Sensors Unlimited, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation and a firm with a long history in the Princeton-Route 1 corridor, has opened a 97,000-square-foot facility on Carter Road in Hopewell Township to make some of the world’s most advanced infrared cameras and optical sensors for the military.
John Trezza, a general manager at Sensors’ parent company, says the 1961 building, formerly the engineering research center of Western Electric, was just an empty shell when Sensors signed a deal in February, 2013, to lease the property long term. What followed was a $30 million renovation that saw a complete overhaul of the inside of the building, giving the company room to develop, test, and build a wide range of night vision sensors.
The new facility is a major upgrade from the Princeton Service Center, the unassuming set of single story buildings at 3490 Route 1 that once housed the company’s class 1,000 clean room. “I’ll never forget the day the person who was president of the electronics business segment of [Goodrich, the parent company at the time] came to visit the building. He said, ‘This building that you’re in is fine, but you really need something more modern; more expansive, and gives you greater capabilities.’”
Trezza says he immediately began putting together plans to move to a new headquarters. In 2012 United Technologies merged with Goodrich, and formed UTC Aerospace Systems. But the new management continued to support the plan. “It was just full speed ahead and no looking back,” Trezza recalls.
The facility at 330 Carter Road was built in 1961 by Western Electric, the manufacturing subsidiary of AT&T. More than 400 engineers and researchers worked on improving the company’s manufacturing methods, along the way inventing new ways of building electronics that revolutionized the industry. Its innovations included ion implanters, lasers for industrial use, clean room robotics for semiconductor production, and circuit board assembly automation.
The building has several unique features owing to its Cold War heritage. The building’s designers evidently had Armageddon in mind, aware that if World War III broke out, the Soviet Union might unleash nuclear weapons in the general vicinity. The basement of the building doubled as a bomb shelter and is protected by a three-foot layer of concrete and a compression space to protect equipment and people from an atomic bomb. The long driveway leading from Carter Road to the parking lot could be used as an emergency landing field for small planes.
As a result of the AT&T divestiture, Western Electric morphed into Lucent Technologies, and the research center was closed in 2004.
The campus, marketed as the Technology Center of Princeton, includes four buildings on the 350-acre site, owned by Philadelphia-based BPG Properties, a private equity real estate fund manager. The campus totals about 318,000 square feet of office space with room to expand to 470,000 square feet. Sensors Unlimited signed a 15-year lease in February, 2013. The landlord in the transaction was represented by Charles Hatfield of Cushman & Wakefield, which is the leasing agent for the property. On Sensors’ side were Milt Charbonneau of Cassidy Turley and William West and Jack Drescher of Ostendorf-Morris.
Sensors Unlimited has taken part of the largest building, which is a 220,000-square-foot, multi-story building. There is also a 76,000-square-foot laboratory building, a 25,000 square-foot converted farmhouse that is now a two-story office building, and a 15,000 square-foot warehouse. NAI Fennelly is advertising space available in the remaining buildings at $25.50 per square foot. Other tenants at 330 Carter Road include Worldwater and Solar Technology (4,800 square feet), a clean energy company, and Lexicon Pharmaceuticals (76,000 square feet).
Sensors Unlimited also has a notable corporate history. In 1984 Greg Olsen left Sarnoff Corp. to launch his first venture in the near-infrared camera field, Epitaxx. After six years in low-rent space at the Princeton Service Center (see box, page 20), Epitaxx was sold for $12 million to a Japanese firm that in turn sold it in 1999 for $410 million to JDS Uniphase, which operated it in Ewing.
But soon Olsen was busy again at the Princeton Service Center, founding Sensors Unlimited in 1991 together with business partner Marshal Cohen. He sold the firm to Finisar in 2000 for $600 million and bought it back two years later for a mere $6 million. In 2005 the firm was acquired by Goodrich for $60 million. (Olsen later bought a $20 million ticket to the International Space Station, becoming the third private citizen to fly into space. Today he is president of GHO Ventures, an angel investing company at 92 Nassau Street.)
Sensors Unlimited specializes in shortwave infrared (SWIR) technology. The cameras, which use wavelengths of light just below the visible spectrum, do much more than see in the dark. They are used for a huge variety of civilian and military tasks, from targeting air strikes to seeing whether bottles of detergent are over-filled. Museum curators even used one of the cameras to discover an older painting on the same canvas as the 1901 Picasso painting, “The Blue Room.” The infrared camera was able to see through the artist’s masterpiece brushstrokes to reveal a painting of a bow-tied man.
One of the latest models of cameras is the size of a pool cue chalk, but Sensors also designs larger, more powerful instruments that go aboard the U-2 spy plane. Other cameras are designed to go inside the spherical gimbals that peer menacingly from the chins of drones and warplanes. The soccer ball-like gimbals are made by Sensors Unlimited’s sister company, Cloud Cap Technology.
Another recently developed product is a hand-held scope, designed to be attached to a helmet or a weapon, which a soldier can look through for an infrared view of the battlefield. Through the scope, the world looks a little bit like seeing an image on an old black-and-white TV set. Unimpressive until you realize that the picture would be just as clear in pitch darkness. It can also see through smoke, haze, and, unlike thermal cameras, glass.
Making such complex, compact equipment requires specialized facilities. The new building is equipped for advanced semiconductor production. A main feature of the building is a massive “clean room” divided into seven discrete bays. Because a speck of dust could ruin a circuit, workers in a clean room must don spacesuit-like garments to ensure that no outside dirt mars the heavily filtered air inside.
Making semiconductors is precise business. When making a single chip, layers of circuits have to be pressed together with extreme accuracy in order to make millions of electrical connections. “The alignment of the chips together has to be within a micron, or one 100th the width of a human hair,” Trezza says. “This new facility gives us the environmental controls and a clean room that are a lot better than what we had before.”
In addition to making semiconductors, the new plant has facilities for indium gallium arsenide photodiodes — the sensors that make the cameras possible. They also have labs for integrating the sensors and chips into workable cameras, rapid prototyping and 3D modeling, and testing. Part of the basement is a 75-foot long pitch-black cavern for low light testing, and there is a crow’s nest on the roof for testing the ability of the cameras to see long distances through smoke and haze.
Greg Wheeler, the manager who orchestrated the move, said it was quite an undertaking. “At this location, we do everything from the atomic level design of the photodiode arrays to the electronic processing circuits. We can test it here as well.”
Sensors Unlimited had to make extensive modifications to the building to make all this happen. Alongside the building is an 11,000-gallon liquid nitrogen tank that was of such concern to local officials that the company had to train local fire departments in how to deal with the chemical. Engineers had to cut holes in the roof to install 10-ton boilers. The company also installed a wastewater system that ensures none of the water used in the labs, where it comes into contact with hazardous chemicals, makes it into the ordinary wastewater.
Trezza says more than 145 people now work at the facility, about half of whom are engineers. The building also includes management and marketing offices in addition to the labs. The company has said the staff will grow to more than 200 eventually due to steady growth in the business. “That kind of growth was not supported by the old facility,” he says. “In a semiconductor based business, you always have to make things smaller, faster, and higher performance.”
Improving how things are made is somewhat of a family tradition for Trezza, who grew up in Manalapan. His father was a quality control engineer for a company that made pigments. Trezza went into engineering himself, earning a bachelor’s degree at Princeton and a master’s and PhD from Stanford, all in electrical engineering. He began his career as a faculty member at Stanford, leading a team of 25 researchers who were developing electronic and optoelectronics. He went on to head the electro-optics group at Lockheed Martin, where he developed target identification systems among other things.
In 2000 he left the defense contractor to found Austin, Texas-based Cubic Wafer / Xanoptix Inc., and served as its president and chief technical officer. The company raised $80 million in venture capital and makes 3D integrated circuits. Trezza also added to his business credentials by becoming a certified public accountant. The Force Protection division of UTC, which Trezza heads, also includes Hood River, Oregon-based Cloud Cap, the maker of drone imaging systems.
Trezza says UTC weighed keeping the Sensors Unlimited operation in the Route 1 Corridor versus moving it to somewhere else, and decided to keep it in the general area because it wanted to retain the highly specialized workforce that keeps Sensors Unlimited running. After that, the search was on to find a suitable site in central New Jersey.
Trezza says the company looked at many facilities within a 100-mile radius, looking for ample space, room to grow, high ceilings, a large footprint, and the utilities to support R&D work. Out of three or four final candidates, the AT&T/Lucent site offered the best combination of space available and the landlord’s willingness to customize it to the company’s needs.
The site selection did face some local opposition, with at least one Carter Road resident objecting to Sensors Unlimited’s use of hazardous materials, and arguing that it was more of a manufacturing than an R&D operation. The company told the Hopewell Township planning board that since so few cameras were being shipped by the facility, being custom-made in nature, that it counted as research and prototyping. In the end, the town allowed the move to go forward.
The site is much more on the mold of the old-fashioned suburban corporate headquarters than the urban locations that are now in vogue among high tech companies. Trezza says the site offers five to ten-minute trips to points of interest like Princeton, Hopewell Borough, Pennington, and Lawrenceville, and the restaurants and shops found there.
Gerald Fennelly, the leasing agent for the Technology Center of Princeton, says software companies like Google want to appeal to a younger workforce, so they locate in cities, where younger workers prefer to be. However, he says, companies that employ large numbers of engineers and scientists, like Sensors Unlimited, have different hiring priorities.
“A kid coming out of college with a software engineering degree is not what they want,” he says. “Google hires all these millennials coming out of college in New York City, riding skateboards in the office. Once you step into specialty areas, you’re posing different prospects for hiring. You probably need a PhD, or at a minimum, a master’s in a science field.”
He says older workers still prefer to live and work in the suburbs, and that living in an expensive city like New York is not for everyone. “Don’t give up on the suburbs yet,” Fennelly says.
UTC, one of the largest defense and aerospace companies in the world, hasn’t given up on the suburbs. Trezza says the building of the new facility is a strong signal from UTC that it intends to invest heavily in Sensors Unlimited. “They are continuing to invest in the company on an annual basis,” Trezza says. “This was a lot harder than just putting in some offices and moving some equipment.”
Because the company makes gear for the military, security is tight. Visitors aren’t allowed to bring in phones or cameras without special permission, and they must be American citizens to visit the facility, or even play with a night vision scope.
Despite the emphasis on military capabilities, the company’s cameras have many civilian applications, and Trezza hopes to sell more cameras to firefighters, manufacturers, and even the medical community in the coming years. Sensors Unlimited makes a line of cameras for security purposes. Another obvious use is for first responders who need to see through smoke and haze. “Man overboard” systems for ships use cameras to detect if people fall off a ship, alert the crew, and then find the victim in a dark sea. They are especially useful on cruise ships.
Trezza says the company is just beginning to explore the industrial applications for IR cameras. In a demonstration at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new building last month, officials set up a video camera that could read a printed code clearly through a six-inch block of silicon. The choice of materials was no coincidence: solar panel manufacturers use the cameras to inspect blocks of silicon for defects before shaving them into wafers to use in making photovoltaic arrays.
IR cameras can see through layers of the human eye, and medical instrument companies are using Sensors Unlimited cameras to allow doctors to see through the retina into the blood vessel layer of the eye to diagnose eye diseases. Other medical applications are blood glucose analysis and imaging small animals for research.
“It’s probably split in half right now between military and civilian,” Trezza says. “I think it will continue to give us a broad customer base.”
Sensors Unlimited, 330 Carter Road, Princeton 08540; 609-333-8000; fax, 609-333-8103. www.sensorsinc.com.