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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Interview: Micro-Machining from the Ground Up with Sarah Boisvert of Potomac Photonics

This part was fabricated by Potomac Photonics using 3-D printing and laser drilling, a combination of methods that aims for what Sarah Boisvert calls a “complete product.” Click to enlarge. Credit: Potomac Photonics

“My first CLEO — Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics — was in 1986,” Sarah Boisvert, consultant for Potomac Photonics, told me over the phone recently. “There were probably 10,000 technical attendees […] and I think maybe five women. It got better over the years, but still, in hardcore lasers, and certainly in industrial lasers and laser manufacturing, there aren’t all that many women. So I’m kind of an anomaly.”

Although her position as a woman working in optics and lasers is not a conventional sight, Sarah Boisvert’s story exhibits some of the best practices companies in high technology and manufacturing should follow — notably being service oriented. She started as an industry outsider, with no training in laser technology, and had no idea that it would end up being her long-term career.

A business mind, Boisvert met a Ph.D., Paul Christensen, in the Washington, D.C., area in the 1980s, who explained his idea to miniaturize excimer lasers. Boisvert, who held an MBA, was interested in possible markets for such technology and, after more consultations, realized that there was huge potential for laser micro-machining.

Potomac Photonics began as a small company building lasers for clients. For Boisvert, it was not only a business but an education, as Christensen trained her in optics on the weekends. Luckily, she had experience as a concert pianist, and transferred the math skills she used in playing Chopin to running optics tests for clients.

“It was a small company, and at a small company you do everything,” she recalls. “You make the coffee, but you also run laser tests for customer products.”

Eventually, her experience and training under Christensen were so impressive that customers confused her for an engineer. With the knowledge she gained on the job and her business background, she was able to help grow Potomac Photonics from a small laser manufacturing contractor to a full-fledged micro-fabrication company. Christensen was creating new technological advancements and inventions for the company, but Boisvert was making them commercial.

“With my business background, I was able to take [Dr. Christensen’s] inventions and turn them into products,” Boisvert says.

Part of this process involved educating Potomac Photonics’s customer base. The company established a proto-fab lab where customers could approach trained laser and micro-machining professionals with their ideas and see how the available technology was able to meet their needs. By building these relationships, Potomac Photonics was able to make inroads with clients that didn’t know how micro-machining could help them.

The fab lab thus helped expand the customer base. The company was soon aiding in the development of technology that better monitors and delivers glucose for diabetes patients and entered the diamond industry with new methods of marking products. “All kinds of interesting products came to us, and fortunately [Christensen] and our engineers were really innovative and able to solve different problems, and that’s how they were able to invent a lot of different things that had never been invented before.”

Sarah Boisvert at a trade show in 1987.

For Boisvert, this led to a career that seemed to be pulled from the pages of a novel rather than real life. “Someone on [social media] asked me if I ever attend science fiction conventions,” Boisvert recalls. “I said, I live science fiction! People would come to us with crazy things and say can you make this?”

She cites a customer who wanted help making electrodes that are implantable in the brains of the visually impaired. When a current is passed through the electrodes, they can see points of light. The customer used Potomac Photonics’s services to start a small business in the D.C. area. The customer still has the original laser that the company made for him, and it was recently refurbished by Christensen.

But it’s not just about innovative new technology. Boisvert cites a book, Marketing High Technology, by William H. Davidow, in which the Silicon Valley marketing executive expounds upon the idea of a “complete product,” to illustrate her point. In one instance, she found that laser customers were not properly monitoring air cooling. If the cooling system was not monitored, a machine could overheat and shut down production. Realizing that it should not be incumbent on the customers to monitor the function of Potomac Photonics products, the company installed a temperature gauge that would automatically alert owners if their machines were overheating.

“It was identifying holes in the markets, but it was also identifying needs of customers that we could solve beyond just the technical,” Boisvert says.

Now, under the direction of a new management team led by owner and president Mike Adelstein, Potomac Photonics has become very small scale. The company runs a MicroFabLab, specializing in providing customers with micro-fabrication expertise and equipment on a fee basis, along with a Hacker Club that provides discounts for maker members. While home 3-D printers are all the rage, Potomac Photonics provides decades of experience to expedite fabrication. This is key for rapid prototyping when time to production is critical.

The company has also remained on the forefront of contract micro-machining technology, adding to its core laser machining business additional technologies and services such as CNC machining, laser marking, hot embossing, micro-molding and 3-D printing. It is the combination of these processes that allows Potomac Photonics “to meet the specific needs of customer applications across industries to create that ‘complete product,’” she says.

“People have this idea that 3-D printing is the end all. In some instances it is, but in some instances it isn’t,” Boisvert opines. “Where it is really going to have an impact on manufacturing is when it is combined with other processes. It has always been Potomac’s philosophy that it is about pulling together all the tools you have available to make the right product for your client.”

Boisvert has been working in and around lasers for over two decades, and decided that in the current labor gap climate, it is important to give back. She is now working with the Laser Institute of America (LIA) on a campaign to create a video game to interest young girls and women in industrial lasers as a career. Building on the success of a Geckoman Nanotechnology video game, Boisvert and the LIA are trying to “develop a video game aimed toward middle-school girls, giving them some background in laser physics in a way that is fun.”

Although Boisvert’s career started as an anomaly, her story and the work she’s doing now to spread her knowledge could make successful women working with lasers commonplace.

–Brian Lane

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