Terri-Jane Yuzda


The Perfect Cut
The twin-laser industrial tube cutter goes to work on a charge holder tube.

LRI's Star Laser Cutting System Owes Existence to Junior Partner

Freelance Columnist

Even a well-seasoned, senior professional can learn a few new tricks from a young pup. Consider Dr. Elmer Brooker, P.Eng. He learns almost daily from his gifted protege and junior partner at LRI Oil Tools Inc. in Edmonton. In fact, Dr. Brooker adds as he flashes a grin, perhaps the company's award-winning laser tool should be known as the RB Rotary Laser Cutting Sytem.

Why RB?

"For Ralf Bonkowski, P.Eng.," says the genial chairman and founder of the seven-year-old manufacturing company.

Mr. Bonkowski is only 33, less than half the age of Dr. Brooker. But the chairman gives the younger engineer credit for developing the $600,000 twin-laser industrial tube cutter. It's a piece of machinery that helped LRI earn a Canadian Innovation Award for New Technology, presented last year by the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Mr. Bonkowski, Dr. Brooker, and his son, LRI president Ian Brooker, believe their private company is emerging from the fiscal wilderness, after a lean 2002. Much of the credit belongs with this exciting tool.

LRI's Edmonton production facility has been so busy, in fact, that employees have been working triple shifts to meet oil industry demand for laser-cut charge holder tubes and perforated guns.

Thanks to Mr. Bonkowski's developmental work, the partners have hit on an ideal commercial application for laser technology - a technology Dr. Brooker once called "an answer looking for a problem."

By carving precise, laser-cut patterns in tubular charge-holders (housed within the exterior casings of perforating guns), LRI is helping its customers in the oil-servicing industry squeeze maximum efficiency from the shaped explosive charges they use for oilwell completion.

A perforating gun detonates these charges, creating a pressure wave that shoots like a bullet into subterranean rock. "It can punch holes from one inch to 30 or 40 inches into rock," Mr. Bonkowski says.

The holes cut to house the charges used to be hacked out by a saw. It was a time-consuming, awkward process, and it severely limited the potential of these useful guns.

Enter the rotary laser-cutting technology that's served the LRI partnership so well. It had its genesis within the provincially subsidized Alberta Laser Institute, back in the mid-1990s.

Dr. Brooker, a past president of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and a former vice-chair of the University of Alberta Board of Governors, was the institute's chairman at the time. Mr. Bonkowski, meanwhile, came to the institute as a summer student pursuing a U of A engineering physics degree.

At the time, the oil tool industry was almost desperate in its need for perforating gun improvements, Dr. Brooker recalls. "At the institute, Ralf and his colleagues demonstrated how they could focus a laser beam on a metallic tube, then manipulate the tube under the beam. The industry got pretty excited about it."

That euphoria was tempered by the province's decision to dismantle the Alberta Laser Institute. Ultimately, the Brookers invited young Ralf Bonkowski to help them develop the laser-cutters for commercial use.

Since incorporating as Laser Ray Inc. in 1996, the three partners have invested between $3 million and $4 million (including real estate costs) in the enterprise, Dr. Brooker estimates. Like all start-ups, they struggled through an inevitable series of wrong turns and setbacks.

But today, LRI has the capacity to produce about 75 per cent of Alberta's perforating guns and their charge holders. Dr. Brooker says revenues could even reach $6 million in the coming year.

And much of the credit is due to the junior partner and his unique split-laser tube cutter. This innovative machine incorporates linear-induction motors and splits the beam from a single laser generator into two sets of cutting optics.

Result: twice the production.

"It took Ralf almost two years before he'd agree to release it for commercial work," said Dr. Brooker, complimenting his youthful partner's professionalism. Dr. Brooker is also proud that the company has achieved so much on private capitalization.

"I've always believed in the entrepreneurial, risk-taking side of things," Dr. Brooker concludes with a broad wink. "Having said that, it's time for a vacation."

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