MS&T’s Dim Jones visited the Norwegian port town of Frederickstad at the southern end of the Oslo Fjord to learn about a newly formed projection company, Norxe.
Fredrikstad is a somewhat unlikely centre of excellence in the projection industry, but its links with this specialised area of design, manufacturing and technology go back to the mid-1980s, when the company ASK was formed there by a resident of the town. This attracted projection specialists from other parts of Norway and further afield, many of whom then settled in the area. In 1998, ASK merged with San Diego, California, USA-based Proxima, which was in turn acquired by InFocus. At that time, ASK-Proxima business had an upward trajectory, whereas InFocus was in something of a decline; considering that this trend was extending to the new company, some of the original ASK employees departed to form a new company, projectiondesign. In 2012, Barco acquired projectiondesign, at which point some of the employees elected to leave and once again start a new company; 15 partners, comprising the entire shareholding, formed Norxe AS in 2015. The first projector rolled off the production line in 2017.
The purpose of this convoluted history lesson is to highlight that, although Norxe is technically a ‘start-up company,’ this status is belied by the know-how invested in it by the partners, all of whom have worked for other projection companies, and some of whom have travelled all or a great deal of the pathway from the original ASK days, and brought with them a wealth of experience and technical expertise. A visitor to Norxe’s premises is soon aware that this is not a run-of-the-mill organisation, not least because of its size. The 15 partners are still virtually the entire workforce and, although they all have their areas of responsibility and professional expertise – be it design, electronics, optics, or sales and marketing – they all lend a hand in whichever area is in need of manpower; thus, if the immediate requirement is production, you may well find the CEO or the Vice-President for Global Sales in the production facility, assembling components into projector sub-assemblies. The potential for rapid expansion is there; the company’s premises are in buildings once used by Fredrikstad’s once-thriving shipbuilding industry, now more or less defunct, and there is plenty of additional accommodation available. Professional connections established over many years suggest that attracting the right additional personnel would also be possible. However, the Norxe partners have elected to tread cautiously, and at the present time the company manufactures only one projection platform, the P1.
The P1 Projector
Hitting the sweet spot for a particular application requires the juggling of competing parameters, the discriminators being lumens, resolution, functionality and cost. All else being equal, manufacturers generally want as much light output as possible, but it may not be necessary, and will have implications for chassis size, heat emission and total cost of ownership (TCO). Lamps can be bright when combined, but have poor TCO, and can have light output degradation, colour shift and orientation issues. LED are less bright, but have no colour shift or orientation issues, excellent TCO, and a stable predictable lifetime. Laser phosphor shares these characteristics, and also offers improved brightness. Single-chip projectors are generally cheaper but produce very sharp images; 3-chip offers greater resolution.
With these considerations in mind, Norxe elected to start with a single product, but to design it from a clean sheet of paper, to use the best available technology, and to prioritise quality, reliability and low cost of ownership over expense. The result is the P1, a single-chip DLP LED projector. It has two modes, brightness and colour, and two resolutions: 1920x1200 pixels (WQXGA) and 2560x1600 (WUXGA), giving four configuration options. The higher-resolution option gives 2500 lumens in colour mode and 3900 in brightness, the lower produces 2750 and 4250 respectively. There are also two lenses, an extra-wide zoom (N1), giving a throw ratio of 0.80-1.25:1 in low resolution and 0.74-1.16:1 in high, and a wide zoom (N2), giving 1.20-1.60:1 and 1.12-1.50:1 respectively. The lenses are fitted with centre-mounted stepper motors for accurate positioning, and the lens unit is easily adjusted, and can be locked to the frame for increased robustness and rigidity.
There are no moving parts in the P1, making it extremely rugged and truly solid-state. In apparent contravention of the definitions in the sidebar “A Projection Primer”, it has three separate light sources (red, green and blue (RGB), obviating the need for colour or phosphor wheels, and a fourth IR light source, which is optional. The optical engine and light sources are sealed, and the DLP Digital MicroMirror Device (DMD) is hermetically sealed, thus preventing dust ingress and the need for cleaning. The DMD and the LED light source are “lifed” at more than 100,000 hours; the cooling unit, embodying three of the best fans available in terms of noise and life, is mounted at the back of the chassis, and replacement of this unit at 50,000 hours (the only required scheduled maintenance) entails the removal of 12 screws and takes a couple of minutes. Each light source has ‘heat pipes’ (see sidebar, overleaf) in addition to the radiator fins, but there are no pumps; the movement of fluid vapour within the pipes is the result of variations in temperature. The power sources are easily accessible, and the main board, which has more than 3,000 components, is mounted on the top of the chassis, and is also easily removable.
Norxe does not manufacture components; components are made to Norxe specifications by trusted and proven companies, often local to Fredrikstad. The lenses are manufactured in Japan. Assembly of a P1 takes one person one day, and considerably less if the sub-assemblies are already complete. On the day I visited, a delivery of chassis base plates was expected imminently, and serried ranks of sub-assemblies awaited their arrival. Standard production rate is 60 units per month, and the surge capability is 200. After completion, the projectors are fully tested and adjusted, and left to run for at least 24 hours; the P1 is rated for 24/7 operation. There were five of them running in a small room when I was there, and I had to listen carefully to hear them. The Quality Control failure rate is extremely low, and the mean time between failure (MTBF) is 116,000 hours; this confidence is underpinned by a five-year warranty, valid also when customer staff have been trained and accredited by Norxe in maintenance adjustment and repair procedures, either in Fredrikstad or at the end-user’s installation site. Additional support is available through Norxenet, the company’s bespoke control and calibration software.
The P1 is optimised for, and targeted firmly at, the high-end simulation market, in multi-projector configurations. The P1 is not large (690 x 510 x 340mm) or heavy (17kg without lens), and multiple fixing points ensure installation versatility. In a table of pros and cons for the various light sources and technologies, the principal drawback of an LED light source is a lower than average brightness, which makes the P1 less suitable for some other applications. However, as the supporting documentation explains, because LED produces richer, more saturated colour, the perception of brightness to the human eye is greater than its physically measured brightness, a phenomenon known as the Helmholtz-Kohlrausch effect. When the colours are more saturated, our eyes interpret it as the colour’s luminance and chroma. This makes our eyes see the colours as brighter than their physical measurements would suggest. The theory is beyond me, but I can attest to the effect.
Although the P1 certainly looks the part, this was not the thing that most struck me during my visit; just as interesting as the product is the way the company does business. I met about half of the partners who work at Fredrikstad on a daily basis, their colleagues being spread around Europe, with representation in the US and Singapore. I have mentioned the technological expertise of the staff in their own fields, and also their ability to ‘man the guns’ when production is the priority. More than this they are clearly happy in their work, and are comfortable with each other, both professionally and socially. This is typified by a ‘duty roster’ which is no respecter of seniority; the ‘Boy of the Week’ is responsible for just about everything which goes right or wrong on the premises, and that includes ensuring that the fridges are stocked with the ingredients of an excellent lunch and producing said lunch for his colleagues. A workforce of this size might be thought to lack resilience, but paradoxically their versatility offsets this, and what might ordinarily make the organisation fragile also makes it agile. The partners are all stakeholders with a vested interest in the company’s success, there is no external investment, there is no room for internal rivalry or competition, and decisions can be taken quickly and without the need for endless meetings. The design is technology-agnostic, and so the designers are free to make use of the best available.
As regards new customers, there have been several recent announcements: RSi Visual Systems has selected the P1 for their upgrade to the Epic Visual System for Cardiff Aviation Training’s B747-400 full-flight simulator; Dallara has chosen the P1 WQXGA for their high-performance driving simulator upgrades in Varano, Italy and Indianapolis, USA, as have Indra for their two NH90 full-mission simulators to be supplied to the Spanish MoD, and Tecnobit for the Field Artillery Simulator (SIMACA) at the Artillery Academy of Segovia, Spain. Lastly, the Simulation, Training, Assessment and Research (STAR) Center (Dania Beach, Florida) is upgrading their US Coast Guard-approved large ship bridge simulator to include a 360º visual embodying nine P1 WQXGA projectors, each with a channel size of 16ft high by 25.6ft wide; these are big channels for a projector with a light output like the P1’s, but the strong colour saturation of its LED light engine mean that the images look great, and their electric bill is now tiny.
What of the future? Further development of the P1 is already under way, and P2 is expected at the beginning of 2019. At I/ITSEC 2017, I saw the P2 ‘concept model’ intended as a step toward where the company want to be for P2, and as a catalyst for customer feedback and input. My non-technical feedback was that the colour intensity was awesome. Norxe will be at I/ITSEC in Orlando in November, this time with a stand on the main show floor as well as a private suite.
Meanwhile, Barco announced in January that they were studying the possible move of their production operation in Fredrikstad to share a new projection manufacturing facility in Kortrijk, Belgium; in counterbalance, the role of Fredrikstad as a ‘centre of excellence’ for innovation, R&D and business development in single-chip DLP projection would be strengthened. The manufacturing operation involves about 75 employees; several months down the road, there has been no further official announcement, but it seems to be generally accepted that this will happen. How many of the 75 will relocate is uncertain, but if Norxe were to consider expanding, there may be a supply of home-grown talent close at hand.
In sum, this was a most enjoyable and informative visit to a company quite unlike any other I have encountered. The name is new but the experience is broad and the dynamism is self-evident; I look forward to following Norxe’s progress in the coming months and years.
A Projection Primer
There are three main core technologies used in projector design: Liquid Crystal Display (LCD); Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS); and Digital Light Processing (DLP). LCD technology is generally found in home cinema and education projectors; LCoS can also have simulation applications, and DLP is generally regarded as being best suited to high-end simulation.
There are also three types of light source to power these projectors: Lamp, LED (Light Emitting Diode) and Laser. Lamps produce a single white light, which needs splitting into the Red, Green and Blue (R, G and B) components required to create a projected image. Lamps are cheap, and multiple lamps can be used within projectors to increase light output; however, the cooling systems required can be noisy, their colour can change over time, their light output drops as they age, and they have a very short lifespan compared to laser and LED – around 2,000 hours, compared with 20,000 hours for a laser, and up to 60-100,000 hours for LED.
Lasers increase the life span of the light source, and can also be ‘stacked’ to produce very bright projectors; however, green, and to some extent red, lasers can be expensive and difficult to work with, so blue lasers are commonly used in conjunction with yellow phosphor wheels, whereby the green and red can be obtained through filtering. Laser phosphor projectors are rapidly replacing lamp projectors within the general projector market. The pure laser element of the light is seen by the human eye to be highly saturated and vivid. Projectors using R, G and B lasers are very large and very expensive, but benefit from having no moving parts within their optics, such as phosphor or colour wheels. Lasers also produce a stable colour throughout their life time.
LEDs stretch the life expectancy and stability further even than lasers, but at the expense of raw light output. Individual R, G and B LEDs are used to produce the colour components needed, in a similar way to an RGB laser projector but in a much smaller, quieter and more cost-effective package. New technology from Philips (High Lumen Density - HLD) allows more brightness from LEDs, while still achieving extremely long life times. The light output of these projectors is still relatively low, but for specialist applications where high light output is not needed, they deliver an unmatched longevity and stability. Like lasers, LEDs produce an extremely saturated and vivid colour, which the human eye interprets as brighter light. Like direct-laser projectors, LED sources need no moving parts within their optics.
As if these permutations were not enough, DLP projectors can also come in two very different configurations, single-chip and three-chip. Single chip projectors, driven by Lamp and Laser-Phosphor light sources, need a colour wheel to filter unwanted light away from the DLP chip. LED needs no colour wheel, as independent R, G and B LEDs are used. LCD and LCoS are organic devices, whereas DLP is a non-organic device; organic devices do not respond well to heat or certain wavelengths of light, such as UV. – Dim Jones
The operating temperature of a laser projector is critical, as is the case for LED, where both fan and liquid cooling systems may be used. One of the interesting technologies embodied in the Norxe P1 is the use of heat pipes, which obviate the need for cooling pumps. The majority of heat pipes use water as their working fluid; for the pipe to function, the working fluid must boil at a temperature much lower than 100˚C, and this is effected by drawing a vacuum within the pipe, allowing two-phase heat transfer to occur. To boil water at 1˚C, the internal pressure must be in the order of 1/165th of atmospheric. When heat is applied, the liquid evaporates. This changes the internal pressure and the vapour moves to a cooler area at high speed. The vapour gives up its heat of vapourisation and becomes a liquid again; the liquid is absorbed into the “wick structure” and moves back along the pipe via capillary action, which works against gravity. The calculated mean time to failure (MTTF) is greater than 125,000 hours. – Dim Jones