Fiber-optic finishing with no-sweat automatic polishers

The human body is the toughest tool in the tool belt. It is something that cable installers utilize every day on the job-pushing muscles to the limit when hoisting cable, lifting ladders, and even spending countless hours in undesirable weather conditions

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The human body is the toughest tool in the tool belt. It is something that cable installers utilize every day on the job-pushing muscles to the limit when hoisting cable, lifting ladders, and even spending countless hours in undesirable weather conditions. But if there's one repetitive activity that is most taxing on both body and mind, it's fiber-optic polishing.

Though great strides have been made with fiber-optic connectors that do not require polishing, the polishing process is still a reality for many installers. For some, the polishing process has become something of an art form that can be gracefully accomplished in a matter of minutes. But many installers resent the constant repetitive, time-consuming manual polishing process. For this reason, a small number of manufacturers have developed various automatic polishers aimed at reducing these problems (see page 134).

"Auto polishers have been on the scene for about the last 7 to 10 years," according to Phil Klingensmith, president of Compass Telecommunications Consulting Corp., and a BICSI master instructor. But it has only been in the last three or four years that automatic polishers have received considerable industry attention. In fact, a number of manufacturers, such as GC Technologies (now Valdor Fiber Optics; San Jose, CA), ventured into the automatic polisher market but found a quick exit amidst low demand and little notoriety for the product.

From factory to field

Automatic polishers were "the next obvious step" from manual polishing, according to Robin Pollock, marketing manager for 3M (Austin, TX). She comments that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people were looking for a way to increase polishing speed and thus, the automatic fiber polisher was born in the factory setting. Shortly after, companies such as 3M and The Siemon Company (Watertown, CT) introduced polishing products for use in the field.

Mike Buzzetti, owner and president of Nanometer Technologies (Alascadoro, CA), traces automatic polishing back to early gem polishers. From these early polishers, a handful of manufacturers went on to develop polishers that are specifically deigned for fiber-optic connectors. But he notes that these polishers all utilized an orbital design, polishing with a circle inside of a circle, instead of the traditional figure-8 pattern popularized by manual polishing methods.

When Nanometer first opened in 1993, the company was centered on manufacturing attenuators. But, Buzzetti says, "When I was making attenuators, my employees' hands wore out from polishing. So, we developed an automatic polisher."

Designed for the production setting, the Nanometer offerings feature a patented design that polishes connectors in a figure-8 pattern. Automatic polishers have grown to represent 85% of Nanometer's total business.

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The 6850 automatic polishing machine from 3M is designed to provide hands-free polishing for the ferrule of 3M Hot Melt connectors. It features a dry, single-film polishing technique to reduce connector polishing time.
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In the late 1980s, 3M introduced what Pollock describes as the first polisher designed for field installations. "We developed a connector that was pre-loaded with adhesive," explains Pollock. From there, 3M advanced to the Hot Melt adhesive polishing system. The entire process takes approximately one minute per connector. The connector is in the polisher for 30 seconds with no weight, and then 200 grams of weight are added for the remaining 30 seconds to place pressure on the connector.

The Hot Melt polisher utilizes a dry, single film polishing process that eliminates the mess created by systems that require a user to switch between wet and dry films. "It uses only one type of lapping film, rather than multiple types. And with no water involved, there is no mess," says Pollock. Additionally, it remains one of the only polishers specifically designed for field installation.

Easier training

When it comes to training installers in fiber optic polishing, the automatic polisher makes tremendous strides. The manual polishing process takes a high level of skill and training to assure a consistent polish. Pollock explains, "A certain gentle touch is required to put a connector against paper," and she points to this as the biggest reason for polishing errors. "There are some technicians who are really good at this, but some are not." Automatic polishers allow a vast range of installers to be able to work with fiber-optic systems.

Buzzetti points to manual polishing as an area with a high percentage of angle error. "When done by hand, many people lean their hands to one side or another and the angle of polish is off," he says. Nanometer aims to keep polishers as simple to use as possible, recognizing that many installers are not computer programmers.

Seiko Instruments (Torrance, CA) takes a methodical approach to training. Its commercial automatic polishers come with a detailed manual that explains the polishing process to the user in a fashion similar to a recipe book. Seiko general manager Steve Baldo claims, "We can get someone trained in approximately 20 minutes." Manufacturers would be hard-pressed to train an individual in the manual polishing process in such a short period of training.

According to Buzzetti, it is not the polishing itself that requires a great deal of training, "It is the pre-assembly that requires the training." Some level of training is required for the automatic polishers to assure that connector performance meets with acceptable industry performance standards.

As with many products in the cabling industry, while the actual polishing equipment is not specifically governed by a set of standards, performance of the connectors and the overall fiber-optic system are-including aspects such as insertion loss, surface quality, and scratch count.

Insertion loss is a factor highly influenced by the performance of the automatic polisher. In short, insertion loss is the loss of optical power caused by the interruption of continuous signal flow, such as the attachment of a connector. TIA/EIE standards recommend an insertion loss less than 0.2dB, yet Baldo says anywhere from 0.1 to 0.15dB is typical in the industry. In addition to the polisher's performance, insertion loss is greatly influenced by the connector's quality.

Manufacturers have introduced products designed to "dummy proof" the polishing process. For instance, Seiko's OFL-15 Programmable Polisher offers a new computerized process that eliminates the manual dial-in for settings, allowing the machine to be pre-programmed for multi-stage connector polishing. The computerization supports the various requirements of polishing conditions, including polishing pressure, time, and rotation speed. Additionally, computerized settings reduce the chances for insertion loss.

As with almost any aspect of the cabling industry, the current trend with automatic polishers is a move to even more automation in an effort to reduce the amount of physical labor. "I think they (designers) are looking for more automation," says Baldo. The OFL-15 is a step in this direction, yet he foresees a series of polishers that will be hooked up to a LAN system, allowing several machines to communicate together and operate at once in the industrial environment.

The future of field polishers is looking shaky next to their commercial counterparts. According to Pollock, "The talk in the industry is about high demand, not adding features." 3M is experiencing strong sales on these tools, which shadows the strong fiber-optic sales the company is experiencing overall. Buzzetti, on the other hand, does not see any viable market for field polishers. "We have looked, and there really is no market for them," he says.

Consistency is the key

When it comes to the biggest advantages of automatic polishers, Baldo says, "It is not necessarily the time saving, it is the consistency you get with these machines." Buzzetti concurs by saying, "The accuracy is much more consistent with automatic polishers because the angle of polish and pressure is consistent."

With any polishing process-manual or automated-consistency is key. "The basic procedure used by automatic polishers is pretty much the same as with a manual polish," says Klingensmith. But the industry guru points out that when used properly, the automatic polisher will provide a more consistent quality of polish.

Consistency is what makes automatic polishers ideal for singlemode fiber. Baldo points out that multimode fiber features a "bigger pipe of light" and so does not require an installer to be as exact in the polishing process. Singlemode fiber, however, consists of a smaller area through which light travels, which Baldo says requires "an exact, consistent process." An automatic polisher is more likely to produce a high quality termination and provide the accuracy of finish that is key for singlemode fiber.

While it may not be a driving factor behind the rise of automatic polishers, the speed of polishing is certainly a major advantage over traditional manual techniques. Pollock points out that the automatic polisher saves time, not only by producing a faster polish, but also through allowing installers to accomplish two tasks simultaneously. For example, while a connector is being mechanically polished, an installer can be running cable, completing paperwork, or any other number of tasks.

According to Klingensmith, "Once the set-up is mastered, they will probably speed up the polish time. And with large numbers, they should increase the installation productivity."

Polisher throughput helps to increase polishing speed, as well as total installation speed. The "throughput" of an automatic polisher is a key feature that is defined, loosely, as the number of connectors that can run through the machine in a given cycle. In mid-March, Nanometer introduced a new polisher designed to increase throughput. The MCP-48 will be "the highest production machine of its type, made possible by the figure-8 polishing technique." Buzzetti explains that this machine will be able to polish up to 48 connectors at one time, increasing the capacity for production. He says, "The market is screaming for it."

On the whole, both field-installable and industrial automatic polishers are fairly user-friendly. Not only do these automated tools save time, they also have the potential to prevent workplace injuries. 3M's Pollock points to the ergonomics of automatic polishers as a major advantage. In a cabling system that has the potential for 40, 50 or even more connectors, an installer's hand can be placed under repeated stress from the constant figure-8 action that must be performed. This was one impetus behind the design of 3M's Hot Melt fiber polisher.

A major drawback to automatic polishers is cost. Commercial polishers, such as those made by Seiko or Nanometer, run about $15,000 to $20,000 for a base model, with costs reaching upwards of $30,000 for a "fully loaded" model. Field polishers are a bit more reasonable with prices for something like 3M's Hot Melt polisher hitting the $1,200 mark. Buzzetti claims, however, "They pay for themselves extremely fast."

Pollock adds that the time saved through automatic polishing, combined with the time saved through allowing an installer to be accomplishing a second task while the polishing process is underway, results in a reduction of time billed to the customer. Additionally, it can be concluded that if automatically polished connectors are supposedly more consistent in the polish results, then performance should be more consistent and the system will have a lower potential for problems or total failure.

"As for their performance, a good fiber technician can probably do about as well, just not as many," says Klingensmith. In essence, he concludes that using an automatic polisher really "depends on the customer requirements and the size of the job."

When purchasing an automatic polisher, Baldo suggests that along with product durability and manufacturer's experience, individuals should also consider the experience in the process. An automated polisher should be a "complete termination machine," says Baldo.

Pollock stresses versatility, and a polisher that will let you easily switch from one type of connector to another.

Ultimately, the timesaving benefits must be weighed against cost.

Michelle Abrams is Associate Editor for Cabling Installation & Maintenance.

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If your company manufactures the type of products in this table, and you wish to be included in future Product Updates, contact Michelle Abrams at tel: (757) 890-2099, or e-mail:

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