Shrinking spacecraft parts could help company expand

APL spinoff wins grants to build more precise, smaller components

Small business

March 19, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Smaller is better.

Bruce Montgomery, president of the fledgling Syntonics Corp., the first commercial spinoff from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, is in the business of making little black boxes with quartz crystals that help guide spacecraft in orbit.

Although his 2-year-old company is one of the smallest players in the narrow field of oscillator manufacturers and is still headquartered in the county's Neotech Incubator, a recent contract awarded by NASA could change all that.

The $882,000 award provides Syntonics the research money it needs to shrink oscillators to as little as one-tenth of the size and weight the industry has used for more than a decade. And that plan, if successful, could launch Syntonics into the aerospace market.

"In two years or so, we think we are going to be able to offer great specifications at a great weight savings," Montgomery said. "It's just so expensive to get a big, heavy spacecraft up into orbit that it's worth a lot to save a pound."

The potential is so great that Syntonics bid for the contract at cost, figuring that if it is successful in building a prototype through the program, the exercise will pay for itself in short order.

Along with the NASA contract, the four-person Syntonics was also recently awarded a U.S. Navy Small Business Innovation research contract to develop a way to make its timing devices keep more precise time for longer periods. It also expects to begin providing its goods to commercial customers within a few months. The business is expected to increase its sales from $230,000 last year to $1.5 million this year and $2.5 million in 2002, a company executive said.

With all the activity and interest in their product, company executives and managers who helped launch the business from APL feel confident that starting a commercial venture was the right thing to do.

"It's working out the way you would've envisioned," said Wayne E. Swann, director of technology at APL. "It think Syntonics is poised to make a lot of headway this year."

With so many commercial companies - mobile phone network providers, satellite television enterprises - launching spacecraft at enormous costs, any reduction in the size and weight of components that allows a spacecraft to carry more fuel or other parts could have wide appeal. Companies and the government could also reduce exorbitant launch costs, which are tied to the weight of the spacecraft.

In the two-year project that Syntonics is undertaking with APL and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, the goal is to reduce the size and weight of the standard 320-gram, 350-milliliter model oscillator by three to 10 times without reducing reliability and sturdiness.

Syntonics has trimmed the model APL has produced for the past 15 years - its new master or commercial oscillator is 215 grams and 235 milliliters, a 35 percent reduction. But to shrink the box further will require examination and evaluation of each component, said Glen Cameron, vice president of engineering and production, who will direct the research.

"We're going to look at each layer and say, `Does it have to be there? Can it be smaller? Is there a modern material we can use to make it better?'" he said. "We think a factor of three is going to be very easy to do."

That kind of change should make the company's customers happy, according to one analyst.

"When you're dealing with telecommunications, a smaller device would be important," said Jeffrey Van Sinderen, an analyst with B. Riley & Co. "In a space shuttle-type application, size would definitely be important."

An oscillator creates an accurate vibration used in communication between spacecraft to keep the objects from floating into one another while in orbit.

At the heart of the device is a quartz crystal that vibrates at up to 115 million cycles a second with extraordinary accuracy. The box that surrounds the crystal protects the rock and its stable vibrations from heat, radiation, magnetic fields or other factors that could knock it off its course.

Syntonics got into the oscillator business in 1999 when APL, which has been supplying the government with oscillators for decades, licensed its proprietary inventions to Montgomery to form a company that would manufacture the devices commercially, which the school is not allowed to do.

Since its formation, between $250,000 and $500,000 has been invested in the company, Montgomery said, and he expects the outfit will need up to three times more before it is fully funded. But, he said, with any luck the company may squeak through this calendar year with a slight profit.

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