CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Shane Woody and Bethany Lamy met as graduate students in the precision metrology program at UNC Charlotte, sparks flew. That led not just to marriage, but also to a company with the potential to radically change an array of manufacturing processes — at the microscopic level.

InsituTec (from the Latin, “in process”) is using nanotechnology to develop a probe that can enter the holes in a car’s diesel injector and image the interiors. These holes — through which fuel is sprayed into the engine – are a mere 75 microns in diameter, and no one has been able to look inside them to see what they look like.

“If you can see inside them, you can understand the manufacturing process better, improve it, and so lower emissions,” Shane Woody said. “This probe will be able to get into these cavities and measure things that have never been measured before.”

InsituTec has been able to overcome what has been the probe’s biggest drawback — its tendency to stick to the inside of the hole.

The probe can be applied to manufacturing in other fields, such as the aerospace industry (Bethany’s expertise).

“There are no comparable tools that can do this,” Shane said. “And without measurement tools, you’re doing things blindly.”

Shane said the company needs to conduct an analysis of the potential size of the market for the nano-probes, but noted that a comparable firm in the United Kingdom does about $130 million a year in business.

The probe — called a standing wave probe – is seven microns wide and four millimeters long. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and it takes 1,000 of them to make a micron. A human hair is 50-70 microns wide.) Shane described the probe as a long and skinny fiber that is an electronic sensor which sends data points to a computer, where software reconstructs what the inside of the hole looks like. Insitu Tec has received a U.S. patent for the probe and is applying for European patents as well.

Shane said another potential use of the probe is measuring the inside of foil cooling holes used to cool the turbine blades in big planes such as the Airbus. It may also be particularly useful in the manufacture of miniature surgical tools and other medical devices, now in great demand because of the increased use of non-invasive medical procedures.

InsituTec was founded in 2001 when the Woodys, mechanical engineers, were still students. (They earned their PhDs last May.) Last year, they received a $75,000 Phase I SBIR (Small Business Innovative Research) grant with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The company is now waiting on word about a Phase II grant, which will enable it to complete the commercialization process. Last month, it received a $25,000 NC IDEA grant, which will be used for business development, including the European patent applications, market surveys, appearances at trade shows, and the services of marketing consultants.

Shane said commercialization of the standing wave probe is about 18 months away, when it will become available in a modular format that can be adapted to pre-existing measurement equipment. Eventually, InsituTec will partner with larger firms to create a complete machine.

In the meantime, to create a revenue stream, InsituTec will begin offering measurement services to provide engineered data to clients within the next six to eight months. Shane said they already have clients who have requested this service. After renting space at UNCC’s Charlotte Research Institute, the company now leases its own lab off-campus, but will return to UNCC for this work. “We must have a temperature-controlled lab to make these kinds of measurements,” he said.

Shane is now working full-time with InsituTec, as is a third partner, Marcin Bauza, another UNCC PhD in precision metrology. Bethany is doing post doc work. “I had a passion for science, and from the get-go as a student I realized the work I was doing could be commercialized,” Shane said. “I’m from Hickory, and I wanted to start a business here. Doing it under the umbrella of the Charlotte Research Institute was a nice way to do it.”

Local IT Hiring on the Rise

According to a survey of Charlotte area companies by Robert Half International, Inc., 9 percent of chief informational officers (CIOs) plan to add staff during the third quarter, while 1 percent plan to reduce staff. This 8 percent net increase is up from the 7 percent predicted for the third quarter of 2005 and the second quarter of this year. Nationally, 10 percent of CIOs are predicting hiring increases for the upcoming quarter. Local results are based on a random sample survey of 200 CIOs from area companies with 100 or more employees.

Job Change

Larry Ferguson, who has spent most of his 20-plus years in the IT industry as president of First Data Health Systems Corp. and its predecessor companies, has been named chief executive of First Consulting Group, a California IT company in the health-care sector.

He will remain in Charlotte in this new position.

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