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Bedford manufacturer wins Tayloe Murphy Resilience award

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By John Barnhart

    A Bedford manufacturer has won the Tayloe Murphy Resilience Award. This award is sponsored by the Institute for Business in Society at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The award recognizes small businesses.

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     Blue Ridge Optics was selected from one of 13 finalists.
    Blue Ridge Optics, located at the corner of Washington Street and Center Street in Bedford, does not do eyeglasses, so don’t stop by and ask what kind of insurance they accept. They make optics that send laser beams precisely where the engineers, who design equipment, want them to go. Some are made from glass, others from crystals, such as synthetic sapphire. They’re used in defense, medical and industrial applications — anything where lasers are used.
    “We are heavily involved in the defense industry,” said Walter Siehien, Blue Ridge Optics president.
    Some of their optics are out of this world.
    “One of these went into the Mars lander,” Siehien said, pointing to an item in a display case.
    “We have a lot of stuff in space,” added Justin Siehien, his son. Justin Siehien,  the general manager, handles the accounting side. This lets his father be free to oversee the engineering side of the business.
    Blue Ridge Optics buys material and drills cores out of it. These cores are tubes of various sizes and lengths, depending on what sort of device the optic will go in. The ends are then polished. The ends have to be perfectly flat, measured down to the micron level. These surfaces have to be perfectly perpendicular to the axis of the rod. The length of the rod must also be precise, within one one-thousandths of a millimeter.
    They make the optics that are used in the ejection seat systems in jet fighters. Walter said these ejection seat systems blast the canopy clear, then trigger the ejection seat. This system has to work perfectly because a pilot’s life may depend on it.
    The facility gets regular visits from federal inspectors to check up on how they are making the optics and how they do their measurements.
    “We make thousands of these,” Walter said of the optical rods that go in these systems.
    All the optics must be coated and they design multi-layer coatings with a thick,ness of one 20th of the diameter of a human hair. The coating’s design depends on what the optic is supposed to do and they measure the wavelengths of light emitted by the optic, and the power of each wavelength, to make sure they meet specifications. Their coatings can’t have imperfections. Walter said a laser, hitting an imperfection, would burn through the coating.
    Some of their optics handle a lot of power. They did the coating on a sapphire optic for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator (BELLA) that achieved the highest power output ever from a laser. It produced a petawatt of power. That’s one quadrillion watts. It was a very short pulse, one femtosecond long. That’s one quadrillionth of a second. No other laser has produced this much power at such a rapid pulse rate. The laser achieved this amount of power output by compressing a modest amount of power into an extremely short pulse.
    Blue Ridge Optics has been able to prosper on government contracts in spite of the sequester. But, it’s more than that. The compay maintains a precise tracking system on everything that it makes. This helps with quality control because, if anything goes wrong, the problem can quickly be identified and fixed.  It also provides a good estimate on what each item costs them to make. This allows for the products to be priced accurately and helps in determining where the company needs to expand.
    Blue Ridge Optics is International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) certified, which is vital for working with defense contractors. It means the company meets the security standards necessary for the military to send it prints.
    “ITAR will prevent them from going to China,” said Justin.
    Besides, contractors wouldn’t need to go to China for these optics anyway.
    “We can compete with the Chinese market,” he said.
    Being competitive with China-based suppliers is significant because customers in the medical industry are not subject to ITAR.
    The company is aligned with glass manufacturers. As these companies develop new types of glass, Blue Ridge Optics develops ways to polish and coat these new products.
    Another factor is that most of the company’s workers have been hired locally.
    “They work hard,” Justin commented.
    It’s all working. Blue Ridge Optics will soon outgrow its existing facility. The company is expanding into infrared lasers and are setting up a separate division, called Light Speed Infrared to produce these optics.
    Walter Siehien has been in this line of work for 30 years. Although he studied engineering in college, he didn’t finish his degree but, quit in order to go to work. He said there weren’t many formal courses in this field at the time and experience was more important than classroom time.
    Walter started Blue Ridge Optics seven years ago. His brother, who owns the Bedford Social Club, was already here and his sister was also living here at the time, so he came to Bedford to be near family.
    Justin has a business degree from the University of Florida, but said the only thing he got from the degree that is useful was the accounting.
    “I learned most everything from working here,” he said.