More than 10 years ago, two professors and a graduate student at Virginia Tech began tinkering with Global Positioning System technology, trying to find out if the navigation tool could guide a drill inside a factory as well as it guides a submarine under the sea.
Eventually, they took the GPS concept and collapsed it from a global system to a local one, which is employed inside the manufacturing facilities of the biggest airplane, auto and ship builders in the world. As the technology that developed around the GPS has leapt from military to civilian use, it is changing the way companies build their products.
"We help automate things that they didn't think were able to be automated in the past," said Edward R. Barrientos, chief executive of Arc Second, the company that grew from the research done in Blacksburg, Va. Barrientos joined in 1997, and the original researchers remained shareholders.
Like a lot of young tech companies, Arc Second is trying to make money by finding new ways to apply an emerging technology. While much of the GPS market had been claimed by big players in recreational and driving navigation, Arc Second's similar technology was in a niche that had yet to be taken.
The system does not bounce signals off satellites in far-away orbit. Instead, it puts transmitters on the perimeters of a manufacturing plant and attaches sensors to machinery and parts used in the assembly of a product. Lasers are then emitted by the transmitters, and with such close range, the movement of the equipment can be precisely tracked to within a tenth of a millimeter, or about the width of a human hair. When Arc Second's positioning system is hooked into the computer-aided design software used by the manufacturer, machines can follow automated instructions.
So if a bolt needs to be drilled to a specific depth in a specific spot on the nose of an airliner, a machine guided by Arc Second's system can complete the task, rather than a technician.
Arc Second first applied the technology to the construction industry, Barrientos said, but with the encouragement of Boeing Co. revised the system to work in a manufacturing setting in 2003.
Since then, a cadre of big-name manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Lockheed Martin, Airbus and Volkswagen have used the technology, according to Barrientos.
Bombardier Aerospace, a Montreal aircraft manufacturer, has been working with Arc Second to customize the system for constructing its next line of planes. Kornelis Kroon, special adviser of Bombardier's tooling and experimental unit, said Arc Second's technology allows for faster, cheaper manufacturing. "It's amazing, and the whole system is very compact," Kroon said.
The 30-person company, which has raised $20 million in venture funding from Reston-based SpaceVest and CDP Capital of Montreal, won't disclose its financials, but Barrientos said the technology sells for between $50,000 and more than $1 million, depending on the scope of the project.
Barrientos's eyes light up when he talks about what's to come. Engineers at companies such as Honda and Toyota have already begun to use the system to help robotic devices move about their surroundings, he said, a step that could someday lead to the home use of robots.
But for now, it's all about factories. "We simply want to be standard infrastructure in every facility in the world," Barrientos said.
Wartime jargon was flowing freely from the mouths of technologists huddled in conference rooms of the Wardman Park Marriott this week.
They spoke of weapons, plans of attack and the dire costs of defeat.
The enemy? No, not terrorists, exactly. This group's fight is against worms and spyware and hackers and employees who refuse to pick secure passwords.
About 1,500 information security professionals showed up at the conference, sponsored by research group Gartner Inc., to assess the state of the industry and show off the latest and greatest versions of their products.
They say the threat to computers has not abated, and thus, neither has their opportunity to profit.
"It's a long battle ahead because malicious code is an armed and moving target," John Girard, a vice president of research at Gartner, warned a crowd that nodded in agreement.
For every system made secure, they say, there is a new danger lurking out there, waiting to attack an unsuspecting laptop or cell phone. So while the industry has fallen out of the limelight to some extent, the money to ward off such troubles keeps rolling in.
Just ask Carole D. Argo, president of Baltimore-based SafeNet Inc., which sells encryption technology. Her company's revenue jumped to $201.6 million in 2004 from $18.9 million in 1999, and the firm's head count ballooned to almost 900 from 100.
"What we found in 2001 was that more companies became more aware of security threats on their networks," Argo said. "The market is still really growing fast. . . . There is still a lot of demand."
In all, the information security market is expected to total $27.2 billion this year and grow to $52.2 billion by 2008, according to industry research firm IDC.
It's no wonder so many entrepreneurs are eager to join the good (and lucrative) fight.
"I think it's a mistake to say the American dream is being shredded. I think it's more fair to say it's being shared. The question is, do we want to share it?" asked Bruce P. Mehlman, former assistant secretary of the Commerce Department, at a discussion Tuesday evening on the effects of offshore outsourcing. The event, sponsored by IEEE-USA, an industry association for engineers, was held in honor of Ron Hira, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies the issue. The title of Hira's new book, "Outsourcing America: What's Behind Our National Crisis and How We Can Reclaim American Jobs," should tell you where he stands on the issue.
Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.