Jim Lua, president of Global Engineering and Materials, or GEM, decided to move his company to Princeton for four reasons — his wife Lily Tong’s job in informational technology at Pfizer had been transferred to Bridgewater; he was already having difficulty recruiting highly qualified individuals where he lived in East Lyme, Connecticut; Princeton is closer both to his funding agencies in the District of Columbia; and the District of Columbia and New Jersey offer more marketing opportunities than Connecticut.
So last summer he moved his company to a small office in Forrestal Village, andthen in October relocated to Airport Place. His current 1,800-square-foot office space, he says, will be large enough to accommodate the additional three or four engineers and scientists he expects to add in the near future.
Because he had worked so hard as a consultant for a big corporation and as a one-person company when GEM was getting started, Lua understood that stress is neither enjoyable nor productive. “If you push too hard and people have huge pressure, then creativity will drop,” he says. “If you build up teamwork and create a fun environment, productivity will increase.”
When he hired employees for his company, he was determined to create a different kind of work space. “Normally people say working for small companies is a tough life,” says Lua. “That’s the reason we sponsor lots of fun activities like outings, rafting, camping, and home barbecues.”
When reading through training materials his wife had brought home about team building and people skills, he decided to implement some ideas in his own company. In particular, he wanted to make work fun and meet individuals’ career objectives. “If you create a place of just working for a living,” he says, “it won’t go anywhere, and people will hate their jobs.”
GEM has three business lines: developing software tools used in structure design and damage prediction; doing government-sponsored research and development projects in areas like the analysis and design of ship structures; and industry consulting to develop computational models that predict the strength and potential for failure in advanced structures like ramps, ship hulls, and the wings of airplanes.
Right now GEM is transitioning to more commercial business with companies like Boeing, Air Bus, Lockheed Martin Aero, and Bell Helicopter that make commercial and military aircraft. “We want to provide them with a better design and analysis tool that they can use for cost-effective product design, with a reduced number of tests, both for components and for a full structure,” says Lua.
Lua grew up in China, where his retired parents still live; his father was a high school teacher and his mother an accountant. After Lua got his bachelor’s in structural engineering from Tongji University in Shanghai he wanted to continue his studies in the United States; his relatives from Hong Kong sponsored him for his first year. After that he was able to support himself with teaching and research assistantships from Rutgers and Columbia universities
Lua’s academic and subsequent work life have focused on mechanics and materials science, areas where the jargon and applied physics might be daunting but have practical applications. His bachelor’s degree focused on the design of structure and infrastructure for office buildings, high-rise apartments, stadiums, bridges, and highways, although his 1986 master’s from Rutgers was more analytical and mathematical focusing more narrowly on materials. He analyzed the forces within a structure and those acting upon it to determine how to design these structures against failure.
He received his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics from Columbia in 1989. There his research expanded to the mechanics of how a material breaks into two pieces, starting with an initial defect in the material and structure, causing a crack that grows and eventually causes the structure to break.
During a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern Lua developed special numerical techniques to analyze the failure of structural components.
In 1992 Lua got a job with Applied Research Associates, a small research and engineering consulting company in Raleigh, North Carolina, that specialized in government-sponsored research programs from NASA, the Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Air Force.
Here he continued with structural mechanics, but also dealt in what is called probabilistic mechanics.
This field takes into account the uncertainty of material properties and forces like wind load, which varies based on weather conditions. In particular, he worked on the pavement in airfields, on an engine component for space structures, and the structure of airplane wings.
In 1994 he moved to Engineering Technology Center in Connecticut, where he worked on the design and analysis of ship structures as part of a Navy contract. He stayed there until 2001 when he left to form GEM.
Having done his own marketing, run his own projects, and hired and supported his own group at Engineering Technology Center, “I did not see any risk or difference if I opened my own company,” he says.
He started the business with a tiny project from the Air Force through the small business innovative research program, or SBIR, in partnership with Northwestern University.
GEM developed a computational tool to predict damage and failure progression in lightweight, composite materials used in structures like airplanes.
GEM has also developed a tool for Navy ships to predict fatigue and fracture of ship components as well as one to predict the progress of fire and fire-induced damage in a ship compartment. “If there is a fire, the Navy wants to know how long the structure can last before it will collapse and the optimal fire protection system to maximize escape time,” explains Lua.
Lua started his business alone in 2001 and added a partner, Jay Shi, in 2006. Today GEM has six full-time and two part-time employees, and five consultants who work on an hourly basis, as needed. The company has an office in Baltimore, headed by Shi, and a Connecticut office, directed by Dehua Chen, which is GEM’s financial and human resources center.
GEM will probably add two more full-time people by the middle of next year. Lua also is reaching out to Princeton and Rutgers students interested in engineering work to give him a call.
Lua shared three slogans that capture what his company is about: Work for fun; work for knowledge enrichment; and work for personal growth. “A well-balanced professional and family life is the key to enhance our creativity and productivity,” he said. “GEM will do more in the future to invest our resources in employee training and team building.”
Global Engineering & Materials Inc., 1 Airport Place, Suite 1, Princeton 08540; 860-398-5620; fax, 609-924-3999. Jim Lua, senior principal scientist. Home page: www.gem-consultant.com.