One might expect a business on the cutting edge of lasers, providing the latest in precision technology to everything from movie theatre projectors to missile guidance systems for national defense, to be located in a sleek building headquartered inside a top-secret research campus. Therefore, it’s surprising that one of the top laser companies in the nation is located in a large but nondescript building on a lonely road in the small town of Alexander, just outside southwest Little Rock.
Yet Power Technology Incorporated (PTI) manages to thrive, with its staff of more than 50 engineers and experts constantly crafting an ever-stronger array of products. Overseeing it all are the twin-brother team of William and Walter Burgess, who took over from their father and PTI founder, Thomas, in 2006. Under their guidance, PTI has maintained its dominance in the state’s surprisingly large community of laser-related businesses.
In fact, Walter is the founder and head of the Arkansas Photonics Industry Alliance, a trade group that represents the state’s 16 companies in the industry, which encompasses the marriage of protons and electronics. More than 500 people across Arkansas are employed in the field, which generates $111 million annually for the state’s economy.
“We’re global with our marketing and global sales happening out of this office and a sales team that has some focus on overseas sales, some on the semiconductor sector and some life sciences,” said William, who is vice president of operations handling the production and finance side of PTI. “We export 24 percent of everything we make, and last year we exported to 47 countries. That’s 46 more than the average U.S. company exports to, and President Obama even gave us the E Award for exports.”
The President’s E Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce recognizes those companies that contribute significantly to increase U.S. exports.
PTI manufactures three distinct types of lasers: semiconductor, gas-based and crystal-based. The semiconductor lasers create pulses like flashes on a camera, which facilitate putting a lot of light out quickly — a key aspect in missile-guidance testing and defense programs, as well as mapping human eyes before surgeries.
The 25,000-square-foot headquarters has been PTI’s home base since 2001, and the company has been in existence for more than 50 years. Amid its facilities is a special “laser room” that measures the precision of lasers by bouncing beams back and forth among mirrors, which allows staffers to see the angular tolerance of a beam and how much error it has on its way to perfection. That accuracy is measured in milli-radians, or small fractions of degrees.
Perhaps the most intriguing space in the building is its “clean room,” which utilizes a filtration system to remove even the most microscopic particle of dust. A single dust speck will cause a laser to scatter light, ruining the ability to have a pure, high-quality laser beam, so PTI is determined not to trap any particles between the laser and the lens.
Crystal-based lasers are also a key part of defense products generated at PTI, with major secrecy enforced not only by the company itself but also the regulations of International Traffic and Arms Regulation (ITAR). The engineers also align laser diodes to link semiconductor lasers to fibers that are as tiny as four microns, or 4/1000th mm in diameter.
“Our lasers are manufactured usually in a black metal tube. Black’s really good for optical purposes because it doesn’t reflect light,” William explained. “When one is ready for fiber couplings, by end of day we’ll load it with optics. Make the precision happen by controlling temperature closely, control the temperature of the laser to .02 degrees accuracy. If this was outdoors, even though the temperature is fluctuating, the laser doesn’t move more than .02 degrees the whole day.”
William believes that PTI leads the nation in the creation of helium neon-laser power supplies. Another unusual capability is that the company makes its own circuit boards, which laser companies usually outsource. In-sourcing is a key part of PTI’s ability to control costs and delivery times, and the company can place 6,000 circuit chips every hour.
Defense technology makes up 20 percent of PTI’s business, with life sciences and semiconductors the other leading markets for the company. It stockpiles more than 10,000 parts in its stockroom, with computer algorithms monitoring supplies weeks before they can possibly run out.
“We’re not after a million-piece order from companies because that’s going to go offshore and be made somewhere really cheap,” said William. “We want the high-tech focus of hundreds or a thousand-piece order. We use a consultative process with our clients where we say, ‘Here’s what we’ve done in the past; we think this will be successful for you. Do you agree?’”
With such highly complex decisions made on a constant and rapid basis, it helps that the Burgess brothers, who are 47, are twins with much of the same mindset. Walter noted that he and William are essentially co-CEOs, with their responsibilities divided according to their respective strengths, and he’s in charge of sales and engineering.
“It might not be a surprise, but we spent the first 20 years of our lives together,” Walter said. “We shared experiences, challenges and triumphs during that time that shaped who we are today. Coming from an almost identical youth, we almost always reach the same conclusions to a given challenge. We may occasionally have differing opinions on the ‘how’ when it comes to a goal, but we almost always agree on the goal or strategic direction itself.”
While none of their own kids have expressed interest yet in taking the reins of PTI in the future, William notes that surviving more than 50 years already in such a competitive field is an outstanding achievement in itself. In keeping with their close-knit brotherly mindset, Walter builds on that for what is perhaps the best summation of what PTI has been over five decades.
“I am always proud to be a part of one of Arkansas’ oldest technology companies. When Thomas, my father, started the company, the number of ‘technology’ companies in the state could be counted on one or two hands,” he said. “There were no great incubators like those run by the Venture Center, the Conductor or Startup Junkie. Thomas had to figure out entrepreneurship with much less support than what is available today.
“There is no telling what the future will hold,” he added, concerning the prospect of his children taking on a third generation of leadership. “When I was 16, I had a summer job at Power Technology digging ditches. I swore I would never work here after that summer. I have been here 25 years now. There is a lot of truth in the saying, ‘Never say never.’”