Lasergazers: High-Tech Firm Likes To Think Small
Feb 02, 2018 09:54AM
By Emily Stevenson
By John Jeter
Photography By Amy Randall Photography
For such a large company, operating in three countries with customers around the globe and working on applications ranging from outer space to the Large Hadron Collider and from football fields to airplanes, OpTek Systems’ world revolves around very small things. Very, very—very—small.
The 10-year-old company uses lasers to cut and shape optical fibers often smaller in diameter than a human hair, while also using those same light beams to drill smaller-than-seen-by-the-naked-eye holes in all manner of materials, from polymers to exotic metals to biomedical structures.
In a word, what OpTek does might best be described as Computer Numerical Control, or CNC, machining, but on a considerably tinier-than-Lilliputian scale.
“Fiber optics has come a long way,” says Sean Kelly, production manager at the humming facility where super-sophisticated lasers process thousands of bits of all-over-the-place components every day. (Employees are quick to point out how much fun it is to work at OpTek given the wide variety of things they work on every day.)
“When I started working in fiber optics at the beginning of 2000, all it was at that point was telecommunications, which made sense; fiber optics carried signals fast,” Kelly says. “Ever since then, the continuous development of new optical fibers and laser technologies allow OpTek to expand into new applications and businesses: military, gas and energy, biomedical, aerospace, semiconductors.” And health care and pharmaceuticals, agriculture and packaging, and, of course, your handheld devices.
Kelly points to a picture on the lobby wall that shows the yellow first-down line on a gridiron; OpTek’s ultra-precise lasers sculpt the fibers that go into the gizmos whose own lasers create that graphic. And there’s a photo of some military equipment that uses a guidance system, which relies on OpTek technologies, too.
Over here, on a conference-room table, Kelly shows off a metallic cable, inside of which are cut, shaped, and fused fibers that the customer uses to examine the performance of big machines.
“Our customer inserts hundreds of these probes into various parts of their equipment,” he says. “Once loaded within their equipment, the customer fires a laser that will bounce around and provide reflective feedback on the health of the equipment.”
Think of the procedure as an equipment-oscopy, only with sci-fi-ish elements that themselves have to withstand often-challenging environments.
With super-sophisticated machinery built primarily in OpTek’s United Kingdom facility, the operation in Greenville also uses lasers to drill microscopic holes through ceramic, various metal, and even biomedical materials—in other words, things you may not see, but products that can save lives.
During an hour-and-a-half tour, Mark Vogt, an engineer who helps build, operate, and tweak these machines, shows off a contraption that looks a little like a movie projector. On a spool of clear plastic film are images of small boxes about the size of postage stamps. The squiggly lines inside each box make those little squares look like electronic circuit boards—because that’s what they are.
At the end of this particular machining process, these holes, at tens of microns in diameter—somewhere in the range of the diameter of a single thread of alpaca fiber—act like something of a sieve that separates out variously sized particles of biomedical fluids for ultra-detailed laboratory tests. Here, too, multitudinous applications include not just fluid analyses, but chemotherapy, fluid controls, and even enamel ablation—that is, a dentist using short laser pulses to quickly remove, say, that killer cavity. (Not only that, but a well-crafted optical fiber can be inserted into a patient’s vein for a laser beam to zap unhealthy stuff.)
All pretty futuristic. And it all happens in a 10,000-square-foot facility tucked behind a neat row of trees in a nondescript, but high-end subdivision of office and industrial buildings just off I-85. The facility also features 1,000 square feet of cleanroom space and rooms that require specialty glasses because of the UV and infrared lasers in use.
Launched in 2007, OpTek grew out of a brain trust of physicists in the United Kingdom. Today, in addition to its roughly 20 employees in Greenville, the company employs about 40 people in Britain and about a dozen in China. OpTek serves customers all over the world—customers who deploy fibers often flying outside of it. With just a small cadre of shareholders, the company began with no external financing.
“Everything you saw was bootstrapped. We were very fortunate to be able to leverage highly unique and proprietary technologies into the framework that shapes our business today,” says Duane Dinkel, president of OpTek Systems.
Why in Greenville? Because, Dinkel says, “Many of the OpTek employees originally came from a larger fiber-optic company in the Upstate”—of which there are many, the bulk of them involved in, as Kelly pointed out, telecommunications. (Never mind the cool factor that the Nobel-laureate inventor of the laser, Charles Townes, was a Greenville native.)
Vogt came from the automotive sector and has been with OpTek for two years. On his smartphone is a picture of an automotive-plant robot spewing sparks from a 6,000-watt laser welding parts of a truck. At OpTek, however, patented optical processing allows a fraction of the power levels needed to weld, fuse, cleave, and shape glass fibers that, in turn, transmit data we use virtually every second of every day in virtually every part of our lives.
So much of OpTek’s day-to-day operations involve R&D that it’s hard to tell the difference between processing, say, 1,800 tiny colander-drilled medical-lab circuit boards a day and the research and development it takes to solve a problem that even the customer may not understand.
“We’ll think it out,” Vogt says of any given order coming into the shop. “What’s the best laser to use on it?”
Asked about the most out-there application, Vogt says, “We’re out-there. What we do is cool. Cool, cool stuff. It’s fun. It’s very challenging. A lot of the stuff that we do hasn’t ever been done before. We’ve been asked to do stuff that’s impossible until we did it.”