Non Destructive Testing

Vibra-Metrics Acquired

Vahaviolos Biography

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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the August 7, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. Minor changes were made on August 8. All

rights reserved.

Keeping an Ear Out for Preventable Accidents

Prevention is certainly the best medicine for oil tanks

that can leak, bridges that can collapse, ships that can sink, and

nuclear power plants that can implode. But how to convince the owners

of these facilities to spend money instead of taking chances? Too

often, they take precautions only after disaster strikes.

"Vessels don’t sink instantly, and bridges don’t collapse right

away," says Sotirios Vahaviolos, the 56-year-old founder of


Holdings on Clarksville Road. "The worst thing about our business

is that people try to use us only after an accident. Accidents can

be prevented."

Vahaviolos (pronounced va-ha-vee-o-lows) is in the prevention


Raised on an olive tree farm near Sparta, Greece, he has a zest for

life and an energy for innovation. He emigrated to the United States

to study engineering, worked with leading researchers at Bell Labs,

and, at age 32, started his own firm, Physical Acoustics, to use sound

for monitoring metal fatigue. To accomplish growth, Vahaviolos had

to wrest control of the company from his venture capitalist investors,

restructure the firm to be employee-owned, and gradually add new


and techniques, all while focusing on family and team spirit. For

example: At company meetings in Sparta, Greece, this robust CEO leads

traditional Syrtaki folk dances.

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Non Destructive Testing

With outposts in Paris, Cambridge, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires,

Delft, Moscow, Athens, and Beijing, Vahaviolos has the one of the

largest companies in the world to do nondestructive testing (as


to stressing, destroying, and then analyzing a sample of the product).

Of his 300 employees, half are engineers who use a variety of


and services to stave off disasters around the world. He recently

bought another company, Vibra-Metrics. Annual revenues are about $30

million. "We never thought locally," says Vahaviolos.

Workers are on duty around the clock on Clarksville Road and around

the globe, monitoring structural integrity in real time via the


to protect bridges, oil tanks, and power plants against damage caused

by time and weather. Just which bridges are being monitored is kept

confidential, so as not to arouse public anxiety. The company also

monitors railroad cars, tank lines, offshore welding platforms, and


"What we are trying to do with all of our systems is to predict

when a piece of machinery or structure will fail, so we can repair

it before it reaches that failure," says Vahaviolos. "Humans

make mistakes, and without monitors we get nervous."

Mistras has a plethora of products and services, too many to explain,

but Vahaviolos summarizes them all with medical metaphors. "It’s

like when the doctor takes your blood pressure," he says,


an imaginary cuff around his arm and squeezing an imaginary pump.

"Materials under stress give abnormal sounds. The doctor uses

a stethoscope to look for the extra beats of your heart. Or, when

you go on a treadmill, you stress your heart, and that shows up on

the echocardiogram. When they inject thallium, and you exercise, the

thallium spreads all over your body." He takes a pencil and tries

to bend it. It doesn’t snap. "But you can bet that fibers have

been broken."

Each example relates to a Mistras technology. For instance, for butane

tanks, Mistras instruments apply 10 percent more pressure than is

usual under operating conditions. Onsite engineers can note the


or software can transmit the results over the Internet. Proprietary

software, called NOESIS, can look at the signals and make automatic

decisions. "If the applications are difficult, not black and


we use pattern recognition and neural networks to develop expert


to make go/no go decisions," says Vahaviolos. "Some call this

artificial intelligence."

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Vibra-Metrics Acquired

His most recent acquisition, Vibra-Metrics, adds


equipment to an already impressive technology repertoire: acoustic

emission, ultrasonic, and eddy current testing. The acquisition


six people for a total of 100 at Clarksville Road.

Using vibration signals to determine a machine’s condition,


does lower frequency vibration monitoring. For instance, a single

cable can listen to motors in a coal plant and, using the Internet,

inform the operator what is happening, so it can be fixed.


systems are located in hospitals, pharmaceutical research facilities,

and plastic-film manufacturing facilities. One of its larger systems,

located in Illinois, monitors vibration inside containment vessels

of nuclear generating stations. These systems cost from $25,000 to


Another component of Mistras is NDT (Non Destructive Testing), which

contributes PC-based ultrasonic inspection systems to the lineup.

Quality Services Laboratories, based in Trainer, Pennsylvania, offers

an inspection and service component. Physical Acoustics does research

and conducts a full schedule of training classes, both on Clarksville

Road and worldwide. NOESIS is based in Greece.

Greeks are individualistic thinkers, says Vahaviolos, and it may have

been inevitable that, after 15 years, he and the venture capitalists

parted ways. "In 1994 their goals and ours were different,"

he says. It’s not that he does not encourage participatory decision

making, but he does require that his cohorts be steeped in company

knowledge. "At Bell Labs, we made decisions with other people,

but with people who know the industry." He kindly says that the

venture capitalists were working on too many deals at once to be


decision makers. They wanted to dramatically expand instrument sales,

but Vahaviolos wanted to focus on providing service. "It takes

a lot of thinking to decide on one of our applications, and I didn’t

want to be second guessed."

In guaranteeing the buyout, he took a huge risk and credits John


now with PNC Bank, formerly with Nation’s Bank in Baltimore, with

working out the loan. Vahaviolos’ vision proved correct. His chief

clients, the petrochemical companies, are downsizing, and they want

to outsource their inspection business.

"Since 1995 it has been very fun — growing the business and

having our ideas drive the business," says Vahaviolos. In 1996

he bought his current 50,000 square-foot headquarters, formerly


by Zoltan Kiss’s Chronar. Believing that exercising for health is

essential, he equipped an exercise room, installed men’s and women’s

showers, tables for pool and ping pong, and a soccer field. Group

executive meetings in Greece start with a morning climb from the


farm to the Mistras castle and end with Syrtaki dancing at a nightclub

in Sparta, all documented by photos on the company’s website.

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Vahaviolos Biography

A down-to-earth person, Sotirios Vahaviolos stands a

hearty six foot two and brooks no pretension. His second-floor office

is modestly decorated with Greek memorabilia, Byzantine icons, and

company mementos, including the two-headed bird logo of the holding

company, Mistras. It can be found at the 1203 Byzantine castle and

monastery that stand adjacent to the Vahaviolos family’s 300-acre


"I am a farmer at heart," says Vahaviolos. "I have always

loved to grow trees." His late father had been a butcher, but

the family had always had an orchard, and he learned to graft the

young plants when he was young. Now he and his wife live in Princeton,

and they have three daughters and two grandchildren, but his heart

remains in Greece. His older brother owns a hotel there, and his


daughter manages the Athens office of Mistras.

Every Greek should be conversant in the Byzantine music, he believes.

It is inextricably associated with Greek culture and religion.

Whenever possible

he sings in the Byzantine choir at St. George Greek Orthodox Church.

He prefers to be called by his full first name, Sotirios, rather than

a shortened version, because the first part of the name represents

the Transfiguration of Christ (celebrated on August 6 in the Greek

Orthodox calendar) and the last part, "ios," means "He

who was saved."

His experience in the United States did not start out well. Though

had won a scholarship to Columbia University, there was a war in


that year, and he could not leave in time to start the semester. He

lost the scholarship. Three months after the semester started, he

was able to enroll at Fairleigh Dickinson instead. "God bless

Fairleigh Dickinson, which allowed me to take an exam to finish in

3 1/2 years," he says. He graduated in 1970, and Bell Labs


his PhD in electrical engineering and a masters in philosophy from

Columbia University, and he worked in the Carter Road labs until 1978.

As a junior engineer he was intrigued by the problem of how to get

asynchronous signals from noise. The telephone company had a problem

when it manufactured semiconductors, because it was able to get only

60 to 70 percent yield. He was the first to use acoustic monitoring

to detect cracks in silicon chips at Bell Labs.

"Every material cries under stress," was the mantra for


mentor, Warren P. Mason, a Bell Labs researcher who did original work

in general acoustics along with Nobel prize winner William Shockley.

The other well-known physical acoustics scientist was R.W. Steffens of

the United Kingdom, who served as the mentor of Adrian Pollock, who

also works at Mistras Holdings.

"Under stress, materials give you warning signals," Vahaviolos

says. One famous case was the fatal highway bridge failure in


in the mid 1980s. "Months before that bridge collapsed, the


were hearing abnormal sounds." Similarly, savvy skiers pay


to deer running downhill because they can hear snow cracking before

an avalanche starts. Some of the latest monitoring techniques involve

ultrasound, which has been developed to a far greater degree in the

engineering world than it has in the medical world.

"The best engineering schools in America are not the Columbias and


he says, "the best schools are Bell Labs and Thomas Watson


Laboratory. Professors at a university are allowed to dream, at Bell

Labs and IBM you learn and practice the difference between reality and


Bell Labs is different now, he admits. "Back in the old days it

was like a campus. You could find an enormous amount of money to do

research if you had a concrete idea."

"Before the breakup the old AT&T was the greatest company ever

created," says Vahaviolos. "It paid for my education and made

me a better person. But you could not survive there if you were a

loner — they wanted team players. I wanted to create a more nimble

Bell Labs — to make decisions more quickly, without all the


and be more market driven."

It wasn’t until Vahaviolos solved a water leak in the olive orchard’s

pipeline that his company gained credibility with Vahaviolos’ late

father, who would have preferred for his son to be a university


His father was even more impressed when Mistras personnel were the

first on the scene after the disaster at Chernobyl. Vahaviolos says

he was not worried about post-event radiation exposure at the site,

though he did warn his mother to destroy or scrub everything in the

garden because of the contaminated rain blowing southwestward.

The reason for the disaster, he explains, was arrogance. Design


refused to build the cement containment walls that were able to


damage at Three Mile Island. And it was not monitored. "If we

were monitoring it, we would have noticed the leakage and would have

fixed it," he says. Now virtually all the nuclear power plants

have installed monitoring equipment that Mistras has made under its

own label or for General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, ABB, or

the French firm Framatome.

Vahaviolos has built his career and his company on analyzing what

sounds a material makes when it is ready to fail. "That worries

the hell out of me when I fly," he says. "I hear all the


of the airplane, and I get nervous."

MISTRAS Holdings Group/Physical Acoustics Corp.,

195 Clarksville Road, Princeton Junction 08550. 609-716-4000; fax,

609-716-0706. E-mail:

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