The Wood Dale, Illinois, company’s modular display fixtures, backed by an arsenal of in-house custom design and manufacturing capabilities, offer retailers an expansive palette of mix-and-match decorative materials and finishes to build their brand. 

By Rich Christianson

OPTO International returned to GlobalShop after a one-year hiatus determined to show the retail world that its modular displays can stand the test of luxury.

Over the last couple of decades, OPTO has built its reputation on manufacturing flexible, yet durable fixtures that are easy to install and reconfigure. Customers include the likes of Hudson Groups’ airport newsstands, an “A” list of professional sports stadium souvenir shops and the retail stores of iconic corporate brands such as Nintendo and Lego.  

To demonstrate how its modular fixtures are not only functional, but fashionable, OPTO created four compelling vignettes of retail loft spaces showcasing its newest products and finishes for GlobalShop 2017 in Las Vegas. The 20-foot-by-20-foot booths formed a straight line, each separated by a 10-foot-wide aisle. The displays showed how OPTO’s fixtures, incorporating a mix that can combine metal, aluminum, high pressure laminate, 3D laminate, solid surface and powder-coated MDF, can interact with LED lighting, graphics and other visual merchandising elements to create an upscale retail experience.

For its creative efforts, OPTO was rewarded with a pair of outstanding booth design awards, one from a judging panel of International Interior Design Association professionals and the other from VSDM magazine.

“There’s a stigma that people think they know who OPTO is. Our objective was to change that perception because we are not the OPTO of five years ago, let alone 10 or 15 years ago,” said Amanda Smith, brand development manager of the privately held company based in Wood Dale, Ill.

“Retail design has become this bespoke-curated collection of fixtures with décor finishes and materials and different visual merchandising methods,” Smith said. “Even though we are a modular system manufacturer, we wanted to show everyone at GlobalShop that we have developed new fixture products that incorporate sleeker profiles, hidden hardware and high quality integrated lighting that can help increase store sales.”

The Evolution Is Now

OPTO traces its roots back to jolly old England of 1971. Originally a plastics manufacturer, the company backed into the fixture industry selling its patented aluminum channel and pin systems developed in the mid-1990s, Smith said. The channels and pins are inserted into metal tubes that are held together by a clamping system.

“The company started to recognize a trend where its components were being used again and again to be reconfigured for retail fixtures,” Smith said. “This led the company to think about creating something predesigned that could be sold in volume to keep pricing down but was still customizable through finishing.”

OPTO dubbed its first modular system the Options Collection. It consisted of standard retail fixtures including two-way, four-way and gondolas.

“The basic idea was to offer standard fixtures that could be customized to match the customer’s retail store without having to start from scratch,” Smith said. “You could pick and choose your framework and your footing. You could pick a decorative finial or decorative topper with crazy neon colors or metallic laminated panels.

“OPTO’s first big break was doing the basement sports shop of Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in 2001,” Smith continued. “The install photography captured how modular fixtures could function and also look as well as needed for someone like Macy’s. In the 16 years that followed, we have utilized that same modular architecture to build different aesthetics and different fixture collections.”

OPTO now offers a half-dozen fixture collections, plus cash wraps, wall systems and other products. The pre-designed products are built in 2-foot and 4-foot width standards with height adjustability typically every 3 inches.

“Because they are all based on our modular system, no matter what the aesthetic, they all cross-function among one another,” Smith said. “You can take a shelf from a wall system and put it on a free-standing fixture, for example.”

Growing Strong

Smith has had a front-row seat to watch OPTO’s evolution and growth. The company had about 25 full-time employees when she was hired 13 years ago and now employs more than 100. On any given day, OPTO’s full-time 44-man manufacturing crew is supplemented by 50 to 75 temporary workers.

Bursting at the seams at its former location, OPTO doubled operating space when it moved into its current 140,000-square-foot facility, about 20 miles northwest of Chicago, in January 2012.

“When I started here, we had two welders. Now, we have 12 and a robot,” Smith said.

Metal fabrication has always been integral to the company’s modular fixture design concept. But the company’s wood shop is OPTO’s fastest-growing department. Jimmy Kopczynski came on board as millwork manager 18 months ago after 13 years of working for his own woodworking company and others. “Anything that involves commercial interiors, I’ve touched,” he said.

Key equipment of OPTO’s millwork department includes a Biesse Rover CNC nesting router, an Orma membrane press for 3D lamination, an HMT hot melt press for high pressure lamination and several Holz-Her edgebanders. On order is a new Holzma beam saw from Stiles Machinery. Kopczynski manages a full-time crew of 16 but routinely has the help of up to 30 “additional individuals on the shop floor from our trusted and valued temp agency. It’s a very busy place,” he said.

Seizing Control

Expanding the metalworking and woodworking departments are symptomatic of OPTO’s drive to take manufacturing matters into its own hands. By doing so, the company has been able to lower inventories, shorten lead times and better control quality with the ultimate goal of satisfying its customers.

Smith said another “major initiative” in this take-charge vein was bringing powder coating in-house.

“Our business model is truly about just-in-time manufacturing,” she said. “Typically, our lead times are as short as two weeks, and anything that is not predesigned and may take longer to fabricate is about four to six weeks. What was happening in our previous operation is we would send out raw components to be powder coated and then bring them back in house, re-inventory them and then put them to an order, which got really crazy and expensive.”

 OPTO installed a versatile 750-foot-long Nordson powder coating line when it moved into its Wood Dale facility.

“We can handle both metal and wood by adjusting the temperature of the infrared ovens to the different powder coating formulations that are required for wood versus metal,” Kopczynski said. “Whatever the client specifies, we can do on our end to make it happen. We have clients who want their powder coats to exactly match the laminate in their store. It’s about a two-week lead time for us to send a paint chip to a local supplier who will match it.”

Key MDF powder coat suppliers include Tiger Drylac and Alpha Coatings.  

 

Bringing It All Together

“High pressure laminate is our biggest seller and biggest inventory,” Smith said. “We stock anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 standard and stock colors, mostly Panolam Pionite, at all times.”

Kopczynski said the high-custom nature of OPTO’s business makes HPL a better fit than thermally fused laminate even for some vertical applications.

“We design and engineer a lot of things where TFL is good for some parts, but we can’t use enough to justify stocking the panels. It’s so much easier to inventory sheets of HPL because it gets used in so many parts of a store.”

“Depending on the merchandise category, 3D laminates might be the best option,” Smith said. “We work with Omnova for our 3DL program.  Right now, we’re seeing a significant variation from subtle gray tones with high texture to larger woodgrains with a deconstructed feel. There is also a strong movement toward the replication of re-purposed and reclaimed woods.”

In addition to MDF, particleboard and hardwood plywood, OPTO uses lightweight materials including Tricell honeycomb panels and balsa plywood veneer panels from 3A Composites. Some fixture projects incorporate other materials ranging from acrylic to Avonite solid surfacing.

Following the lead of the kitchen cabinet industry, OPTO uses soft close slides from Hafele and Accuride and concealed hinges from Blum for fixtures with drawers and doors. When wire management comes into play, OPTO turns to grommets and other products from Doug Mockett & Company.

Smith noted that lighting has become a huge focus of store planners and designers. OPTO has partnered with elio on some proprietary lighting components.

“Elio’s LED lighting fully integrates with our perimeter systems and some of our free-standing systems. The LED light quality that they offer is just spectacular; it really pulled our GlobalShop displays all together.”

Closing Notes

OPTO is in the process of transitioning its store fixture layout designs from AutoCAD to Google SketchUp, a 3D modeling program.

 “It will give our designers more flexibility and control to make simple modifications for a client when customization is required, like changing a sign frame by 2 inches in height. It makes it easier for the designer to do his job, and then when it’s time to process the order, we’ll fully engineer the custom components so that they can be fabricated appropriately,” Smith said.

“Our products are not inexpensive,” Smith added. “We put quality in design, materials, manufacturing and customer service. We put in so much more value than just a piece of metal or a piece of laminated wood. Our main objective is to make our clients be more profitable, which in turn helps us be more profitable.”

“There’s a saying around here,” Kopczynski said. “If there was ever a nuclear blast, nothing would be left but cockroaches and OPTO fixtures standing. We build our products to last.”