Electrical and Computer Engineering
Research and development are a high priority at F&S. The company has a close relationship with Virginia Tech, and has subcontracted more than $2 million to Tech researchers. Shown above, F&S engineer Ryan Jones examines a fiber that he has prepared.
F&S - Home Grown Success
A small firm started part-time to market equipment based on Department research is now the fastest growing high-tech company in Virginia.
Thanks to Candace Bergen, Whoopi Goldberg, and other telephone company spokespersons, most Americans know that fiber optics have had a profound effect on the greater-than-$3-billion-a-year telecommunications industry. The greater bandwidth available with fiber optic cables enables more people than ever before to simultaneously phone home - for 10 cents a minute.
Less known, however, is that the use of fiber optic sensors and instrumentation is quietly changing the capabilities of many other industries, including chemical processing, bio-medical, aerospace, and transportation.
For a spin-off company from Virginia Tech, fiber optic sensors and instruments have become big business. Fiber and Sensor Technologies, Inc. (F&S) of Blacksburg designs and manufactures commercial and custom optical fiber-based sensors and gages. Its customers include more than 100 leading companies and organizations, and sales last year topped $2 million.
F&S was founded in 1990 by seven graduates and staff members of the Department's Fiber & Electro-Optics Research Center (FEORC). It was a part-time effort to build instrumentation based on FEORC research. F&S licensed three of FEORC's patents, and began manufacturing a line of strain gage systems. The firm grew fast, and within two years hired full-time engineers and named one of the founders, Kent Murphy, as president.
Today the company has 30 full-time employees, and last July moved into a new 8,000-square-foot facility in Blacksburg's Industrial Park. This past March the firm won the Virginia Vanguard award, naming it "the fastest growing private high-tech company in the state." The Vanguard award is co-sponsored by Virginia Business magazine and Coopers & Lybrand.
"Our success lies in our ability to convert patents into reliable products that are accepted by industry," Murphy said. The success also lies in the large potential of the technology, and in the diversity of its applications. In 1995 the firm's target markets generated $2.6 billion in revenue. Each year more applications of fiber-optic sensors are developed, which opens up additional potential business for F&S.
"Our potential markets will continue to grow as our research expands the potential of fiber-optic technology," Murphy said. F&S maintains strong ties with FEORC and other Virginia Tech research groups. Not only has Murphy joined the Tech faculty, but the firm has subcontracted more than $2 million to University researchers for product-related efforts. In addition, in 1995 alone, F&S co-authored more than 40 technical publications with Virginia Tech faculty, students and staff.
The success of Fiber and Sensor Technologies delights FEORC director Rick Claus. "FEORC has spun off five different small company efforts since it was created in 1986 by the CIT," he said. "Thus far the most successful spin-off is Fiber and Sensor Technologies. More than half of F&S employees are former students and graduates of Tech - they have degrees in ME, ESM, AOE, physics, education, and of course EE. It's neat that the state's fastest growing high-tech company is in Blacksburg - and that many of our best graduates can stay in the area," he continued.
Fiber Optic Sensors
Fiber-optic sensors provide the ability to measure pressure and strain in applications that have not been possible with conventional electro-magnetic sensors. Fiber optic sensors are immune to external electromagnetic inference, can be placed in harsh environments not tolerated by other materials, and can be embedded in "smart" materials and structures. Fiber sensors also function indefinitely, without experiencing the fatigue common with conventional sensors.
F&S sensors have been used for a variety of applications, including:
- The development of strain and pressure sensors for a "smart" airplane wing that would change shape instead of using mechanical flaps.
- Strain measurements on a rock drill, to measure the force along the drill at the time of the punch, so that drilling procedures could be optimized.
- Fiber optic bypass switches in FDDI networks.
- The detection of a variety of pathogens in blood.
- Pressure sensors that measure the level of a liquid in bio-technological, chemical processing and food processing operations.
- Strain sensors that monitor the curing of composite materials, thereby eliminating much of the guesswork and waste.
- Sensors that measure the stress and strain in orthopedic surgery.
- Temperature sensors for use in oil pumping, which could improve output by 30 percent.
- The monitoring of strain in concrete, composite and aluminum bridges.