Gimme Five – William Heath

Heath grew up in Cornwall before taking a masters degree in physics at Queen’s College, University of Oxford, where he specialised in solid-state physics, optics and quantum mechanics. He was awarded a Michel Scholarship (a Queen’s College award for distinction) every year while at Oxford and achieved a first class degree. He is a member of the Institute of Physics and has featured in the “Who’s Who of Britain’s Business Elite” publication for several years running.

He is a keen gardener – as long as he can eat the fruits and vegetables of his labour – and also enjoys photography and hiking in the countryside.

1. Why has polymer fibre been slow to take off?

We get quite a bit of flak because we sing the praises of polymer fibre and say how great it is for all sorts of applications, but there are people who have tried it and not got the results and thus take exception to that message.  Some say it is not very reliable for serious applications. But that is not true.

In the early days, it was targeted as a simple version of glass fibre – you cut it with a knife, stick it in and get a link. But if you apply the same process as you do with glass fibre such as using high-quality connectors and polishing, it can be as good as glass for a lot of applications.

It is fine for up to about 100m. The attenuation is higher than glass so for long distances you need glass cable. But for 50 to 100m, there is no reason you can’t use polymer. We can push speeds up to 100MHz, but typically you are looking at 5 to 10MHz.

One problem is that there has been a very limited range of transmitters, receivers and connectors. We have looked to correct that with all-metal rugged industrial-style connectors rather than the cheap plastic and rubber ones. We have adapted our glass fibre connectors to work with polymer as well. That should help the market to take off for these types of industrial applications.

Once people see polymer fibre being successfully used, then it should be somewhat self-perpetuating. Once people see they can benefit from the low cost and flexibility it brings, it should help address the problem.

2. Your background is in physics but you are now a commercial director – do you still get time to work in the laboratories?

I do whenever I get the chance. I have to pull myself away from the laboratory because I really still enjoy the R&D side of things. We are a company of physicists and engineers. When the guys in the lab get a result they don’t expect, it falls on me to do the theory to explain it, and that is very satisfying. But then I tend to want to do what is next and that is prove the theory.

3. Will we always need copper?

Copper cable is very easy to terminate. Anyone can do it with minimal training. It is flexible. It is not so much work as terminating glass fibre. But it is becoming more scarce and expensive, though it is the only practical way for transmitting electricity. For transmitting data, fibre is much better than copper. You also don’t want copper linking high-voltage switchgear to a computer. It is the same with petrochemicals. You don’t want a spark at the computer end transmitting down copper to the petrochemicals.

In buildings, copper can be installed easily on site. When fibre was first introduced, it was pitched as the replacement for copper, but it has to be polished and terminated properly. Copper will always have its place. People are even talking about wireless power, but that is some way off.

4. Why grow your own food rather than buy it from the supermarket?

You save a fortune given the cost of food these days, especially with some of the more unusual vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli and pak choi (a Chinese cabbage). I can grow in one square meter as much pak choi as would cost £100 in the supermarket.

With a lot of vegetables, you can’t get the same taste as when you grow them yourself. Carrots are a good example. Home-grown carrots are so sweet and flavoursome. It also gives you something to look forward to every season. We have got used to buying fruit and veg at any time in the year. But this reduces what is special about each season. You can also pick it and eat it half an hour later; you can’t get it that fresh any other way.

5. Do the benefits of manufacturing in Britain outweigh the costs?

It depends on what you are doing. For many applications, they don’t. For some, it is very viable and more cost effective to manufacture in the UK. Over the past three years, our UK production of LED backlights has grown 50 per cent, but there has been a shift in applications. If you are producing millions for mobile phones or other consumer applications, the best is to produce in the Far East. But there are applications in, say, the industrial sector for high-end equipment needing 5000 to 10,000 a year. If they want these from off shore, then they have to go for off-the-shelf because it is not viable to use a mass production facility for that kind of volume.

Our UK backlight facility is designed for low to medium volumes with minimal set up. Within days from an engineer talking to us we can produce samples and then we can talk to them in real time because we are in the same time zone and get any problems worked out quickly. We can refine the design to a much higher degree. You don’t need to have one design fits all but can tailor it to a particular application. We can produce 5000 to 10,000 units a year more cost effectively in the UK than in the Far East.


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