One of the founders of LaserM was James Portman, who after completing his MSc in Electronics at UCT, joined Armscor, working on a laser-based missile programme.
Changes in the defence industry in the early '90s saw a failed attempt to commercialise this laser technology but Portman persevered and developed the technology further with a family-based business being established in 1993 with the first lasermeter for level measurement developed by the company being the LM1.
The company was first registered under the name Coherent Laser Systems, but as this clashed with the name of a US-based laser manufacturer the name was later changed to Laser Measurement (LaserM) during 1996. LaserM has been the recipient of numerous SABS design and prototype awards, has been listed as a Technology Top 100 company several times, and won the President's SME export award during 2001. LaserM itself now sponsors an SABS innovation award.
The company exploited a niche for the use of low power 'eye-safe' lasers for measurement. The advantage of these 905 nm diode laser-based systems is low cost, measurement at the speed of light with a narrow beam, while being user-friendly and completely safe. Their prowess in this niche market was further recognised during 2001 when they formed a partnership with the US-based K-Tek. While by this time LaserM had penetrated the Australian and Canadian markets, K-Tek with its international distribution arm, opened up huge new markets for the local company.
The current product line produced by the company includes the LM4C, the LM02, PIXIE+, LM200 and the SSXP. During 2004, a dust ignition proof version of the LM200 was released as well as an explosion-proof version of the SSXP. All of the devices can be programmed using a digital RS232 interface to optimise performance under operating conditions and for the application. This programming is carried out using a laptop or PC, or using a handheld programmer. Parameters that can be changed include operating range, update rate, averaging and filtering. Minimum range varies from 0 to 0,5 m with maximum range varying according to the model from 10 m (PIXIE+) to 1400 m (LM 1500). Update rate is between once and five times per second and the analog output is the 4-20 mA industry standard. As the infrared diode laser used for measurement is invisible, alignment can be carried out using a visible laser pointer. Input voltage is typically 24 V d.c. but some instruments are available with an optional 220 V a.c. or 110 V a.c. built-in power supply module.
Locally, the greatest demand for the lasermeter has come from the mining industry applications (although there have been recent breakthroughs in terms of the food and beverage industry) and as an example, by 1999, De Beers had already installed almost two hundred meters at its Orapa diamond mine. In the mining industry, applications include level sensing in bins, positioning of conveyors/tripper cars, height control, level control in crushers, movement detection, anti-collision of overhead cranes, block chute detection and positioning of machinery. Internationally, more diverse industries have found uses for the lasermeter, and in the US for example it is in widespread use in the iron and steel and chemical industries. Another major success in Europe and the US has seen some of the largest plastics manufacturers converting to the technology for level control in all their storage and blending silos. It is expected that process engineers in a wide variety of other industries, including pulp and paper, food processing, petrochemical, cement, agriculture and biotech, will be able to make use of the lasermeter with all its advantages, for the measurement of the level/height of materials in large containers and storage areas.
LaserM intends to continue to develop new products and to tailor existing instruments to meet the differing needs of other countries. K-Tek will continue to distribute the company's products worldwide. LaserM is the only manufacturer of laser-based industrial measurement instruments in the southern hemisphere and appears to have established a global market niche with its products standing up to harsh industrial environments. While the LaserM systems are all locally-manufactured the company claims to export up to 80% of its production.