Christie lights up projection technology

December 19, 2008   by Noelle Stapinsky

Influenced by Toyota, Christie implemented one-piece flow for its cinema projection assembly line by replacing moveable carts with a u-shaped line of roller conveyors with fixed stations.

Photo: Rodney Daw

It’s not just about brightness; it’s about being the brightest. That’s what Christie Digital Systems Canada Inc. says about its products, but it also applies to the advanced projector technology manufacturer’s drive for innovation.

With more than 75 years of technological firsts and a long list of product awards under its belt, Kitchener, Ont.-based Christie has converted cinemas from manual to digital, outfitted military and scientific research facilities with virtual reality 3D test simulation environments, and provided visual equipment for some of the world’s most prestigious events. If you watched the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics or caught Led Zeppelin’s tribute concert to Ahmert Ertegun last December, those giant screens and the vivid imagery streaming out of countless projectors were courtesy of Christie technology.

It wins these high profile gigs because it’s constantly innovating, and it has done so by hiring a knowledge-based workforce, running a lean manufacturing operation, investing heavily in research and development, and engaging its workforce.

For these reasons, Christie received the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) Manufacturer of the Year Award, sponsored by PLANT, Canada’s Industry Newspaper.

The company is the amalgamation of Kitchener-based Electrohome, a century old electronics company, and Christie, a manufacturer of mechanical film projectors that was based in Cypress, Calif.

In the 1970s, Electrohome was a leader in consumer electronics, and one of the first to create a data projector. Christie’s president, Gerry Remers, who joined Electrohome in 1994, realized the company needed to change its technology from analogue to digital. In 1995, it adapted a digital light processing technology from Texas Instruments (TI), and Remers scoured the world for potential partners, zeroing in on Christie.

With the TI technology and a US partnership with the cinema company, the newly formed Christie Digital Systems Canada Inc. was transformed from a US$80-million company into a $400-million global player, employing 1,000 people worldwide with offices throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The Kitchener headquarters employs 425 people for research and development and manufacturing operations, selling roughly $250-million worth of product out of the facility, 95% of which is exported.

In such a dynamic industry, it’s critical to continuously upgrade, develop new features and design new products. Launching upgrades to its technology every 12 to 18 months keeps Christie head-to-head with major competitors and way ahead of the copy cats.

“We spend almost $30 million in R&D annually,” says Remers. “We invested heavily in this facility, from having the right kind of rapid prototyping equipment to the infrastructure on the floor.”

Although its core expertise is in projection technology, Christie has four strategic business units: business products, entertainment solutions, visual environments and control rooms.

“Our claim to fame is not just absolute levels of brightness, but [our projectors are] brightest in their class,” says Remers.

Brightness is measured in ANSI-lumens. The higher the lumens, the brighter the projector. Christie’s Roadie HD +30K projectors produce 30,000 ANSI-lumens, which is impressive against a 3,000-lumen projector commonly used in a classroom or boardroom.

The company outfits many of the world’s largest churches, arenas, theatres and live stage set ups, including Cirque du Soleil, which is standardized on Christie products for touring and fixed installed shows.

Christie projectors created the expansive and elaborate video display during the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. The various special effects in the Olympic stadium were created by 145 projectors. Around the upper rim on the inside of the Bird’s Nest stadium, there was a continuous sequence of images that were about 600 metres in circumference and over 20 metres high.

“We used 60 of our cinema projectors. Because it was on a curved surface and shot at a strange [upward] angle, we had to blend the images so you wouldn’t see any seams,” says Remers.

Twenty-seven Roadster S+20K projectors were used to create an image that was just over 600-metres wide and 100 to 200 feet tall at Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebration. And most recently about $1-million worth of projectors were ordered for Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin’s new library.

Christie’s entertainment solutions, which supplies digital and film cinema units and cinema lamps to the movie industry, was the first licensee of DLP Cinema digital technology and the first to be adapted by the Hollywood community. There are 37,000 theatres in North America and Christie has converted 5,000 of them to digital. “We have about 80% share of digital cinema installations on an annual basis going forward,” says Remers. That’s pulling in about $25 million in Canadian sales alone as Canada’s film market converts to digital cinema.

The visual business unit supplies 3D stereo for scientific and R&D purposes, including flight and crane simulations for the military. And Christie’s control room technology was recently used to replace the screens, projectors and add a video processor on the NASDAQ wall.

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