Thinking Inside the Box
By Lisa Bergson
"I'm a happy woman," says Janneke van Wijk, a chemist with the Holland's national laboratory as she departs into the misty night. So ends a long day at Nederlands Meetinstituut (NMi).
While I'm glad things worked out, it wasn't ideal having to send our top scientist to get things going at NMi. But, for more than a month, all long-distance attempts to troubleshoot the MTO -- the first product of my new business, Tiger Optics -- from MEECO's headqaurters in Warrington, Pa., only made matters worse. "On Oct. 30, I have to give a presentation to justify the purchase," Janneke had complained. "That doesn't leave much time."
The quintessential early adopter, Janneke learned about our research, visited our plant, and subsequently became the first purchaser of our new MTO-1000, an innovative, electro-optic trace-moisture analyzer that we have developed over the past seven years. "I like the low gas use, the compact design, and the potential," Janneke explained. Between her frustration and a botched test at a key customer site in Texas the week of Sept. 10 (see BW Online, 10/15/01, "Racing the Clock in a Time of Trials"), my team was under pressure to improve the unit's stability and to design better packaging. (Plastering the box with "Fragile" stickers and arrows pointing "This side up" wasn't enough to prevent it being bashed on the other end.)
Once at NMi, it takes but a few minutes for Dr. Wen-Bin Yan, our director of laser analysis, to diagnose the problem. After carefully arranging his tools, Wen-Bin sticks his pen straight through the metal aperture where one of the device's laser-steering mirrors normally resides. Nothing. "It never occurred to us that a mirror could get detached from its mount," exclaims Janneke.
"Not installed properly," mutters Wen-Bin. (Damn! This means I'll have to wrench this product out of engineering and into production, where everything is standardized.) Still, the MTO appears O.K. technically -- a good sign. And, with the help of Janneke's colleague, the gracious Dr. Hugo Ent, we're able to scare up a spare mirror from NMi's optical division. "It's the wrong dimension," says Wen-Bin. "I should have packed parts."
"Try Scotch tape," I quip. But Wen-Bin has already installed the ill-fitting mirror and begun what turns out to be hours of work to realign the setup, with Janneke standing by.
"I'll call the plant and tell them to send spare parts ahead to England," says Guy Engelmann, our helpful new regional sales manager, recently hired after a long and agonized search. Later this week, we're supposed to debut the MTO at the headquarters of our British rep, Able Instruments & Controls. They have prospects lined up to see a working unit from Day 1. I repeat, working.
While Wen-Bin performs delicate manual adjustments to the mirrors, Hugo takes Guy and me aside. "You know, you're the first to introduce a commercial device based on cavity ring-down," he says of the technology at the heart of our MTO. "But you don't have seven years before the big companies overtake you," he continues. "If you're lucky, you may have two. You have to get the word out now. Instead, you're missing chances."
It's uncommon to get marketing advice from technical people, but Hugo is right. We've neglected our Web site, and his suggestions that we create more links and update our "news" section more than, say, once a year, are solid. Better yet, NMi offers to be a demonstration site for the unit. "We can't endorse, but people will see it working here," he beams. (I'm grateful for his confidence that it will, in fact, work.)
Like fathers in a maternity ward, Guy and I pace NMi's cheery modern halls, periodically checking on Wen-Bin in the chilly lab. "Can I get you a chair, coffee, water, anything?" I ask, recalling the many late nights I found him bug-eyed behind the black curtain, struggling to eke out a single ring-down. "Water, please," he mumbles. Later Wen-Bin will tell us he was so absorbed, he lost all sense of time.
I am conscious of the time, and am concerned for our hosts. We came prepared to stay for however long it took, but they had no such expectation. When we finally get to a break point at 8 p.m., we bid farewell to Hugo, who has guests to tend to at home, and drag Janneke out to dinner. After a restorative Chinese meal in Delft, we head straight back to the lab. We all gaze as Wen-Bin checks the numbers on our built-in computer and then pulls up the ring-down graph.
"Beautiful ring-downs," he exclaims.
"Beautiful ring-downs," I echo.
On Tuesday, I don't tell Wen-Bin about the voicemail warning me that the spare parts -- although assembled and packed -- were somehow overlooked by the shipper. They won't get to England in time for our arrival. Why promote anxiety a day before we're to start work there? Besides, we've improved the design and fashioned a new, more insulated case. Perhaps the unit will arrive intact, unlike our devastating experience in Texas and the recent mishap at NMi.
On Wednesday morning, it looks like the new crate actually did help. The unit is pristine and works right out of the box, with no adjustment needed. Proud parents, we watch its rapid descent from parts-per-million to less than 100 parts-per-billion, a response that can take days with classical technology. Wen-Bin's eyes glow.
From there, we quickly pack the uncrated unit atop a thin blanket and a layer of bubble wrap and drive 200 miles to our first customer site. It works perfectly. With no need for technical intervention, the MTO aces its first week of site visits, showing great stability, speed of response, and accuracy -- all thanks to the promise of cavity ring-down. We have a product after all. Now, I too am a happy woman.
Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies web sites at www.meeco.com or www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited by Robin J. Phillips