Laser company beaming

Article Date: October 14, 2016

Roger Bowes, left, and Paul Webster stand next to an industrial robot in a lab at the new office of Laser Depth Dynamics in Kingston on Thursday. The company makes equipment to ensure the quality of laser welding. (Michael Lea/The Whig-Standard)

It has become a now-common aspect of the business community in Kingston. Small firms in nondescript offices, easily missed by anyone driving through an industrial sector, are ignoring geographic limitations and operating on a global scale. The latest to join that group is Laser Depth Dynamics, which is holding an official opening Friday afternoon at its new site on Railway Street. The company specializes in what it calls "inline coherent imaging." In layman's language, it takes a low-power, near-infrared measurement beam and partners it to a laser that is being used to weld metal. The system allows a precise depth measurement of the laser in real time, ensuring it is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing. The core technology was co-invented by then-Queen's University student Paul Webster back in 2012. He was working with physics professor James Fraser. After Webster finished his PhD at the end of that year, he used a financial award for technical entrepreneurship from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, along with some startup capital from now-company president and CEO Roger Bowes to found the new company and look for business.

Webster had originally considered medical uses for the system, such as surgeries where lasers would be used instead of scalpels, but elected instead to pursue industrial uses. He explained the regulatory hurdles were less for industry than medicine so he could take the technology to market much sooner, something essential for a startup company.

"You want to start selling products right away."

Webster hired more people while maintaining his scientific relationship with Prof. Fraser and Queen's University, taking on students from his lab.

"Having that kind of personal and geographic connection to the university is very valuable to us."

It allows them to get to know the students who may end up working in the company. Since they have already been working on some of the technology Webster loaned to the university, they are already familiar with the product.

"So they are already trained on a lot of our equipment before they even come in the door," Webster said. "It is a great win-win relationship between us and the university. Universities like Queen's need to deliver the whole package to the public. They need to be excellent in basic research "¦ but they also want to have practical things that are going out and making an economic difference in the local community and the global community as a whole."

Dr. Steven Liss, Vice-Principal (Research) at Queen's, said Laser Depth Dynamics "is a prime example of how the partnership between research and commercialization promises many advantages for the Kingston innovation ecosystem, Canada, and, most importantly, brings benefits to society."

Webster used the contacts he had built up from years of networking in the field to start bringing in customers.

"That's the first step to get you in the door You have got to know somebody who can pick up the phone and have some idea as to what you can do with the system and who you can help."

They never had to make any cold calls to sell their product, he said.

"The laser industry is a small enough place and the problem that we solve is widely known, so there is a lot of word of mouth that happens."

But it also presented some "frustrations and challenges." Companies trying to gain a competitive advantage want to keep what they know away from everyone else in their field, Webster explained. That means he can't talk about which companies they work with, specifically.

"The fact they use our tool and it works really well for them is something they don't want anybody else knowing," he said. It gives them an advantage in the marketplace if their competition doesn't know how they operate, he said.

"There are many household names that are our customers right now. They all use our tool right now for something slightly different, but they don't let us tell other people that it has been successful."

Webster can say, in general terms, where their technology is being used. "The various forms of transportation in the world, I think we touch on all of those with our customers. There are cars on the road that utilize our technology to help ensure quality." Bowes said most of their customers are in the United States, Europe and Asia. Anywhere there is laser welding, cutting and drilling is where their product could be found. That includes the aerospace industry, rail cars and various industries. In the automotive world, they could be found in power train components such as transmissions and fueling systems. "It is quality control for laser welding," Bowes explained.

Before their product, companies would routinely have to destroy the metal that had just been welded to ensure the weld was done properly. Webster explained companies might make 20 samples of a product, then cut open 15 of them to make sure they were welded properly. Only the remaining five would go to market, which is considered a waste of time, supplies and money. Laser Depth Dynamics' technology eliminates all of that waste. Webster hasn't forgotten about the possibility of eventually using the system in an operating theatre to do surgeries. "I still think that is a capability that we might one day have."

Bowes, who handles the business side of things at the company, praised Webster and his co-workers for the work they have done selling the product. "When you are a small company, trying to get out and find customers and demonstrate the value of the technology is a lot of work," he said. "This is a textbook success story of how innovation at university can be brought out and commercialized. We could use a few more examples of this kind of thing in Kingston."

There are 10 people in the company now and they are looking to hire more. "We want people to think of us as a possible career option for them," Webster said. "You get to stay in Kingston and work on some really interesting problems that have global impact." They are happy to stay in Kingston, especially now that they have moved from their original home on Gore Street to their new, larger site on Railway Street. It is a former metal finishing shop, once abandoned and now renovated to suit their special needs. "We see no reason it can't continue for 10, 20 years if we can keep it up at this kind of pace," Webster said.

For their event Friday afternoon they planned, appropriately enough, to use a laser to cut the ribbon to officially open the site.