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Thread: Buffo's review of X-laser's operation

  1. #1
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    Thumbs up Buffo's review of X-laser's operation

    Hey everyone;

    Well, I promised you all I'd post a detailed review of X-laser's production facility and their products after I returned from my trip to Washington DC. Unfortunately, with all the hysteria about 445 nm diodes, I've been quite slow to get this review finished. Sorry about that!

    Also, in typical "Buffo" fashion, this is a long post. I know a wall of text is imposing, but I learned an awful lot about X-laser during my visit, and I'd like to share as much of it as possible with the group here. In particular, a lot of unfounded criticism has been directed at X-laser (including some by yours truly), and I want to explain in detail why I now believe that was grossly unfair.

    I'm sure many of you remember that there was considerable controversy surrounding X-laser earlier this year when it was revealed that they would be buying LaserWorld components and selling them here in the US in their projectors. Several people (myself included) were openly skeptical of X-laser's claims that they could guarantee the power and performance of their projectors. In the end, Dan Goldsmith from X-laser offered to give me a tour of his facilities in an effort to ease my concerns, and I accepted his offer.

    Honestly, I only expected this tour to last maybe an hour or so. I already had some deep prejudices about LaserWorld components, and Dan's comments about power measurements gave me even more reasons to be skeptical. I figured that I'd be able to confirm my suspicions in short order, and that would be the end of it.

    Instead, I ended up spending over 5 hours there, and only left after it became clear that I was in danger of missing the last Metro train back to the hotel! During my time there, I was granted unprecedented access to their business. I inspected their assembly area and their testing / burn-in stations. I was allowed to view their customer records, their quality control procedures, and even their internal office memos which outlined goals and strategies. I also spoke at length with Dan and his father Joe about a wide range of topics. And if I had it do do over again, I would have driven my own car over there so I would have had more time to spend with them. They are both good, honest people, and I enjoyed my visit very much.

    Obviously, given the complete and total access I had to their inner business workings, I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. However, Dan was quite lenient with the terms of this NDA, and I do not feel that it restricted this review in any significant manner. I was glad that I was allowed such unrestricted access to their business, and I certainly appreciate that a lot of the knowledge I gained during my visit could be used to unfairly compete with them. Since I have no intention of doing so (or aiding anyone else in doing so), I didn't have any problems signing the NDA.

    So, with the preliminaries out of the way, let's get to the meat of the matter. Just who is X-laser, and what are they trying to do? Well, first and foremost, X-laser is a family business. Dan's background is in theatrical lighting, but he was looking for something more exciting than par cans and dimmers. He's also a laser geek at heart; definitely the sort of person who would fit right in at a Laser Enthusiast's Meeting.

    His father, Joe, was a full-time University Professor (Computer Science) and administrator for many years. Now he is semi-retired. Although he still teaches some, he decided that it would be more fun (and more rewarding) for him to spend time with his son Dan on this endeavor. Thus father and son have worked together to build X-laser from the ground up.

    Early on, they retained the help of several technical people, including lawyers, accountants, and laser safety consultants. Trust me when I say that they have learned a lot from these experts, and while I'm sure it was costly for them, the investment has clearly paid off. It's no big secret that Casey Stack at Laser Compliance Inc has worked closely with X-laser over the past few years to help them with several projects, and his influence is clearly seen in several areas of their business.

    Besides Dan and Joe, they also have two full-time technicians working for them, plus a creative-content guy who works on everything from designs, to shows, to ads, and several other loose ends as well. Then there is an office manager, plus an operations manager. Finally, they also have some part-time / seasonal help in the office now and again. So, while they are still a family business at heart, they're not some disorganized "mom and pop" shop. They're basically organized like your typical small business.

    Their facility is located on the north end of DC, in one of the suburbs. Their facility is surprisingly large, with several rooms sectioned off by purpose. Shipping, receiving, testing, technical work, assembly, inventory storage, sales, and the front office are all separate areas. They even have a demo room where they can showcase their projectors, and they've also used that space to shoot videos of their products for promotional ads. Walking past the front of the building, you'd probably never notice it. Just another old building that was converted to a small business office for some company or another...

    So, what is their business then? Dan likes to say that they are a systems integration company, not a manufacturing company. The distinction here is that they don't build laser modules from scratch. (Or at least not all of them.) Rather, they purchase components from several sources and assemble them into working laser projectors. This allows them to focus more on the end product, and they can react quickly to changes in the market.

    Yet according to CDRH rules, this still classifies them as a laser product manufacturer, and with that classification comes a whole truckload of additional responsibilities (and paperwork). X-laser has an impressive array of procedures in place to meet those responsibilities. But fundamentally, they are not in the business of building laser products completely from the ground up. Rather, they leverage technology from other companies and apply their own expertise to create new (and hopefully superior), finished products.

    The primary market for the laser projectors they sell is one that is not very well represented by the members here on PhotonLexicon. Most of their projectors are sold to mobile DJ companies and small sound and lighting firms here in the US who will operate the projectors via DMX control. (Though they do include ILDA input ports on their projectors as well.)

    Also, the vast majority of the projectors they sell are lower power models (in the under 200 mw category). Generally, a hobbyist here on PhotonLexicon has a projector with two to five times as much output power as the typical X-laser projector. (Though X-laser does sell a few projectors with higher power levels - up to several watts.)

    Another interesting characteristic of their business is that X-laser absolutely refuses to sell any of their Class 3B or Class 4 projectors to anyone who does not already have a laser show variance. This means that even if you are just a hobbyist and have no intention of using the projector in a commercial show, you still must obtain a laser show variance in order to purchase a laser projector from X-laser.

    Why do they insist on this? Because it's the law! Yeah, it was news to me too... But it turns out that CDRH regulations prohibit the sale of class 3B and class 4 laser demonstration products to anyone who does not already have a laser light show variance. Many, *many* other companies choose to ignore this rule, either out of ignorance or malice, but not X-laser.

    The problem, of course, is that the light show variance requirement makes it quite difficult to sell a projector to a new client who hasn't dealt with laser projectors before. It's sort of a chicken-or-the-egg problem. And new customers are a big part of their target market, so X-laser had to figure out how to make this work. Their unique solution is two-fold:

    First, they developed a detailed set of electronic training tools to educate new buyers about laser show safety. These tools are included on a CD-rom that is included with every projector. Also on this CD are copies of various electronic forms, including the light show variance application and the laser show report, along with detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to fill them out correctly and where to file them.

    Second, they have been very careful in selecting and certifying the dealers in their distribution network. (They only sell through dealers; never directly to the public.) Those dealers are then tasked with assisting customers with both the training and the variance application. The end result is that a customer has a local contact who is able to help bring them up to speed on the requirements surrounding the installation and use of a laser projector.

    So when a new customer decides to purchase their first projector, they actually begin the variance application process first. The dealers have controls in place which prevent the sale from being completed before the proper paperwork is filed. The exact procedure is considered to be business-privileged information, and is thus covered under the NDA that I signed, but if you go to one of their dealers, I'm sure you can learn a lot more about the process.

    Of course, all this extra assistance costs money, and this is why a laser projector from X-laser costs a good bit more than something you can buy off E-bay. But you're not getting a variance with that E-bay purchase, are you?

    As an aside, this brings up an inherent problem related to the legal sale of laser projectors on E-bay. Essentially, it's not possible! According to the CDRH, the seller is required to verify that the buyer has a variance before the sale is completed. But according to E-bay's terms-of-service agreement, it is prohibited for the seller to place any additional demands or qualifications on the buyer. Thus, once a buyer wins an auction, the seller is contractually obligated to complete the sale regardless of whether the buyer has a variance or not. But this violates the CDRH regulations! (See the problem?)

    By only selling through their dealer network, X-laser avoids this potential legal trap. The dealers ensure the projectors are only sold to people who have filed the proper paperwork. (In fact, the dealers are frequently involved in the filing process.)

    Then too, getting your variance with your projector adds significant value to the purchase. I suspect this is one of the reasons why many customers are drawn to the X-laser units despite the higher price. Still, that higher cost is another reason why I believe most PhotonLexicon members are not in X-laser's target market. (We tend to be bargain-hunters.)

    Apart from the variance assistance, another item that adds significant value to the X-laser projectors is the detailed quality control system they have in place for all of their products. Each projector is tested *twice* before it ships to a dealer. It is first run through a battery of tests (including several power measurements and a burn-in of the entire package) when it is assembled. Then it is packaged and placed in inventory. Later, when that projector is removed from inventory to be sent to a dealer, it is once again put through the same battery of tests.

    Records are kept on all of these tests, and I was actually allowed unrestricted access to these records during my visit. I only looked back as far as early 2008, but they had records going back much farther than that. I selected several projectors at random and was able to read the entire history of the units. In one case, I found one that had been through both quality control checks and sent to a customer, but then it came back for a warranty repair some months later. It was fixed, re-tested twice, and sent back to the customer within 48 hours!

    In all, I inspected perhaps 15 records out of hundreds that were in the database. In every case, there was detailed information about the projector, down to the name of the technician who performed the tests, notes about the projector itself, serial numbers, customer information, power measurements, and so on... Suffice it to say that I was more than a little impressed with the record keeping! And again, records like this are actually required by the CDRH for all laser product manufacturers. I wonder if American DJ keeps records like this for all of their laser projector products?

    So what about the LaserWorld connection? Well, in the past many people (including me) have openly questioned X-laser about their association with LaserWorld. Yes, it's true that some of the components in the X-laser projectors come from LaserWorld. And Dan is well aware of the problems that many people have had with various LaserWorld products. In fact, X-laser has spent a considerable amount of time on research and development efforts in order to bring some LaserWorld components into compliance with US regulatory standards.

    However, keep in mind the extensive quality control system they have in place. It allows these problems to be identified long before a projector is ever placed into inventory, much less shipped to a customer. Dan and his technicians are also working with LaserWorld to help them improve their product line.

    Many people have said that the best thing about a LaserWorld projector is the case. And when you are considering their low-end projectors, there is some truth to that. But I also saw a 1 watt X-laser "Nocturne" RGB projector that used all LaserWorld diode laser modules, and I have to say that it was *most* impressive. It was using 445 nm for blue and 642 nm for red. The beam quality of this projector was as good as any professional graphics projector I've seen, and the color balance was perfect. But that projector was also a lot more expensive than the low-end stuff you see listed on E-bay.

    I actually brought my Coherent lasercheck with me to take some power measurements, so I tested the output of this RGB projector against the calibrated Coherent LM-10 meter that Dan had. We were within a few milliwatts of each other on each wavelength, and in all cases the projector was performing just slightly over specification.

    Now, this was one of their most expensive projectors, so I wanted to see how the low end compared. They also had a 50 mw green-only projector that I tested with my lasercheck, and it too was producing right at it's rated output. I then asked Dan about power measurements in general, and he showed me the bench sheet used for the part of the quality control test procedure that dealt with laser power.

    While I can't divulge the exact details of that procedure, I can say that I was quite satisfied with it. When X-laser rates a projector for a given power level, you can feel confident that it will be outputting *very* close to that number. Some of you may recall that my earlier position was that plus or minus 10% of rated power would be an acceptable quality standard. While the actual power output quality standard that X-laser has in place is a good deal more complicated than a simple percentage, it ends up producing a narrow range of acceptable power outputs that is almost exactly what I had initially proposed.

    Furthermore, remember that X-laser warranties all of their products. So if it should happen that a projector does develop a problem and power drops for some reason, you can send it back and they will investigate the problem, find the cause, and fix it. That information will then be added to their database, allowing them to immediately determine if a problem with one projector might be something that could affect other projectors.

    Speaking of this database of information, remember that Dan's father Joe was a University Computer Science instructor. The quality control records I've been talking about are all kept on a custom database system that Joe designed and maintains. This system is quite powerful, yet it was easy enough to use that I was able to find my way around after only a few minutes instruction. It is, of course, proprietary to X-laser, as it's gives them a big competitive advantage. The amount of information they have at their fingertips on every projector they have ever sold is amazing.

    So to put the debate to rest, I formerly retract my initial criticism of Dan and X-laser for using LaserWorld components. It's clear that they are committed to producing a quality product, and they have an excellent system in place to catch any possible problems with LaserWorld components that end up being used in their projectors. Furthermore, it is quite possible that in the future we will see an improvement in some of the LaserWorld products as a result of Dan's work with them.

    As an aside, I was surprised to learn that LaserWorld has an entirely separate product line that is far superior to anything I've ever seen from them before. Like car manufacturers, it seems they have an "economy" line and a "luxury" line. Apparently the stuff we've seen on E-bay has been limited to the "economy" line, and that is where they have some quality problems. But their high-end stuff is quite impressive. Many of these high-end components can be found in that 1 watt RGB projector I mentioned earlier. (It's also got a high-end price tag to match, though!)

    In closing, I'd like to say that both Dan and Joe have weathered this public relations storm extremely well. Looking back on some of the things I said about their company, I'm embarrassed by my own words. I think many of us here saw the words "Laser World" and immediately went for the jugular. Dan should be commended for his calm responses to that criticism. He could have defended himself vigorously, as many others typically do, and truthfully he would have been justified in doing so. But instead, he kept a low profile.

    However, despite that low profile, do not make the mistake (as I initially did) of assuming that X-laser has something to hide. Far from it. Since their facility is right in the CDRH's backyard (just across town, remember), they are fully aware that someone from the CDRH could walk in for an inspection at any time. (And this has happened more than once.) So they have a huge incentive to be both compliant and transparent.

    But more importantly, they have their own commitment to safety and regulatory compliance (not to mention quality control), regardless of any perceived threat due to their proximity to the CDRH. They are determined to do things correctly, not because it's the law, but because it's just good business. And based on my findings, they're doing it quite well.

    Adam

  2. #2
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    Thumbs up

    ..............
    Love, peace, and grease,

    allthat... aka: aaron@pangolin

  3. #3
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    Default

    pics?

    15 characters?

  4. #4
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    Wow!

    Adam, that's quite some review, very fair and very balanced. I read it slowly and digested every single word. That's one thing I really like about you, you have the rare ability to admit when you've made a mistake and not try to hide the fact, but rather spend the time and effort to publicly put the record straight.

    I think we've all been guilty in some respect. I admit when I was following the original thread that I was siding with you. However, your review here made for very interesting reading, I try to steer well clear of public arguments on the forum, but I am guilty of quietly forming opinions in my own mind. Following your review I admit i've now eaten a rather large slice of humble pie.

    It would perhaps be a nice gesture to post your review into the original thread so that anyone who visits that can see the natural conclusion to the discussions which took place there.

    Also, I feel X-Laser should, as you so rightly suggest, be congratulated for the way they conducted themselves throughout this whole 'debate'. May I personally take this opportunity to wish them every success for the future.

    Regards

    Jem
    Quote: "There is a theory which states that if ever, for any reason, anyone discovers what exactly the Universe is for and why it is here it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another that states that this has already happened.... Douglas Adams 1952 - 2001

  5. #5
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    Smile

    Quote Originally Posted by flecom View Post
    pics?
    Sorry Frank, no pictures. Due to the NDA, I figured that the assembly areas would be off-limits to cameras, so I didn't bother to bring one. I guess I could have shot some pics with my cell phone of the office areas, but let's face it - if you've seen one office you've seen them all, right?
    Quote Originally Posted by Jem View Post
    Following your review I admit i've now eaten a rather large slice of humble pie.
    Thanks for your comments, Jeremy. And I agree; I had a large plate of crow waiting for me to eat when I returned home.
    It would perhaps be a nice gesture to post your review into the original thread so that anyone who visits that can see the natural conclusion to the discussions which took place there.
    That's a good idea. Rather than double-posting though, I think I'll reply with a summary and a link to this thread for the full review.

    Adam

  6. #6

    Default Thanks Adam!

    I just wanted to post a quick public thanks to Adam for both taking the time to come and visit us during an otherwise very busy trip and even more than that for being a stand up guy willing to view a different system with an open mind. That is a rarity and both I personally and we as a company appreciate the fair shake.

    We really do love what we do and while we are, as Adam alluded to, not really in the same market as most of the folks on PL I do enjoy spending some time here listening and learning.

    You all have a remarkable collective spirit that drives this community and contributes to the vibrancy that is so lacking elsewhere. I have often heard and even used the term "hobbyist" to refer to many folks here who just love working on lasers but I think that the connotation is overly diminutive... I am still looking for something better.

    In any case, thanks again to those who were/are willing to give us a chance - Adam in particular - and I will see if I can't spend a little more time around here helping out where I can.

    Best to all,

    Dan

  7. #7
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    Hey Dan-

    I guess ill be one to personally apologize i guess for jumping to conclusions regarding your practices. I still do stand my ground that i just think the whole Laser beam power measurement "theory" seems to be extremely over complicated, but i trust your reasoning and integrity behind the thought process of it.

    I have said from day 1 that you and your company seem like a straight up, legit company and it looks as if i was correct.

    Congrats on your business success and maybe 1 day we'll find ourselves at a conference together. First beer is on me! (you can get the rest!! )

    I would *LOVE* to hear how the hell you are getting the CDRH to respond to *anything* these days, but hey...i guess that will be a different conversation.

    -Marc
    http://www.laserist.org/images/ildalogos/ILDA-logo_colored-beams_Corporate_150w.jpg

    ILDA- U.S. Laser Regulatory Committee

    Authorized Dealer for:

    • Pangolin Laser Software and Hardware
    • KVANT Laser Modules & Laser Systems
    • X-Laser USA
    • CNI Lasers
    • Cambridge Technology & Eye Magic Professional Scanning Systems

    FDA/CDRH Certified Professional LuminanceRGB Laser Light Show Systems


  8. #8

    Default

    Marc,

    Thanks for that. You're a stand up guy too. And yeah, I will readily concede that it does seem over complicated - and maybe it is a little - but it is the best thing we have found thus far and it will work while we search for ever better.

    CDRH is another story... more on that over the beer. =)

  9. #9
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    Smile

    You know Dan, SELEM is coming up in August, and I'm sure there will be more than a few beers consumed during the pre-SELEM dinner party. Maybe you and Joe could make the trip?

    I know it's a busy time for you, but you'd get a chance to meet some more of the folks from the forum, not to mention all the laser-related fun... I promise you it will be a good time!

    Eh - give it some thought...

    Adam

  10. #10

    Default

    I am actually strongly considering it and have been... It is a nut-so time for us with trade shows and trips but I would love to make if at all possible... stay tuned.

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