By the Light of Lasers

Employees see opportunity; boss becomes biggest customer

TRAVERSE CITY- It's not every day your boss encourages you to start a new business. But in this case of employer-turned-customer, it's a symbiotic relationship that makes perfect sense.

By day, brothers Ben Nelson and Geoff Niessink work for Electro-Optics Technology (EOT), a 22-year-old company that relocated here from Silicon Valley nearly 10 years ago. EOT supplies components and diagnostic equipment for manufacturers and users of high power laser systems. Nelson is vice president of operations for EOT and Niessink is a machinist.

Up until a few months ago, the company shipped the components it manufactures to Green Bay, Wisconsin for laser marking, a high-tech labeling method used for such things as company logos, serial numbers, bar codes and two-dimensional markings.

These days, Electro-Optics is simply driving its components down to the shop: Grand Traverse Laser Marking, which Nelson and Niessink launched this past summer and currently operate in Cedar.

"You have to keep things very transparent," Nelson says of the relationship with his own employer and biggest customer. "I was looking to bring our marking and engraving in-house for our own needs, but EOT is not in the marking and engraving business. We saw it as an opportunity to spin something out of EOT."

Instead of other marking/engraving processes, such as stamping, mechanical engraving or chemical etching, laser marking uses highly concentrated energy from a beam of light that focuses to a microscopic spot to create a variety of images. Grand Traverse Laser Marking uses a fiber laser (rather than the more traditional CO2 or YAG lasers), which is newer to the market and where the industry is heading, according to Nelson.

This type of marking and engraving can be extremely fast-up to 1,000 characters per second. Some of its perks: no direct surface contact (especially handy for complex shapes), highly accurate, permanent and no environmentally unfriendly inks or solvents needed.

Local business coalitions and chambers of commerce groups were looking for a local source for these types of marked and engraved materials, says Nelson. While there are a couple of area companies that perform laser marking in-house for their own products, Grand Traverse Laser Marking is the first to provide services for other businesses.

"It's very high tech for this area," he adds. "And the use of lasers in industry is growing." For example, it can be used for rapid prototyping, in which metal powder is melted into parts at lightning-fast speed, and in new applications for laser cutting and welding. "These are the forward-thinking types of things we see … possibly spinning ideas out of that."

Right now, the company is focusing on metal components for aerospace/ military and medical industries-all which have very tight specifications for marking. But down the road, Nelson says there could be a market for much more unconventional applications, even such things as fishing lures or jewelry.

Grand Traverse Laser Marking can be reached at 231.866.0562 or by visiting BN