Interview with Philippe Mennicken, Managing Director of Theon Deutschland GmbH, and Heiko Schmidt, Business Development Director
ES & T: In today's application scenarios, night vision is indispensable. Night vision glasses are part of the basic equipment of every soldier in action. What factors determine the performance of night vision glasses?
Schmidt: The optical properties are decisive for the performance of night vision glasses. The residual light amplifier tubes on the one hand and the optics of the glasses themselves are crucial.
There are different performance classes for the tubes, which are mostly indicated with the "Figure of Merit", or FOM for short. However, other factors such as the halo effect or the autogating function also play a role in the performance of a tube.
In any case, the tube must be integrated in the glasses in a corresponding optical system. The quality of the lenses must correspond to the tube and all components together must be properly installed, otherwise negative effects can result, such as image distortion or stray light effects.
Good glasses are of course also characterized by a compact design and a low weight, but here the robustness of the glasses cannot be saved. Extremely light glasses often turn out to be unsuitable for use by soldiers because they do not meet the tough requirements in use or the image quality leaves something to be desired. An ergonomic operating concept is also included so that the soldier can use the glasses intuitively and reliably even in stressful situations.
Ultimately, all of these properties must come together in order to be able to offer excellent night vision glasses. This is where Theon excels, as the worldwide success of our NYX binocular night vision goggles proves.
ES & T: What technology trends can be seen in this sector? How will the next generation night vision glasses differ from the current one?
Mennicken: The next generation will still look very similar to the current devices. They will probably be a bit smaller and lighter, the trend towards miniaturization continues, even if there are thresholds that are difficult to fall below.
The main current technology trends are connectivity and image fusion. During image fusion, a thermal image sensor is integrated into the glasses, which gives the user the option of subtly overlaying the image of the residual light amplifier tube with the image of the thermal image sensor. Theon is actively working on this.
In the long term, there will be a technological change that will fundamentally change night vision systems. Due to further developments in the sensor area, the residual light amplifier tubes as we know them today will be replaced by new smaller and digital night vision sensors. This will enable revolutionary designs, the devices will be fully digital, much smaller, more compact and lighter.
The integration of full night vision technology in head-up displays will then probably also be possible. All of this will certainly not happen in the next generation, but at the earliest in the next but one, if not later.
ES & T: What technical features characterize the night vision goggles and target devices from your company, and how does the KSK goggle differ from the driver goggles, which both come from the same product range?
Mennicken: The majority of our products are relatively young, which means that they are technically up to date or even ahead of the times. In addition, customer requirements are consistently implemented by us, regardless of whether they are new or further developments. The best example of this is the special force glasses that have been put through their paces by the command over a year and a half in the desert, in the jungle and under arctic conditions. The result of this "osmosis" between "German industrial DNA" and "Greek entrepreneurship", as we like to call it, is the new, more powerful NYX. This, in turn, was ultimately the prerequisite for success in the US Marine Corps Squad Binocular Night Vision Goggle Program, together with our US partner.
In addition to technical advantages and high quality, our products are also characterized by an excellent price-performance ratio. Thanks to our small and cost-efficient structure, the very competitive Greek development costs and our robust and high-quality, but still cost-efficient supply chain, we have already been able to convince with our skills in free competition.
Schmidt: The KSK and driver glasses belong to the same product family. Nevertheless, there are some fundamental differences in appearance, operation and equipment, which are based on the different requirement profiles of the two user groups. The stringent implementation of a product family makes it relatively easy to implement such customizations at the customer's request. In addition, different tubes were installed.
ES & T: Is the global military market largely homogeneous, or are there national or regional differences in quality and performance requirements?
Schmidt: There are regional and sometimes national differences. In Europe, we see that after the special forces, the regular land forces are now increasingly being equipped with high-quality binocular night vision glasses. Our company already has ongoing contracts with all German-speaking armies.
Globally, night vision is still a luxury on a large scale, often only specialist personnel are capable of it.
For Theon, lighthouse projects such as those with the German armed forces are very important, but we also serve customers with significantly lower budgets who demand less technically complex solutions. Our customers can be found in over 50 countries worldwide. Thanks to our flexibility, we have already been able to deliver around 100,000 devices or have won contracts to a corresponding extent.
In countries with the corresponding financial requirements, the trend is clearly towards binocular night vision systems, with systems with a tube diameter of 18 mm being ahead of systems with 16 mm due to their greater performance.
Mennicken: Aside from the technical aspects, we see that in some countries, even in some EU countries, local companies still seem to be preferred regardless of how successful they are in the international market. Instead of throwing good money at such companies, EU institutions should instead promote real competition and support European armaments cooperation between European companies in order to develop innovative and competitive products. This is how European export champions are made!
ES & T: In cooperation with Elbit Systems of America, you received a major order from the US Marine Corps last year for more than 14,000 night vision goggles. Theon and Elbit are in direct competition in Europe. Against this background, how can a successful collaboration be designed?
Mennicken: In our industry, companies are often competitors in one market and in another partner. The cooperation was closed in 2016 with Harris Corporation, which was taken over by ESA during the project. The project has developed very positively, the first glasses have already been successfully delivered. The US Marine Corps is a very renowned customer and neither our cooperation partner nor Theon want to gamble away their good reputation there - especially since the 14,000 glasses mentioned can become even more! So we have a common goal in mind.
ES & T: Your company is located in Greece. At the beginning of 2019, the branch in Germany was founded, whose staff you are. What prompted your parent company to make this investment and what are your tasks within the group?
Mennicken: Beforeon Germany, Theon already had branches in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, as well as cooperation partners in selected strategic markets. Since the founding of Theon Deutschland GmbH, another branch has been established in the USA. The foundation of the German branch is therefore to be seen against the background of our global expansion strategy.
After we have already taken the technological lead in various areas, it is our intention to further strengthen the immediate market presence. Germany plays an important role in this, since the Bundeswehr is a very important customer for us in many ways.
As managing director of Theon Deutschland GmbH, I am responsible for the company. In my dual role as Commercial Director of Theon Sensors SA, I am also responsible for ensuring that all local activities are embedded in the global strategy.
Schmidt: In my role as Business Development Director of Theon Deutschland GmbH, I keep in touch with our customers and business partners in Central and Northern Europe and continue to expand our business activities. This task is very diverse and includes both the typical aspects of sales and project management. Proximity to the customer, both figuratively and literally, is the prerequisite for achieving the flexibility and short response times that Theon strives for.
Andreas Himmelsbach asked the questions.