From pioneering surgical microscopes and slit lamps, to a precision spectacle lens featuring point-focal imagery, Zeiss has an incredibly rich history in optics and ophthalmology. Insight traces its story from a modest workshop in Germany to global tech company.
On 17 November 1846, German entrepreneur Carl Zeiss opened a small workshop in the German city of Jena where he worked on precision mechanics and optics. Through a process of trial and error, he kickstarted an innovative journey towards the global technology company bearing his name today – 175 years on – generating an annual revenue of €6.3 billion (AU$9.8 b).
In the initial years that followed the opening of his workshop, Zeiss designed, built and repaired physical instruments before producing simple microscopes in 1847, leading to compound microscopes 10 years later. However, it was an alliance with physicist and mathematician Ernst Abbe from the mid-1860s that proved pivotal in transforming the small enterprise into a fully-fledged company with a heavy focus on scientific development.
But science never progresses in a linear fashion, and the same can be said for the Zeiss Group. The German firm wasn’t immune to the consequences of two world wars, which split the company until the fall of the Berlin wall. But these troubled times have been offset by achievements such as involvement in the first moon landing, helping scientists win Nobel prizes, and innovations like the surgical microscope, slit lamp and other gold standard ophthalmic equipment such as optical biometry and OCT.
Reflecting on the company’s history, current president and CEO Dr Karl Lamprecht says it has been unique and rather turbulent.
“Its many technological milestones attest to its repeated – and successful – attempts to challenge the limits of what is physically and technically feasible,” he says.
“This unique innovative spirit has imbued the company with real staying power while helping both us and our customers to be successful.”
Zeiss in Australia
Today, Zeiss is a global leading technology company operating in the optical and optoelectronic industries. It is divided into four segments: semiconductor manufacturing technology (SMT), industrial quality and research (IQR), medical technology (ophthalmic devices and microsurgery) and consumer markets (vision care).
The company employs more than 34,000 people in almost 50 countries.
As it celebrates 175 years since inception, 2021 also marks the 60th year of operations in Australia.
In 1961, the first German Zeiss employee ventured to Australia and set up in Sydney. After successes in its then core businesses of research microscopy, spectacle lenses, surgical microscopes and photogramy, Zeiss expanded to New Zealand in 1978. In 2005, it then acquired SOLA Optical, an international ophthalmic lens manufacturing giant, which had major operations in South Australia.
Today, the ANZ Zeiss business is headquartered in Sydney and provides customer support and services through six facilities across Australia and New Zealand.
Around four years ago, the Adelaide laboratory relocated from Lonsdale to a new $6 million premises at Tonsley Innovation District where it has invested in technology like dry-edging with Computerised Numerical Control (CNC).
The facility also houses the international headquarters of Zeiss’ customer enablement business. The group provides tailored business and technology solutions to various international markets and supports a global network of prescription laboratories ranging from retail giants to individual eyecare providers. Tonsley is a key site in Zeiss Vision Care’s global technology and innovation department network and busies itself with developing new products and processes for the optical market.
“Zeiss employees tend to have a long tenure,” says Mr Joe Redner who is one of only five local managing directors since 1961.
“In ANZ, the company has 290 employees and operates in the medical, vision care and industrial quality and research fields. One of our team has been with us for 46 years and is a son of a career-long Zeiss employee from our corporate headquarters in Oberkochen, Germany.”
When the company first arrived in Australia, its portfolio consisted of research and surgical microscopes, spectacle lenses and movie projectors. That’s now expanded through products in ophthalmic diagnostics, intraocular lenses and software, among others.
“In ANZ, Zeiss has a very strong presence in eyecare,” Redner says.
“Approximately 75% of all cataract surgery involves the use of a Zeiss device, whether for diagnosing (slit lamps), planning (biometry, EQ Workplace), visualising (microscopes) or treating (IOLs) the disease. Bringing information together to improve workflows and outcomes is central to our strategy.”
He believes Australia is a dynamic market for multinational firms, with its forward-looking approach to research and technology adoption.
“It also offers an opportunity in that it’s a good sandbox for companies to try new things and deploy best practices to other markets,” Redner adds.
Innovation in the blood
In the 1860s – two decades after establishing his workshop – Carl Zeiss’ collaboration with Abbe was catalyst for setting the company on the path towards becoming a major global firm.
He worked with Abbe to produce objective lenses on the basis of mathematical calculations. Abbe was originally a private lecturer at Jena University before becoming Zeiss’ “ingenious” business partner. And in 1873, Abbe developed his eponymous formula to limit the optical resolution in a microscope.
Since the 1890s, Abbe’s findings and his style of working have been adopted in other fields of optics, leading to the creation of all-new products, new business areas and rapid growth for the company.
Another pivotal character in the company’s development was Jena- based glass chemist Otto Schott – the founder of today’s Schott AG, a manufacturer of high-tech materials for specialty glass that became Zeiss’ sister company.
Schott produced glass that offered new optical properties and in 1879 sent a sample to Abbe, which led to a fruitful collaboration. As a result, Glaswerk Schott & Genossen commenced factory operations in September 1884.
The quality of the optical glass ultimately made it possible for the benefits of Abbe’s theory to be fully implemented in Zeiss instruments. It proved a pioneering stroke of genius to marry scientific research with entrepreneurial acumen, paving the way for further technological innovations.
More technological milestones
Many years later, in 1969, the Zeiss brand was involved in documenting what remains one of humankind’s greatest feats – the moon landing.
An image of a footprint became a symbol of the event, which was captured by Zeiss camera lenses specially developed for space. The lenses used during the mission formed the nucleus for the lenses that would be developed for optical lithography.
Elsewhere, several Nobel Prize winners have worked with Zeiss microscopes, including Robert Koch, the man who discovered tuberculosis, and Christiane Nüsslein- Volhard, who conducts research into genetic control in embryo development.
From 1900 onward, Swedish ophthalmologist Dr Allvar Gullstrand worked with Moritz von Rohr, head of development at Zeiss, which culminated in two milestones that continue to shape ophthalmology today.
Gullstrand’s research into the optical characteristics of the eye earned him a Nobel Prize in 1911 for his work in dioptrics. Eventually, his eye model and the determining of the eye’s centre of rotation – as well as the jointly developed measuring and examination instruments – combined with von Rohr’s applications of these findings for eyeglass lens calculations, led to the first slit lamp, which Zeiss launched in 1912.
Another product of their work was Punktal, the world’s first precision eyeglass lens featuring point-focal imagery delivered razor-sharp vision into the corners and for the moving eye.
Meanwhile, Zeiss also manufactures products that contribute to medical progress.
The optical system for the very first slit lamp also formed the basis for the development of the OPMI 1, which was launched in 1953 and is considered the progenitor of modern surgical microscopes.
To this day, the company is influencing ophthalmology, through innovative technologies and application-oriented solutions, with recent innovations including the Artevo 800 – the first ophthalmic digital microscope – and Forum ophthalmic data management software designed to improve practice workflow.
In microsurgery, recently launched products include the Kinevo 900 for spine and neurosurgery. Comprising more than 100 innovations and 180 patents, the system marries robotics, digital visualisation and modern assistance solutions.
A foundation-owned company
Following Carl Zeiss’ death, Abbe established the Carl Zeiss Foundation in 1889, which remains one of Germany’s largest and oldest private foundations for the promotion of science.
Today, the foundation is the sole shareholder of Carl Zeiss AG and the Schott AG glass company, making for a unique ownership structure.
After publishing its statutes in 1896, Abbe defined how both entities would be managed and their profits used, with its main duty to permanently secure the future of the two foundation companies and advance science.
Interestingly, the foundation is prohibited from selling its shares in the two companies – this is explicitly stipulated in its statutes. And Zeiss and Schott use the dividends to promote science and teaching in the fields of mathematics, computer science, the natural sciences and technology. Support is given to projects and individuals in the German federal states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia, where the foundation and the foundation companies are based.
Redner says another key goal of the Carl Zeiss Foundation is to promote charitable interests, which the company does locally through major donations such as an IOLMaster 700 to the Indigenous Diabetes Eyes and Screening (IDEAS) Van, and $1.5 million in new and refurbished equipment to the Northwest Eye Hub in Broome.
It also recently funded Papua New Guinea’s first neurosurgeon to travel to Paris for skills training.
Division and reunification
Zeiss has trod a turbulent path in unison with its German homeland, with the most notable events being both world wars.
In the aftermath of the second world war, Germany formally split into two independent nations: West Germany, allied to the Western democracies, and East Germany, allied to the Soviet Union.
The company was subsequently divided into what would later become the combined VEB Carl Zeiss Jena and Carl Zeiss West Germany.
This all began when American troops took 77 selected employees from the Zeiss plant in Jena to Heidenheim in southern Germany. In 1946, Opton Optische Werke Oberkochen GmbH was founded as a subsidiary of the Carl Zeiss Foundation. The companies in Jena (East Germany) and Oberkochen (West Germany) continued to work closely together until 1953.
But starting in spring that year, Carl Zeiss in Oberkochen and VEB Carl Zeiss Jena began to go their separate ways. The companies subsequently operated independently, in a divided Germany, and developed in different ways.
That all changed with German reunification in 1989 and 1990, an event which the company believes underscored how important it was for Zeiss in the east and west to once more grow as one.
Following a lengthy process, both were then rejoined to form a single entity.
Global growth and internationalisation
The opening of the first subsidiary in London in 1893 paved the way toward internationalisation, triggering a raft of new global locations, including Australia in 1961, entrepreneurial ventures, as well as acquisitions and strategic partnerships.
Zeiss is pursuing a global investment strategy that includes a series of international projects aimed at expanding, modernising, and realigning sites in Germany, Europe and Asia.
It is also continuing to invest in an optimised infrastructure, state-of- the-art buildings and production facilities, and with a heavy emphasis on digitalisation and sustainability. The latest investment was the new Zeiss Innovation Center at the site in Dublin, California (US), which opened its doors just a few weeks ago.
Helping to shape the future
Looking ahead, Zeiss is aiming to continue its tradition of heavy research and development (R&D) investment. It invests more than 10% of its annual revenue in this area (in fiscal year 2019/20, it invested 13%).
Optical technologies are considered vital for progress in the life sciences, medicine, IT, telecommunications, automobile, consumer products and many other fields.
Redner says part of its future work will focus on expanding the company’s presence in information management and digital technology.
“That’s in terms of image management and patient data – we are looking at cloud-based apps to improve efficiency and help businesses grow. With our investment in R&D, a lot of that is going into digital, so in the last three years we have hired well over 1,000 people to work in the digital space,” he says.
For its 175th anniversary, the company will host various activities and events. Its close links to science are said to be evident in projects such as the ‘Zeiss Beyond Talks’ interview series. In these interviews, pioneers and eminent figures from across the globe, including climate researcher Professor Antje Boetius, speak about their work and the topics that are having a major impact on the world.
This anniversary year is also ideally timed for Zeiss to pool its strategic efforts, funding and the commitments it has made for the common good over many years in a bid to encourage children and young people to consider a career in the sciences and conduct open-minded research.
An official anniversary celebration is set to be held in November 2021, with employees able to tune into a virtual event, which will also welcome prominent figures from the worlds of science, politics and the economy.