The word “wireless” often raises mental images of millions of invisible messages rushing through the air from one cell phone, computer, or tablet, to another. But wireless has only a fraction of the bandwidth of fiber-optic cable, which can carry 10 million simultaneous calls.
As a result, most of our communication, whether video or audio, occurs underground through tiny clear filaments of fiber-optic cable about the size of a human hair — buried in the earth or under the ocean. Traditional copper telephone wire can carry at most two phone calls.
Today fiber-optic technologies have found their way to many different applications, including taking photographs of the inside of human blood vessels, monitoring stress on windmill blades, and transforming balloons into cell towers.
Princetel, which has recently expanded and moved from Reed Road to an entirely green 41,500-square-foot facility at 2560 East State Street Extension in Hamilton, has found its own niche in this expanding industry. As a result it has been growing about 50 percent per year over the last half decade or so. Founded with a handful of employees in 2000, Princetel today has 31 employees at its Hamilton facility and five more at a sales office in China.
Princetel’s primary product is a fiber optic rotary joint, which captures optical information from whirling fiber optic cables and enables it to move toward its destination.
To explain this product, chief executive officer Barry Zhang uses a plastic toy replicating the fiber optic rotary joint. The toy was created on his manufacturing floor with a dedicated machine that lays down single layers of ABS, an industrial plastic, one on top of another, until the desired shape is complete.
This toy has a spinning piece with four compartments, each of which represents the tip of a twirling fiber-optic cable. But when a person looks at the spinning section through an eyepiece, it appears to not be moving.
So how can it be moving on one side, but appear still on the other? In an actual rotary joint, light flows from spinning fiber optic cables into a gap — an air space — where a complex set of optics “stops” the motion optically. “This is possible with light,” says Zhang, “but you can’t do it with electricity, which would simply stop with an air gap.”
One area Princetel has been focusing on is the renewable energy market and, in particular, wind turbines. These have very large blades that are always under severe stress, and embedded fiber-optic sensors provide information about any parts that are in trouble or need care.
As is also true of airplane wings, fiber-optic cables are embedded in the blades of the windmills to send vital data to operators. For windmill blades, two fiber optic cables do the trick. Zhang’s rotary joint captures the information from the fibers on the windmill blades and optically channels it through a gap at the end of the blade and down the shaft.
Princetel’s rotary joints are also used in a new medical procedure where a spinning fiber-optic catheter is inserted through a blood vessel in a patient’s thigh to locate a possible clog by taking a picture of the inside of the blood vessel wall. This information tells the doctor exactly where to send a balloon during an angioplasty.
Because blood vessels are so tiny, anything approaching a normal camera would be too big. Instead the fiber spins at a high speed, capturing a single pixel at a time. After it completes a full turn, giving it a picture of a “slice” of the blood vessel wall, it moves forward and captures the next slice. Because it is moving so fast, the picture can be reconstructed by a computer and viewed as a live video in real time by the physician.
These fiber-optic images also allow the physician to see a fraction of a millimeter beyond the vessel wall and view any tissue changes under the surface. Princetel’s product — about the size of the cap of a pin — allows the fiber to spin at high speed and send information back to the computer.
Another use of the rotary joint — important particularly in the military — is with blimps that are used as cell phone, television, radio, or radar towers and tethered to the ground via multiple fiber-optic cables.
“This is a very powerful monitoring station for the military and is being used in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Zhang. “You have a pair of eyes in the sky.” The data travels down the cable at high speed to the rotary joint that connects it with the cable reel on the ground.
This type of application might also be useful in a poor country where it is difficult to build permanent infrastructure. “You can raise a balloon over a city, and all the city can be covered by cell phones,” says Zhang.
This is exactly what was done after Katrina, where giant airborne blimps carrying communications gear were connected to the ground by fiber-optic cable with rotary joints, turning them into temporary transmission towers. Although Zhang cannot be perfectly sure that the rotary joints were his, he thinks it is highly likely since all tethered aerostat (balloon) makers use Princetel’s fiber rotary joints.
Other uses for the rotary joints are in submarines and with robots used for military purposes or to explore the ocean to find oil and gas.
Another Princetel product, a combiner, combines four different lasers into one fiber. It was created for a medical product that detects brain oxygen levels — a vital sign during surgery — via a sensor on the patient’s forehead.
Princetel also collaborates with partner companies to make electrical slip rings that match its standard rotary joints to satisfy the need for power in some applications.
Finally, Princetel makes polishing machines, although this has not been a particular focus for the company. Once a fiber is cut, it has to be polished, just like glasses, so that the beam will come out. Polishing machines may be used, for example, when Verizon pulls fiber from the curb to a house and has to cut the fiber.
Zhang has a very cool idea for the future. He has hired a commercial pilot to build a small helicopter that will hold a high-definition camera to feed live HD videos for broadcasting purposes. “In the future you may see it used by ABC or CBS showing a sports game or event,” he says. “It will have a fiber tether — like flying a kite, but the string is a piece of fiber and at the end of the fiber is a camera. Suddenly your camera can fly.”
Currently such a broadcast must be recorded and then broadcast, but this new product would allow live broadcasting. Zhang thinks it might also have military applications. It is small and light, only three feet wide, and much quieter than a helicopter. It can also be folded and stored in a box that is easily carried. When ready for use, it will pop open and fly.
The military provides about half of Princetel’s total business. It has more data and higher security needs than the commercial sector and wants each distinct channel of signals to be on a dedicated fiber.
Where one fiber might carry 10 million telephone conversations between Trenton and Philadelphia, the military might need 50 fibers in a single facility, one going to each of 50 buildings.
Both the company’s physical environment, which the company chose to make renewable and sustainable, and its personnel policies reflect Zhang’s philosophy, which is “to have a nice place for people to work and to treat everyone fairly and equally, whether they are employees, customers, or vendors.” The reasoning behind his approach is very straightforward. “If you cut throats, everyone wants to cut yours too,” he says.
It is not surprising, then, that even when the company first opened its doors and had employees that could be counted on one hand, all of them had health coverage. Perhaps more unusual in today’s business environment of advanced workaholism is Zhang’s embrace of the eight-hour workday.
“Day to day, I do not ask my employees to offer additional hours without pay,” he says. “We had straight work hours from day one, and have never required our engineers to burn the midnight oil.”
Initially Zhang had to actually convince his employees — a quarter of whom are engineers and 50 percent manufacturers — that leaving at 5:30 p.m. was okay. Because people felt that they shouldn’t leave until the boss did — despite his efforts to tell them this was not so — he himself had to go home at 5:30 p.m..
“It took years before people finally realized, ‘Yes he is serious,’” he says, and today he may stay until 7 p.m. without anyone else feeling pressured to do so.
The advantages he sees in the shorter hours are that his employees find it easier to focus and do not have to contend with the gnawing worry about exactly when work will be done that day.
“If you don’t know whether you will leave at 7:30, 8, 9, it is a very long day and a very draining kind of employment for anyone,” says Zhang. “Over time it is going to take a toll.” Zhang’s employees know that they will be able to pick up their kids on time and that they will be able to take part in evening activities.
“It has worked out,” he says, “because it is so easy and so low stress that people stay. We’ve been around since 2000, and never had a single employee leave us.” This steady employment makes it easier to run the company. “We don’t have to deal with retraining, loss of intellectual property, and disgruntled employees,” says Zhang.
Another unique quality of Princetel is that, although it sells in India and China, it has elected to have its manufacturing done here, despite the higher cost. Because its products are so innovative and creative, Princetel’s customers are willing to pay a high price for them. “We offer something so high on the food chain, it is very difficult for anyone else to copy; we make a product so advanced that it has the market value and everyone is willing to pay for it.”
The selling price for these rotary joints depends on several variables. Since the company’s founding, it has sold about 1,000 rotary joints, which have ranged in price from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars, based on the number of fibers, their size, and their function.
The only customization required is the type of connector needed at the end of the fiber and the fiber’s length. “Beyond that it is almost standard,” says Zhang, “but we don’t build until we have an order because there are so many choices.”
Another advantage of Princetel’s U.S. location is that its customers “get the quality, service, quick shipment, and access to the manufacturing and engineering crew, which they wouldn’t if they were manufactured in China.” Finally, by doing its work efficiently and automating its process, Princetel has been able to keep its pricing competitive.
About 70 percent of Princetel’s customers are in the United States and the rest are in about three dozen countries with the most advanced economies — in Europe, India, China, Japan, South America, and the Middle East.
Princetel has two principal competitors, both larger than it is. Moog makes a similar product, but does not offer as wide a selection. Schleifrang, also larger than Princetel, is located in Germany, far from many of Princetel’s customers.
Explaining why customers might choose Princetel’s products over those of its competitors, Zhang says, “Our product is more available. We have a shorter lead time than our competitors.” Whereas customers of the competition may have to wait as long as four months for a product, Princetel can ship in a few weeks. Zhang adds that Princetel’s products are more varied, perform better, and cost less, although he does not have figures on the precise amount.
Zhang attributes his company’s growth to two factors: first, it is taking some market share from its two competitors, and, second, the market itself is growing because fiber is a relatively new product.
The initial funding for Princetel came from Zhang’s own savings. He has never had any outside financing, and the company is well funded with a positive cash flow — although it was not until its fifth year, 2005, that it first broke even.
Princetel did secure a bank loan to support the work on its building, but the loan did not come through until construction was done. As a result, says Zhang, Princetel has some money in the bank for proverbial rainy days.
Solis Partners created Princetel’s system of 932 solar panels, which are expected to produce approximately 223,182 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the first year of operation. This equates to the reduction of more than 339,284 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, which is the equivalent of offsetting the power demand of 19 residential homes or removing 30 cars from the road each year.
Princetel purchased the property in 2010. The Environmental Protection Agency had categorized it as a brownfield, and Princetel had to undertake major site remediation during which soil from the 3.2-acre lot was removed and replaced, including the soil from underneath the building.
Princetel is now applying for a LEED gold certification for its new building, which has multiple sustainable features. Using the solar panels installed on its roof, Princetel is currently consuming only a quarter of the power it is producing. Interestingly its tubular-shaped panels are from Solyndra in California, and Princetel managed to buy them right before the company went bankrupt and became a talking point in the current presidential campaign. The roof itself is heavily insulated.
For flushing toilets and irrigating its garden, the company installed a 10,000-gallon rainwater harvesting system.
All the flooring, including the carpet, is made from recycled materials. The walls sport nontoxic, low-outgassing paint, which had no new-paint smell.
Lighting was also carefully planned. There are high-efficiency light fixtures on the manufacturing floor, and the lights are motion-controlled, shuting off when people leave a room. The parking lot has LED lights, and in the future Princetel is going to have a charging station for electric cars.
The high-efficiency HVAC system, called a dedicated outdoor air system, uses 100 percent fresh air and captures energy — in the form of heat in the winter and cold in the summer — as dirty air leaves the building. The system is gas fueled. The water heater is solar.
Zhang grew up in Beijing, China, where his father was a district school superintendent and his mother a high school principal. He learned English in high school, in the mid-1970s, by listening to the radio. “My accent is from the Voice of America,” he says.
After earning a master’s degree in physics from Tsinghua University in Beijing, he came to the United States, studying briefly at the University of Houston, where he met his future wife, Bonnie Liao. He then went to Princeton University, where he earned a doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering, focusing particularly on fluid mechanics and laser diagnostics.
His children, ages 17 and 16, are at the Lawrenceville School. His wife, who has a doctorate in physics and formerly worked in operations research at Merrill Lynch, has started and operates two Chinese schools, YingHua Language School, a supplementary weekend school, and YingHua International School, a small non-profit private school with 40 students.
She has also been involved in a Mandarin language charter school — Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) — that has received approval but is still trying to identify a location. Zhang’s brother in Beijing is running the Chinese division of PrinceTel, which employs five people.
Zhang got his PhD in 1994 — “two recessions ago,” he notes. In part because he was finding it impossible to get a job but also because he is a “risk-taking type of a guy,” he decided to start his own business. “Most people study how to open a business by going to school,” he says. “I went to school in a technical field and started learning to run a company while running it.”
That company was Princeton Optics, which developed lasers and other optics programs for Princeton University, various research firms, the National Institutes of Health, and just about anyone who needed optics or lasers. He worked there for five years, then in 1998 sold the company to a larger firm, Audio Development Company (ADC), a Minnesota-based supplier of transmission and networking systems. He sold it because he did not know how to grow it bigger. “It had about six people, and I didn’t know what to do to make the business more successful. We were losing money — we never made a single dollar in a sale, and selling the company was the only time the company could make some money.”
He left ADC after it moved back to Minnesota and started working for Optellios, which also made fiber-optic components. When that company downsized in 2003 and moved to Langhorne, Pennsylvania, after a market downturn, he went to Princetel as a consultant. “It was started by a friend, but they were losing money and not doing well at all,” recalls Zhang. Eventually he assumed some of the debt from the founder, Kainan Tang, and bought the firm. Because component companies were dying right and left, Zhang decided to try something completely different. He created the concept for the rotary joints — although he did not do market research, he felt like it had the potential to be a good market — and a mechanical engineer did the design.
Even today Zhang’s market research mostly involves talking to his customers and finding out what they need. He says, “That’s where ideas come from — communication with the customer.”
For the next three to five years, Zhang would like to continue to grow at the current rate, reaching employment of 100 people. “To me, the larger the company, the easier it is for the CEO,” he says. In small companies CEOs have their hands in many areas — marketing, sales, web, product design, and management. When Princetel gets bigger, he expects his own responsibilities to narrow as he has to wear fewer hats. “When we had four people was when I was the busiest,” he says. “I had to do everything.”
Zhang’s primary goal is to have a responsible operation. “Whether it’s the employees, lenders, customers, or the environment,” he says, “do things responsibly so you can succeed without compromising any principles, or sacrificing the environment, or jeopardizing employees’ welfare. The green building is part of this main philosophy and drive.”
Princetel Inc., 2560 East State Street Extension, Hamilton 08619; 609-895-9890; fax, 609-895-9552. Barry Zhang, president. www.princetel.com.