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Why we Cancelled the Transaction with Optical Structures

This is a brief account of the exchanges that have taken place in the period from January 19 to February 2, 2007 between myself and Cary Chleborad, the president of Optical Structures (and also the owner of its sister company Woden Optics).
My goal is not to make business difficult for this supplier, but to explain why we decided not to continue with them. At all times Optical Structures was very responsive and showed a correct attitude to solve the problem, but ultimately they were unable to reply in a satisfactory way to the question whether they could actually deliver. In 14 days we did not get a single reference or any other evidence that could demonstrate that this company does indeed have the capabilities claimed on their web site.
If you're interested, please continue to read, and decide for yourself whether you would have taken the same decision.
January 19
After receiving a very good proposal for a high quality 43.3" f/4 mirror and 200 mm secondary flat, we were quite happy with our choice. The proposal was technically sound, the price was good. The supplier appeared very responsive and knowledgeable, and on his web site a number of very clear claims ("custom telescopes up to 2m - 79 inch") and pictures were found about robotic telescope projects and cellular optics.
On January 19 we posted the initial announcement about this project on several American and French ATM sites. Very soon we received a number of kind warnings that urged us to double-check the real capabilities of the supplier.
January 20
On the internet we did not find any trace of successful mirror projects over 20", or of any previous mirror casting experience of this supplier or its sister company Woden Optics. On the contrary, we did indeed find two quite appalling stories about completely failed 32" and 40" mirror projects.
I put the question to Optical Structures, and got a reply the same day:
  • they had indeed had some problems in the past, but now have a 4,000 square shop dedicated to optics with machines that can handle up to 1.2 meters diameter;
  • their cellular mirror casting is proprietary and no one is allowed to see the process or what is involved;
  • they are now contracting several large projects including a 1 meter LIDAR telescope as well as numerous optics ranging up to 40" diameter.
January 21
I sent a mail urging them to send me concrete references of current or past business partners, past customers of optics larger than 25", customers for which large mirrors are in fabrication, and photos of the shop equipment and some of the optics in production.
The answer was rather disappointing: Cary needed to consult his business partners and corporate attorney to see what information could be released, in view of the sensitive nature of a lot of the things they are doing. Positive point was that Cary also kindly invited me to come and visit the shop (a 16,000 km round-trip for me).
I received exactly four pictures that day, one photo of a 300 mm cast blank, a result of a FEM deflection analysis, two of an optician grinding the back of a 36" Stabilite cellular blank. Not very convincing altogether.
January 22
I repeated my request to get concrete references about optics over 25" they made in the past.
The answer was a clear admission they had none of that size, but had plenty of references for optics under 20". And that Optical Structures were prepared to finance the project if we would place the funds in an escrow account. Only when the mirror was complete and passed inspection at their facility the funds would then be released from escrow. And secondly, that they had been negotiating with an experienced optical consultant to work on several large projects.
That certainly was a nice proposal to reduce financial risk and compensate for the complete lack of references, and basically a good reaction to the problem. But surely to figure a mirror as challenging as a 110 cm f/4 you need somebody of experience, so the next step was obvious.
January 24
I sent a request for more specific and verifiable information about this consultant's past achievements and experiences in producing large, fast mirrors, and the extent of his/her commitment to our particular project.
January 26
We received the - quite impressive! - resume of the consultant, and confirmation of the agreement in principle.
I sent an e-mail asking whether we could contact the consultant to ask him about his commitment to this project.
Cary asked me to wait a bit until he could finish the agreement.
February 1
We finally got an e-mail that they had not been able to work out the consulting arrangement with the consultant.
February 2
After due consideration, we decided to cancel the whole transaction.
After 14 days of inquiring, it had become clear that OS did not have any references for optics over 20". We did not get a single picture of a large cellular blank produced by Optical Structures or any proof of their cast cellular mirrors capabilities. It did not look like anyone with successful experience on mirrors over 20" would be working on our project.
Of course I cannot and do not say that this company does not have the capabilities claimed on their web site. I can only state that in 14 days I did not receive any information that could validate their claims.
In reaction to my inquiries, Optical Structures did the decent thing and made a proposal to finance the project via an escrow agreement. So there would not be any financial risk. But losing 18 months on the project, waiting and seeing whether OS would actually be able to deliver the mirror was not really an option, so we decided to cancel the transaction.
Back to square one!