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Seeing the Light

While even grade schoolers are taught that light travels in a straight line, the word doesn't seem to have gotten to a trio of engineers who coax laser beams to turn corners in a small laboratory tucked away in the back of the Middle Villa Inn in Middleville.

Their creative ways in handling light earned the owners of LumenFlow a nod from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently in its nationwide competition of new technologies.
 
NASA gave an honorable mention to LumenFlow for its technology that can pick up and magnify a panoramic image of a round object, even the edge that you can't see. It's like looking directly down on the face of George Washington on a new $1 coin and instantly being able to read the "In God We Trust" motto that is inscribed on the coin's edge -- without moving the coin or your head.

The technology has promising applications in industries such as pharmaceutical packaging where companies need  to know whether tamper proof seals on pill bottles are properly fixed or whether the tabs on locking pill bottle caps are intact.

Not too shabby for three guys who wanted to have more say in their futures when their former employer was downsizing a few years ago.

Taking Charge
"I've made the rounds living in eight different states and working for a number of companies," says Paul Bourget, a co-founder of LumenFlow. "Of my last six companies, there's only one is left.  At the last one, that (factory and headquarters) is now a paved parking lot.  So in many ways, LumenFlow is the most successful company I have worked for. "

"Because you are in control of it yourself," chimes in another co-founder, Harold Brunt.

Bourget , Brunt and co-owner Brian Zatzke answer phones, open mail, work up proposals, and put their combined  90 years of experience in the optics industry to work behind test benches and microscopes in their cozy 1,400 square feet of laboratory and offices.  Several signs spread throughout warn of dangers from looking directly into lasers; books and machine catalogs line the walls around their desks.
 
Zatzke, 49, and Brunt, 49, are native Michiganians, while Bourget is a transplant from Rochester, N.Y.  Zatzke hails from Shelby, while Brunt was born in Grand Rapids.  Bourget, 55, holds a bachelor's degree in physics from State University of New York-Plattsburgh, while Zatzke and Brunt both have completed some college.
 
Their experience comes largely from the school of hard knocks when they worked together about 10 years ago at Laser Alignment Inc. in Kentwood, a manufacturer of laser equipment for the construction industry and automated machinery. 
 
At that time, Laser Alignment employed more than 300, with 55 engineers in the research and development portion of the business alone, Bourget says. One of the company's specialties was building rugged equipment that could throw a tight laser beam over thousands of feet, very useful for laying pipelines, mining and the machine control industry.  Another specialty was producing thousands of pieces of high precision optical assemblies annually in a cost effective manner.

Disenchanted  with the direction of Laser Alignment was taking after it was purchased by another company, Bourget, Brunt and a couple of other partners founded LumenFlow to further commercialize techniques of designing and producing optical equipment. Zatzke joined in 2001, and the three men today own the company with a fourth silent partner.  Laser Alignment effectively closed as a manufacturer since that time, Bourget said.
 
Delivering the Goods
One founding principle of LumenFlow is following the demands of the marketplace. The company got its initial start by repurposing techniques used in the manufacture of laser surveying equipment into equipment that the telecommunications industry needed.  At the time, the telecom industry was using laser beams for the high speed transmission of data over distances without the use of fiber optic cables like today.

"When we went to  trade shows, people kept telling us: Can you make one of these," Bourget says. "Other companies were making that kind of equipment, but maybe only one out of three pieces of equipment would work properly after assembly.  That made it very expensive to manufacture."

Brunt says it's hard enough to transmit data through the open air by laser due to changes in the air temperature or presence of fog, so it was critical that the nearly perfect optical components are assembled precisely.  But with its prior experience, LumenFlow gained a reputation for delivering goods that worked.
 
"Our niche is really solving the optical challenges for companies by working with their engineering teams," says Zatzke. "We can design it for them, and we can manufacture a  subassembly for them if they need it."  LumenFlow enlists the help from companies such as a machine builder in Dutton and a optical element manufacturer near Detroit to build components that it then assembles.

LumenFlow doesn't have a set-in-stone goal for its ideal size, but it aspires to being about a 20-person company with a significant percentage of its sales coming from manufacturing subassemblies, Zatzke says. "We are kind of opportunistic that way," he says. "We will be broadening some of our own product base with lasers, laser modules, machine vision, and potential LED solid state illumination." Annual sales are now under $1 million.

Speeding Up Inspection
Seeing all the way around  or inside of an object instantly may be one ticket to that growth.

A customer asked LumenFlow to come up with a device that could look inside an engine block to see the whether the gap between a valve seat and the counterbore of the block was uneven or out of specification, Brunt says. The manufacturer used personnel to inspect the gaps with borescopes - a sort of microscope that uses a fiber optic wand -- and feeler gages, but it hoped to find a way to improve on the tedious and slow process.
 
LumenFlow came up with a system that saw an entire section of walls the hole in one image, which allowed the quality control operation to be automated at a much higher inspection rate.  Because its system could provide one entire image without moving, a computer could compare that image with the ideal image to notify an employee if a gap was too large, small or uneven.
 
Part of the secret is the use of a small, cone shaped mirror that collects the light and reflects it into a digital camera.
 
About six month ago, the LumenFlow trio came up with the system that uses some of the same principles -- only this time the intent is to look all around the outside of the object, Bourget says.  They accomplished  the feat by using a mirror ring that reflects the outside image to the cone, which is then reflected into the camera.

But it's tricky to deal with the distortion of an image reflected from a convex or concave mirror -- similar to the way a person looks hilariously misshapen in a fun house mirror.  LumenFlow has applied for patents on its methods of collecting the images and correcting the distortion, Bourget says.

Brunt says the company also is specializing in ways to illuminate objects in industrial applications with light emitting diodes (LEDS) so that "there is no wasted light, it's putting all the light where you need it." The technology is scalable, Brunt says, so it can be applied to something as large as a streetlight or as small as an LED not much larger than the head of a pin. "We are trying to capture all of the light output from an LED."

While a lot more time is spent now writing proposals for new work -- maybe one out of 20 succeeds -- the trio say they love what they do and are enthused about creating more of their own intellectual property.  "We can and are competing successfully with even foreign companies," Bourget says.



Matt Gryczan is the managing editor of Rapid Growth.

Photos:

(from left) Paul Bourget, Harold Brunt and Brian Zatzke of Middleville- based LumenFlow

Work stations and technology (2)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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