The gas that powers our cars. The ubiquitous smart phone in our pockets. The coffee we enjoy every morning. These commodities we use on a daily basis all have one thing in common: they are examples of many items that are imported into the United States so we can enjoy them.
In September alone, the U.S. imported $41.55 billion worth of goods more than it exported.
While the U.S. has bought more from foreign markets than it sold since 1975, there are a few American companies that buck the trend. These companies excel in overseas sales, in the process becoming world leaders in their industries. One such company is right here in Arkansas.
If you don’t know exactly where Power Technology is located in Alexander, you’ll drive right past it. Nestled just off Interstate 30 is the company’s unassuming headquarters, and behind the slightly overgrown shrubbery and fading brick exterior, scientists and engineers work diligently developing and perfecting the laser.
“We do ‘machine vision’, which is guidance for automation systems,” Power Technology marketing director Greg Henderson says. “We do the bio-analytical, and we do what we call ‘catch-all’ industrial.” That “catch-all” can include anything from simple gun sights that are essentially glorified laser pointers to high-tech semi-conductor lasers. But no matter the application, don’t expect to see much of the traditional red dots around Power Technology’s office.
“If you look at the visible spectrum, greens are actually the most visible color of light,” says Henderson. “So what we’ve done is made a significant investment in greens, we’ve locked up a number of very high-volume contracts. That has allowed us to take a bit of the Apple approach, where if you lock up the market and control the supply, you can essentially control that line.”
Those greens hold the answer to Power Technology’s success in overseas markets. The company has contracts in more than two dozen countries, including large Asian markets like China, Japan, India and South Korea. Henderson attributes that foreign success to a commitment to a high-quality product.
“You have lasers made in Asian markets that are really cheap. People aren’t worried about the quality, they’re just wanting to see a spot on the wall. They don’t even care if it’s straight. All those low-cost things have all gone to the Asian markets, and so what that’s allowed us to do is compete on these higher quality lasers. That’s what the Asian markets can’t do very well.”
A tour through Power Technology’s manufacturing area demonstrates Henderson’s point.
Nothing is made by machine. Engineers work in static-free zones making each laser meticulously by hand. Workers hardly glance up, focusing intently on the work in front of them. Beyond the work tables lies a large chamber where Power Technology refines raw materials, controlling as many steps in the laser-making process as possible. And the lasers of the future will use much less of these refined materials than today’s versions.
“The world’s going smaller. Other components are becoming compacted. We don’t want ours to be the largest item in its market. Everything’s getting more portable every day, and that’s where we want to be,” says Henderson, holding up a laser diode no larger than a watermelon seed.
Power Technology has been in business since 1969, a mere nine years after the invention of the laser. Thomas Burgess opened the company in Alexander that his twin sons, Walter and William, now oversee. Walter supervises the sales and engineering areas of the company, while Williams manages the manufacturing portion. The twins were born four years after Power Technology opened, and have spent their entire lives around lasers.
“When you’re dealing with a highly technical business, it’s not like running a pizza joint where you’re relying more on your business sense. Here, you have to understand the technology with the business, so that gives us an advantage. Having two of them gives us even more of an advantage,” says Henderson.
While Power Technology is a global player, the company’s future success is very much dependent on Arkansas. Power Technology is investing in higher education institutions, like the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Central Arkansas. The goal is to make sure that Arkansas students are exposed to the classes they would need to start a career in lasers.
“We would love to see a photonics (study of light science) education built here in Little Rock. We’re actively pursuing trying to get UALR to do some photonics-based education for the engineering side. As long as they produce students, we will hire them. We want to hire quality, high-level people that understand photonics,” says Henderson.
Henderson says that students wanting to enter the laser industry should focus on engineering, particularly mechanical engineering with an emphasis on design skills. Those students will be responsible for coming up with the new lasers that will be smaller and smarter than today’s models. Henderson says it’s critical for Power Technology to hire the brightest minds that will push the laser industry further into the future.
“If we’re always trending ahead technology wise, we’re always in a position where we have the best products. Especially with the greens, what we’re trying to do is actually take a step forward and be better than everybody else. So as the industry is consolidating, we’re trying to be better and ahead of the curve, and that keeps us up at the top.”