LumenFlow counts on medical device status

December 28, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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The most low-profile high-tech company in Middleville has just been granted a patent on its 360-degree view imaging system, and it has another patent application in the works.

Actually, LumenFlow is the only high-tech optics company in Middleville, but it definitely does have a low-profile for a company that won an honorable mention this year for its 360-degree view device, in the NASA Create the Future design contest.

"We were the only Michigan company to even receive an honorable mention," said Harold Brunt, one of three partners who manage LumenFlow. The other two are Brian Zatzke and Paul Bourget.

LumenFlow was founded in 2000 by the three partners and a couple of other individuals, all former employees or contractors at Laser Alignment in Cascade Township. LumenFlow is a small, privately held engineering consulting and small-run manufacturing company that designs and assembles optics and photonics, including laser devices.

According to Brunt, photonics is a broad term used in reference to optics-based products that also incorporate electronic and mechanical components.

In mid-December, the U.S. government issued LumenFlow a utility patent on an imaging system it developed as a subcontractor on a General Motors R&D project. Zatzke said GM wanted a way to more precisely inspect engine valve seats that had been inserted into the cylinder head, to ensure that each was fully seated. The borescopes in use can only "see" about 90 degrees of the area of an interior curved surface. LumenFlow developed a lens with a 360-degree interior view. Connected to a camera via fiber optics, it can effectively record the entire interior surface of a tube-shaped space at once, without having to move the scope or the part.

"We developed this technology five years ago, and GM still hasn't incorporated it" in its production, said Zatske.

He said the innovative device "got lost in the bureaucracy at General Motors," but he added that GM did not want to patent the device anyway, because "it's not part of the vehicle. They didn't care about it. So we patented the technology and we have found many applications for it."

Just one example: The device can inspect pharmaceutical containers all in one view and save a lot of process time, said Zatske.

Zatske and Brunt said they have found a Michigan company that can produce the key optical element used in their device. LumenFlow does not actually make optic components, which requires grinding and polishing, but it does the assembly, testing and calibration of optical instruments.

"A lot of our machined components are made right here in West Michigan," said Brunt.

LumenFlow will assemble the 360-degree imaging lens itself in Middleville, with the help of a few part-time employees.

"It's not something that is going to be a higher volume product, so it's not something that we would really need" to have assembled under contract by some other company, said Brunt.

Brunt added that it is likely that each order for the 360-degree imaging device will be for a different use, which will require a somewhat customized product on each order. That adds a challenge to assembly that LumenFlow would rather deal with itself.

"It is a very specialized lens that you are probably not going to see carried in a camera shop," joked Brunt.

Zatske said the finished device will sell in the range of $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the number ordered.

LumenFlow is also developing an improvement in LED technology. Brunt said there is now a great deal of variation in the cost and quality of LEDs (light-emitting diodes, also known as solid-state lighting).

"What we have designed is a means of getting a significant amount of light for a low cost, and it's a good quality light," said Brunt, adding that the cost will be approximately one-third that of the currently manufactured LEDs. LumenFlow engineers expect to have their new LED ready for demonstration in 12 to 18 months, according to Zatske.

"We take pride in doing these high-tech type projects, making them manufacturable," said Zatske. It's one thing to create optical and photonic devices, he said, "but to make them cost-effective and manufacturable — that is the key."

He said the company’s LED can be produced to scale for a variety of applications, including street lights. He said it will be a major benefit to less developed countries where energy costs are relatively larger than here.

Brunt said LumenFlow is making laser devices based on the same technology as the toy laser pointers that are common today, but he noted that those only use a couple of milliwatts of power or less. The devices LumenFlow has been working on draw 15 to 300 milliwatts — "very precise pointing and focus over a long distance," said Brunt.

Zatske said the lasers emit wavelengths from about 630 nanometers up to about 1,500. They are used in instrument applications, in non-contact measurement devices and telecommunications.

As a subcontractor to the prime contractors, LumenFlow has also produced laser diode modules and assemblies for the military. The lasers are used as aimers for weapons and illuminators for use with night-vision optics.

About a year ago, LumenFlow joined the West Michigan Medical Device Consortium, which was launched in 2007 by the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative.

Brunt said he can't reveal the specifics of the medical device contracts due to non-disclosure agreements with customers, but he said both the 360-degree image lens and the improved LED have medical applications.

According to Zatske, the Medical Device Consortium and the WMSTI provide valuable opportunities for West Michigan companies to work together on a wide variety of R&D projects. Those are platforms that can help get the word out around the country and to the rest of the world that West Michigan industry isn't just automotive.

Zatske said LumenFlow has not received any tax credits but has been looking at grant opportunities for product development such as LED streetlights, "but we have not found anything."

"We're a small company," he said. "A lot of times those programs, especially from the federal government, are targeted for very large businesses."

He noted that those large companies must have a lot of grant writers, because "it would just overwhelm us to do the application" forms for some of the grants.

"We'd like to be able to grow," he said, adding hopefully that he has heard the Obama administration may be looking at ways to help small businesses.

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