Oxford Instruments Plc has manufacturing on its mind as it gears up for a future in which it hopes its superconductivity products will feature strongly. It has spent more than ú5m on fixed assets in the first half, largely on new factories. The company has started construction of new microanalysis factory at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and expects to start clearing a site before the year is out near its home town for its NMR Instruments nuclear magnetic resonance imaging business. It is also negotiating for a new site for its industrial analysis work. New products are also on the way. A hybrid X-ray fluorescence systems for industrial elemental analysis was announced in the first half of the year, and a new ion beam processing system for thin film and semiconductor applications, as well as a cardiology stress monitor, began shipping. Work continues on the new version of the company’s core product, Helios II, its second compact synchrotron, an X-ray generating machine for microchip production. The budget has now stretched beyond ú8m. The new machine will shortly enter testing and should be ready from mid to late 1996. Chairman and chief executive Peter Williams admitted that X-ray lithography has its difficulties as a manufacturing option for processors – a mask must be made of the feature that you want to print – but there will come a point with optical lithography processes when they fall over and fail to deliver, as he put it, when desired design rules become to fine for optical technology. At that point, he hopes, X-rays will be ready to leap into the breach. However, he acknowledges that the company may have to be patient in a conservative industry.
US and Japanese pretenders
The Proximity X-Ray Lithography Collaborative Association was launched by IBM Corp, AT&T Corp, Loral Corp and Motorola Inc in October 1994 (CI No 2,542) to develop X-ray lithography. But Oxford Instruments has seen off all the US and Japanese pretenders, and remains the only company with a synchrotron big enough for microprocessor manufacturing, according to Williams. IBM has been using Helios for four years in specialist static and dynamic memory chip production. Interim pre-tax profits were up 16% to ú9.0m, on turnover that rose 19% to ú65.5m. Exports and overseas sales accounted for 85% of that turnover. Orders are up 9% on a year earlier, and Williams said the spread between the company’s superconductivity, instruments and its magnetic resonance imaging joint venture with Siemens AG has been re-established, despite a drop in profits at the Magnetic Resonance Imaging venture. He warns, however, that the company must look increasingly to international markets as there is limited room for expansion left at home. The cash position was obviously affected by the fixed asset expenditure, and was ú5.3m down from the year-end at ú17.4m, and ú12.6m down on a year ago. However the asset position was enhanced, debtors increased and short term creditors cut sharply from a year ago. Research and development costs in the half came to ú5m, a 15% increase on a year ago and 7.6% of turnover. Williams described second half prospects as promising, given the increased level of orders in the first six months, and the aim is to improve margins. An interim dividend of 1.9 pence is recommended, for a 12% increase on a year ago.