BY TOM KEYSER
The twin-laser industrial tube cutter goes to work on
a charge holder tube.
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
"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
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
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."