the only company to offer the entire range of welding masks – from passive filtering masks all the way to systems equipped with breathing apparatus. The company’s offering is structured around three ranges. Using both passive and active filtering, each range has different levels of technical sophistication, particularly in terms of the adjustments which can be made, but all are produced using the same high production standards

The basic range is manufactured in Slovakia using optrel moulds and company processes, and includes 15 models of passive filtering masks. This range resulted from Beauverger joining Bacou in the middle of the last decade – a wellknown French company specialising in the production of passive welding masks.

Aimed at welders looking for 9-13 shade, the Pro range has light ergonomic shell and offers all the advantages of a high-performance, safe and effective active filtering mask. It includes two masks, one with a shade fixed at 11 and one which can be varied between 9 and 13.

Leader in technology
The Expert line combines all optrel’s technological innovations. This range has evolved over the years and is derived from two models of active filtering mask which had a big impact on the market. Launched at the beginning of the last decade, OSevolution was the first mask on the market to be equipped with active filtering and two different ranges of shade, 5-9 and 9-13. For the first time this product enabled welders to deactivate the filtering cell and go to a grinding mode.

In the middle of the last decade the Orion mask, equipped with a totally automated filtering cell which can change shade in two thousandths of a second and changes during welding with no adjustment, represented a new advance and confirmed optrel’s technological leadership of the welding mask market.

Equipped with filtering cassettes manufactured using liquid crystal technology with constant progression technology, the Expert range now offers the industry True Colour technology which gives users good visual perception of their working environment.

This range has 1/1/1/2 optical quality, an innovative design and a shell which is highly-resistant to impacts and sparks. There are four modes available which can be changed on the outside of the mask: the e640 (4/10-11), the e650 (4/9- 13), the e670 with an automated cell (4/9- 13) and the e680 with two filtering ranges 4/5-9 and 4/9-13). In order to increase comfort and protection for the welder, the arc detection angle can be changed and the masks also have an adjustable-depth headband and a very thick, rounded protective screen which can be removed in three seconds.

Extending protection for welders
optrel’s air ventilation and filtering systems are the result of the same technical expertise applied to the development of the masks. The successor to the os100 (the first generation of air-filtering and ventilation systems) the e1100 effectively protects welders from fumes, particles and dust caused by welding processes. It offers users low weight (1,205 grams with filter and strap), a strong flow rate (minimum 150l/ min) and a long stand-alone operation time, which can extend up to 16 hours thanks to its lithium-ion battery. The e2100 model has similar technical characteristics but can also filter any gases and vapors produced during welding.

The two adaptable systems of the Expert range supply clean air to the whole cranium and not just the front of the face—as is the case with numerous models on the market— thus providing a cooling sensation which increases the comfort of the welder.

Research and quality control, two key aspects

optrel dedicates around 1.5% of its turnover to R&D activity and this department designs all the company’s products.
A team of nine people – most of whom are engineers specialising in electronics, optics and mechanics – work on the development of innovative new products.
There are a range of tests and controls in place (including monitoring the quality of the raw materials used) at all stages of the production process and these form the basic pillars of optrel’s quality control system.

In 2011, optrel improved its breathing system range with a new air supply system allowing work to be done safely in confined spaces with low oxygen (less than 17% oxygen in the air). In addition to breathing systems, the optrel range also includes a welding mask/construction helmet connection system which can be used with all the company’s welding masks. The hardy model is easy to put in place and the three-point attachment system ensures the welding protection equipment is well balanced.  Multichannel marketing. Since becoming an independent company again, optrel has been developing its sales and marketing strategy and has a dedicated team of people in place to improve its response to market enquiries. The multilingual website (www. optrel.com) in French, German and English, displays the entire range offered by the company, with cutaways of its equipment and 3D photos showing full product details.

Current sales activities (one action is launched every two months) are also displayed as well as company news. In line with optrel’s high-tech reputation, the company also has a strong presence on YouTube and

High-tech production

optrel makes 20 different active filtering cells in its workshops in Wattwil and assembles masks for its Pro and Expert ranges from the highest quality raw materials supplied according to its own specifications. The process begins with assembly of the mineral glass layers, some of which contain the liquid crystal and some of which provide the cell with its optical, mechanical and filtering properties. Once assembled the glass ‘sandwich’ will be connected to the cell’s electronic equipment, such as the solar panels (which allow the mask to operate autonomously) on the frame of the cell. The entire system is then assembled with the control box. The optoelectronic filtering cell will be closed before being tested by computer. In addition, some manufacturing is also carried out by sub-contractors who fi t the optrel opto-electronic cells to the mask shells (using optrel moulds and specifications) in their own workshops.

social networks, helping to increase awareness of optrel with expert welders. To improve the effectiveness of its sales and distribution campaigns the company created a programme of promotional activities to be implemented with its partner distributors; a competition to win tickets to the 2012 Euro Championship is one example. It is also going to publish a regular newsletter for distributors. The ranges are also promoted at the point of sale with the company providing distributors with a variety of totems and presentation accessories, which allow people to try out the masks’ filter cell. Other sales points equipped with video systems and box storage compartments are also available. Staying ahead of the game optrel attaches the highest importance to its research and development activities and will soon be ready to present an entirely new generation of welding masks at the German S&S Welding fair, reinforcing its reputation for innovation in the welding market. This will be accompanied by news about air-filtering systems. Currently the company is refining its new organisational structure, resulting in developments to improve the central logistics platform and the choice of equipment used. This will provide a balance between the performance of the service and shipping costs. The decision to keep the platform at Watwill or to move it abroad will be made soon, largely guided by the desire to provide optrel distributors with the highest quality service possible.