Things break. Forbes magazine says breakage costs American manufacturers $30 billion a year in warranty payments. If manufacturers could predict breakage and adjust warranties, they could save more than double that amount—not to mention the other benefits they’d reap from improved reliability, performance and quality.
Anticipating breakage on everything from jet engines and health care devices to energy technology is the entrepreneurial niche that gave birth to VEXTEC. Founded by Bob Tryon, PhD’96, chief technology officer, and Animesh Dey, MS’94, PhD’96, chief product development officer, along with CEO Loren Nasser, VEXTEC is a front-runner in using a computational framework for simulating and predicting the breakdown of manufactured products—and the potential impact on a company’s finances.
“Like the DNA of any living cell, every material has a microstructure that determines its behavior. This is the key to predicting how and when failure will happen,” says Tryon, a material science engineer who previously worked at General Motors and Ford. At the core of VEXTEC’s success is a patented system that simulates the life expectancy of a part, an engine or an entire product fleet. The system then combines that information with data from other components in a product to predict the product’s overall reliability. Clients range from manufacturers to oil and gas, aerospace and electronics companies.
In 2009, Forbes lauded VEXTEC as America’s most promising company, predicting its Virtual Life Management (VLM) product for forecasting failure will hasten the pace of innovation in its market niche.
Entrepreneurs in Reliability
“It’s hard to be an entrepreneur at GM,” shrugs Tryon, who worked first in the gas turbine division at GM. Concerned about product reliability, GM sent him to Vanderbilt for a doctorate in engineering and to study under Thomas A. Cruse, then H. Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the guru of probabilistic structural analysis methods. At VUSE, Tryon met fellow doctoral candidate and computational reliability modeling expert Dey, studying under Professor Sankaran Mahadevan. Under Cruse and Mahadevan’s tutelage, Tryon and Dey saw a future ripe with possibilities.
When Tryon and Dey graduated in 1996, the sale of the GM division in which Tryon had worked made him a free agent. Initially, he and Dey honed their chops as consultants. Their first customer? Chrysler.
Their work took two paths: material science experts focused on developing a virtual material simulation tool, while computational experts focused on correlating the simulation from material behavior to predicting fleet performance and business impacts. In 2000, the two joined with Loren Nasser to found VEXTEC. Nasser husbanded the management and infrastructure of the self-funded firm while Tryon and Dey focused on refining the VLM product. Today, the three still own 100 percent of the company, which has 28 employees and posted $3 million in sales in 2008.
Custom-tailored Sales and Service
In providing the only accurate and efficient computational framework for simulating and then predicting product behavior, VEXTEC’s VLM has the potential of eliminating the need for trial-and-error product testing. It also provides insight about products and how to make them better.
Dey says listening to individual customers is critical in helping those customers improve their products. “Don’t tell customers what you know,” he says. “Tailor your message to what they need and want to know.” Dey customizes VLM to meet the exact needs of each client and industry. The challenge is to focus, identify need and create a solution in ways that positively affect clients’ operations and bottom line.
Although their pioneering technology, management team and huge market potential led to the Forbes honor, Dey and Tryon say that the personalized approach is key to the company’s success. It’s not enough to have a great product—VEXTEC must meet customers’ needs to grow.
“Fundamentally, to be successful, your product has to make someone’s day-to-day life easier,” Tryon says.