Born with a knack for fixing things, James Corbett, founder and owner of AFAB Enterprises, was the neighborhood kid that built go-karts and fixed everything from radios and TVs to automobiles. "That kind of stuff paid a lot more than mowing yards," he said. After a 30 year career traveling the world and designing instrumentation for Electron Machine Corporation, based out of Umatilla, Corbett identified a need for a low cost refractometer and set out to build one.
He spent about a year developing the instrument and marketing it. His initial price point of $1,000 turned out to be too low. "People are focused on price, but performance is more important," he said. He had enough margin after year two that he was able to double his price and actually saw an increase in sales. He also saw a need to invest in his own machine shop and took out loans and used up his retirement funds to make this happen. It would take a couple years before AFAB Enterprises was profitable, but eventually they were producing different models of refractometers and even utilizing the machine shop to complete interesting projects for a variety of companies.
"I'd say about half of our business is refractometers and the other half is the machine shop," Corbett said. "With the capabilities of our machine shop, we're able to do all sorts of things. We recently made the skeletons for Disney France's new puppet show. We've made titanium heat sinks for Kennedy Space Center. We have many commercial de-icing systems installed at major North American airports. We've manufactured military training aids including guide by wire rockets, bomb simulators, bullets (3') long variety, etc. We are currently making hardware for bullet proof shields. We designed a miniature refractometer probe for an aerospace company. We've made explosion chambers for the leading university in flame propagation studies. There are many antique boat restorers in our area for which we fabricate "cutwaters", gas tanks and antique parts which are no longer available. We do a variety of things from casting parts out of bronze, zinc, etc. to repairing slot machines. We recently ran some studies for an energy research company at -300 degrees F for a refractometer application. Our machine shop even allows us to provide our services to most of the local business as well as individuals."
In case you're not familiar, a refractometer allows those in the pharmaceutical, food, chemical, automotive and many other industries to measure the concentration of dissolved solids in liquids. Uses include measuring the sap concentration in maple syrup, brix levels in orange juice, monitoring Glycol levels in industrial HVAC units and maintaining consistency of taste with soda brands like Coca-Cola. Corbett sells hand-held refractometers as well as in-line units that help you to maintain concentration levels by automatically adjusting the content when certain parameters are reached. AFAB Enterprises is one of only a half dozen major players in the in-line market segment.
As Corbett explained, the business of refractometers is big, broad and the implications of their use is significant. "We consulted with an orange juice company that was looking at tightening up their spec by less than .1 brix," he said. "The payback was less than a week and it would have saved the company $1 million." Other applications have a far more significant, and potentially deadly, impact. "Paper mills create a bi-product (black liquor) that needs to be monitored with two refractometers in a "divert" arrangement. If the concentration of the black liquor gets below 53%, you could be looking at a smelt explosion along with significant damage."
Corbett enjoys running his own business and gets a lot of pleasure out of helping people, but has reached a point where he'd like to get back into R&D and more energy related studies. He's downsizing and selling some of his equipment to start heading in that direction. He plans on staying involved, but after 25 years in business, it's time to step back a bit and focus on less demanding opportunities.