Vermont Photonics: Accuracy is Precisely the Point
BELLOWS FALLS, Vt., April 12, 2007 -- Any drama at Vermont Photonics Technologies Corp. headquarters in Bellows Falls, Vt., on a recent winter day is of the everyday kind. Office Manager Gloria Zucker monitors coming and goings at the 5000-sq-ft facility, part of a complex in a converted paper mill. One of six members of the Vermont Photonics staff, she presides over an eclectic soundtrack -- courtesy that morning of her husband's local radio broadcast -- that provides background to the low-key banter of nearby technical staff.
A door in the back opens to a vista approximately where "the Connecticut River narrows dramatically into a rocky gorge between Bellows Falls and Walpole," as the Connecticut River Scenic Byway Council's Web site puts it. It's an impressive, snowy view, nearly reminiscent of the backstage barn-door scene in the vintage musical White Christmas, set in fictitious Pine Tree, Vt.
Thomas Lowell (left) and Michael Mross, PhD, in Vermont Photonics' new calibration facility, which features a two-axis Elcomat HR electronic autocollimator on a 5000-lb. granite table. (Photo: Photonics.com)
Vermont Photonics' co-founders, Michael Mross, PhD (president) and Thomas Lowell (vice president), don't break into song, but they do show off their new calibration facility. A two-axis Elcomat HR electronic autocollimator, supported by a 5000-lb round, black granite table, has the lead role in the corner workroom. The Elcomat HR is capable of measuring angles to 0.005 arc-sec accuracy. The 12-in.-thick table is supported by four legs about the size of PCV pipes that appear too fragile for the task of stabilizing the precision measurement instrument. Applying even slight pressure, as Lowell demonstrates, has a predictable (to him) effect: fluctuating angle data acquisition readings on the PC monitor.
This is the same instrument used by calibration labs in many parts of the world, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to make extremely accurate angle measurements. At Vermont Photonics, a computer-controlled system will compare other autocollimators to the Elcomat HR to determine if the instruments being examined meet original manufacturer specifications.
Mross and Lowell have steadily been the independent US distributor of precision optical test equipment for Möller-Wedel Optical GmbH of Wedel, Germany, for 21 1/2 years -- two at the Bellows Falls site, the rest in nearby Brattleboro. (The new Bellows Falls facility is on Bridge St.; the Brattleboro site, in an industrial complex fashioned from an old organ factory, was on Birge St.)
Precision angle measurement is a critical component in the construction of many modern electro-optical assemblies. Möller-Wedel instruments are used in NIST and other government standards labs throughout the world as well as in many other primary-standards laboratories in the armed forces and in industry.
"The problem with high-accuracy angles measurement is that traceability gets difficult," Lowell said. "We have the capability to qualify these high-angle measurement instruments, so we put together a calibration lab, and we're working on these issues in consultation with the people at NIST."
Former colleagues, Lowell is a lifelong native of New England who moved from Concord, Mass., to Vermont 40 years ago; Mross came to Vermont from southern California as a graduate student in plasma physics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., 35 years ago.
In 1985, Mross was working as technical director at Janos Technology, a producer of precision infrared optics located originally in Townshend, Vt. Thinking it was time for a change and in need of an income to support a terahertz-wave research habit, he noticed that Möller-Wedel (then J.D. Möller Optische Werke GmbH) was advertising in the Photonics Spectra with no US address. He asked his brother, a fluent German speaker who was living in Switzerland at the time, to inquire if Möller-Wedel wanted a US representative, and learned that some of the company's principals were preparing for a trip to New York.
After meeting with the Möller-Wedel personnel, Mross called Lowell, who was, serendipitously, also reconsidering his career direction. "Mike convinced me I would be able to figure out what an autocollimator would be used for," Lowell said.
Möller-Wedel GmbH, founded as an optical company in 1864 in Wedel, Germany -- an Elbe River town near Hamburg -- become widely known for its surgical microscopes and subjective refractors. Shortly after Vermont Photonics came on board, in 1985, Möller-Wedel was sold to three companies in succession in what Mross calls "a wave of consolidation." (Möller-Wedel GmbH is now owned by Haag-Streit of Switzerland; subsidiary Möller-Wedel Optical was founded in 2000.)
Vermont Photonics was a stabilizing force in Möller-Wedel's marketing of optical test equipment in the United States during that period. Its US sales “went from nearly nothing to over $1 million in the first four years," Mross said.
Vermont Photonics provides products as well as engineering services to scientists, engineers and production managers in the photonics, aerospace, medical and engineering fields; its customers include, in addition to the NIST: ASML, Boeing, Ingersoll, KLA Tencor, Kodak, Lockheed-Martin, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA, Northrop-Grumman, Panavision, Raytheon, Rockwell International, Schott Glass Technologies, Sony Pictures Imageworks, and the US Air Force, Navy and Army.
The many possible applications for its products include angle measurement, camera test/assembly, diopter adjustment, flange focal-length adjustment, flatness and straightness measurement, focal length measurement, mechanical system alignment, large-angle measurement, lens measurements, optical system alignment, prism measurement, radius of curvature measurement, refractive index measurement, resolution test and squareness measurement.
Lowell said Vermont Photonics has worked with numerous customers to develop instruments for quality control of optical components and assemblies, using a combination of off-the-shelf hardware and custom-engineered components. As engineering consultants, he said, they don't just sell their equipment; they also show customers how to use and apply it. The company recently delivered a custom-made instrument to Smith and Nephew for use in assembling medical CCD cameras; the result of "a combination of their ideas, our ideas and parts from Möller," Lowell said. They have provided such services for McDonnell Douglas, Boeing and Schott Glass Technologies, among others.
Vermont Photonics' cofounders (Thomas Lowell, left, with Michael Mross) on the bridge in Bellows Falls (Photo: Photonics.com)
Bellows Falls is said to be undergoing a revival; local businesses now include Chroma Technology, torque-converter parts maker Sonnax Industries and other light-industry firms. Vermont Photonics' neighbors in the former paper mill include Axsys Technologies, Great River Arts Institute, Sherwin Art Glass studio and 100-watt FM radio station WOOL. It's about a five-minute walk, over the bridge and past Internet service provider SoVerNet’s offices, to the Vermont Pretzel and Cookie Café, in what was once the JJ Newberry five-and-dime store. (The JJ Newbury sign, circa 1930s, was refurbished and now graces the wall of the dining area.) On Bridge St., Lowell points out a full-service gas station and auto repair shop straight out of 1961 that is run by a father and son, who accept only cash payments -- and business is brisk.
It's easy to think of old-fashioned customer service in this environment. Not coincidentally, personal attention, as opposed to growth for growth's sake, is the strategy of Vermont Photonics and the measure of its success.
"We always try to treat customers really well," Lowell said. "Ordering equipment from us requires that we have some knowledge of what our customer is trying to accomplish. When a customer calls with an apparent mistake in the parts list, we do our best to check the order against what we know of the application. We don't just put the order through to Möller and blame it on the customer later."
"It's something only a small company can do," Mross added. "When a company grows, it's hard to maintain this. It suffers a lot in translation."
For more information, visit: www.vermontphotonics.com; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vermont Photonics Inc.
33 Bridge St.
PO Box 516
Bellows Falls, VT 05101
Phone: (802) 460-1790
Fax: (802) 460-1796