City firm gets the LED out

VERGENNES — Like virtually every company in the United States, Vergennes high-tech engineering firm Nathaniel Group Inc., which does business as Nathaniel Electronics, has felt the effects of the international economic slump.
Nathaniel has had to downsize. About a third of a workforce that numbered more than 40 in mid-2008 has either been laid off or left through what company founder Joel Melnick called attrition.
Now Melnick says the 25-year-old Panton Road firm sees light at the end of that economic tunnel — and it’s coming from light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
Melnick thinks Nathaniel’s latest line of products, high-powered LED lighting units that he said make major advances in brightness and versatility, has the potential to quickly double the company’s income.
“I think it’s going to be about half our business within a few months,” he said.
Nathaniel still has its longtime core of medical products, including lights and video cameras on fiber-optic cables that allow doctors performing joint surgery to see what they’re doing; pumps that fill those joints with fluid to cool them during surgery and flush out debris; and surgical cutting and drilling tools.
Nathaniel also continues to focus on a project to make solar panels more efficient by using lenses to concentrate sunlight on the silicon junctions that convert solar power into electricity, an effort that Nathaniel engineers believe can make solar power more practical and affordable.
But Melnick said Nathaniel is working hard on the LED part of its business because of the broad appeal of the product to many different sectors of the economy.
“(It’s) very diversified within a number of industries with many customers. It will really help with stability and company growth,” he said.
The base product itself has a power unit that is a little taller than and not as quite as long as a shoe box, a palm-size LED unit that can display light of any color or frequency for up to seven years of uninterrupted use, and a fiber-optic cord connecting the box and light that can be up to 200 feet long. The box is labeled both “Sugar CUBE” and “LED Illuminator.”
The idea popped up when company engineers were working on bio-photonics, in which precise lighting strength and frequency is needed to trigger a molecular reaction for DNA, genetic and drug research.
In the process, they found an unusually powerful LED source — since refined to be even brighter, an ongoing effort — in a consumer electronics product.
“As part of that project, we made a demonstrator that was just a single LED and a single box. And at that point we looked at it and thought, ‘This could be a great product just by itself,’” Melnick said. “It was very bright. We thought we really had something.”
Their deceptively simple product can be used in a many ways in different industries and environments, said Melnick and Nathaniel business development manager William Biederman.
“It’s going to be divided across a number of fields, so it’s going to be a very safe product in an unsafe economy,” Biederman said.
For example, as well as bio-photonics, Nathaniel’s product can provide lighting for photographic quality control in rapidly moving assembly lines, for hard-to-reach or dangerous spaces or environments, or for traffic control and border security.
Nathaniel has competitors in the LED field, but Melnick said until now none can match Nathaniel’s brightness and precision. And he said the company is small and nimble enough, and the product is designed to be flexible enough, so that even small orders can be profitable.
“So far, we’re the brightest and the best. People are going to catch up eventually … But our advantage, too, is we can customize for people who are looking for something like it, but not exactly that. When we’re competing with a much larger company, they (competitors) don’t usually want to go after those custom applications,” Melnick said.
Biederman offered an example.
“We can do five or 10 pieces of something like that and make money at it, and a larger corporation (can’t),” he said. “I was actually in Germany last week, and I was talking to a customer. And they said, ‘Well, our supplier said they’d do anything we want for a 1,000-piece order.’ And I said, ‘How many pieces do you need?’ And they said, ‘Fifty for this.’ And I said, ‘Fine, we’ll do it.’” Biederman said. “We’re in the process of quoting that right now.”
Nathaniel recently received a $33,920 grant from the Vermont Clean Energy Fund to build a demonstration unit for a strobe LED in a sealed cube that could enhance its marketability in outdoor applications. Melnick said that grant will help Nathaniel tap the market for taking photos of license plates at remote border crossings, for example, where the long-life of the light source could prove especially helpful.
Possibly the broadest array of uses could come in manufacturing, and many of the four dozen clients with whom Nathaniel has already talked since launching the product in August are in that sector.
Melnick said many assembly lines — for toothbrushes and soda bottles, for example — require photographic inspections of each item for many different data. Some of that data is coded and some of it is simple visual evidence, such as whether a bottle is full or capped. Software can then read the photographs.
“They have to have evidence that they’ve checked every can that went out, that it was properly marked with the date code and when it was built and in what factory. There’s a lot of information in those codes,” he said.
Lighting, usually timed strobe lighting, is critical to take accurate photographs. Melnick said now that LEDs are more powerful, they can do the job, and because they are more precise, they are also increasingly more practical.
“You can’t pay a human being to hold that in their hands and inspect (every item) … That’s where for very little money per piece a camera can look at it,” Melnick said. “And the trick to that automated vision and inspection is lighting.”
The lower energy requirements and longer life of an LED unit are also critical, he said.
“Any time you have to replace bulbs, there’s labor involved. You have to stop an automated production line to change bulbs,” Melnick said.
And then there are the applications in unsafe or hard-to-reach areas. Biederman cited nuclear power plants as an example of a hostile environment in which the light could be inside and the power source outside. He said any type of structure that needs lighting while presenting an access challenge is a candidate for LED lights.
“We’re looking at remote lighting, which is wind towers, bridges, anything that’s difficult to get to,” he said.
The base unit sells for about $1,600, and early projections call for maybe “a couple hundred a month” to go out the doors to start with, Melnick said.
With the economic downturn still a fact of life, Melnick said Nathaniel has “ramped up our sales effort,” and will be in Germany next week at MEDICA, the world’s largest medical products trade show, pitching its wares.
Most products, he said, Nathaniel has made on a “private label” basis, with other companies’ names on them. The LED lights have “Nathaniel” printed on them, something in which he said the firm’s employees are taking pride.
“It’s really the first Nathaniel product that has our brand name on it,” he said. “It’s kind of exciting. Eventually, it will probably be (on) buildings and bridges, and people will be able to go by and say it’s something that was made here at this factory.”

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