Correlated Solutions, Inc. co-founders (L-R): Hubert Schreier, Michael Sutton, Stephen McNeill.
Large companies often have humble beginnings. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in Jobs’s garage, while Delta Air Lines began as a crop-dusting operation.
Mechanical Engineering Distinguished Professor Michael Sutton arrived at the University of South Carolina in 1982, and working with colleagues and graduate students, he invented the digital image correlation (DIC) methods. The stereo version of DIC measures and captures the shape, motion and deformation of solid objects. Since DIC methods are applicable for any material or structure and simplifies the process of obtaining accurate measurement data, it is broadly regarded as the most important advance in measurement technology in more than a century.
Fast forward to 1998. Sutton, his colleague Stephen McNeill and his Ph.D. student Hubert Schreier co-founded an outlet for providing DIC technology and systems. What was intended to only be a hobby 25 years ago has evolved into Correlated Solutions, Inc. (CSI). Located in the Columbia suburb of Irmo, CSI now sells industry-leading solutions for materials and product testing to a variety of companies, government laboratories and academic institutions on six continents.
We thought we would do this as a service and after a few years the technologies would be out there and that would be the end of it. But it didn't happen that way for a variety of reasons.
- Michael Sutton
CSI’s measurement system combines digital cameras for acquiring high resolution images of the specimen with DIC software to analyze the images and obtain full-field measurements. The company’s primary systems are a single camera and software for capturing two-dimensional measurements (2D-DIC) and stereo cameras with software to obtain three-dimensional displacements and full-field surface strains (StereoDIC). Other DIC systems can measure internal deformation by using X-Ray or CT scan images of a material as well as teaching 2D-DIC and stereo DIC techniques.
McNeill and Schreier were both familiar with DIC methods before co-founding CSI with Sutton. In 1983, McNeill came to USC as a full-time instructor while working towards his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. He worked with Sutton and others to focus on developing and applying the early 2D-DIC technique.
“It was a young group and DIC was in its infancy at that time. We worked hours to develop the technology to make it more practical and robust,” McNeill says.
Schreier earned his undergraduate degree in process engineering in his native country of Germany in 1997. He became familiar with DIC and decided to pursue his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at USC, specifically to work with Sutton on DIC techniques.
“I knew someone at my university who had worked with him [Sutton] and asked to make an introduction. I read papers he authored and wanted to come to the birthplace of DIC,” Schreier says.
Neither Schreier, Sutton nor McNeill had any intentions of starting and operating a company. Their initial goal with CSI was to transfer DIC technology to industry without the expectation of making much money. Sutton wrote Small Business Innovative Research proposals and received funding from the National Science Foundation to start the company and develop products. But like Schreier and McNeill, he never expected CSI to expand to a worldwide customer base.
“We thought we would do this as a service and after a few years the technologies would be out there and that would be the end of it. But it didn't happen that way for a variety of reasons, including the continuing interest in the technology that we developed, and that CSI transformed into the development and dissemination of world-leading measurement systems,” Sutton says. “Due to CSI’s continued focus on quality and accuracy, the company remains the only U.S.-based DIC system provider.”
Schreier, Sutton and McNeill initially endured several rejections after offering their technologies and systems to federal and state agencies. But the rejections only motivated the trio to keep going. One of the early systems CSI installed was at the Air Force Research Labs in Dayton, Ohio. NASA, who initially declined to pursue DIC technology, became interested shortly afterward and has been a frequent customer since. This included NASA’s purchase of CSI’s VIC-3D Multi System that was used in the development of the Mars 2020 Rover’s heat shield. This essential component allowed the Rover to safely enter Mars’ atmosphere.
“We sold them [NASA] systems and developed a specialized system for micro scale measurements that they used for 20 years. The more systems they bought and used, the more they realized its potential,” Sutton says.
Prior to CSI, McNeill and Sutton continued to work on DIC development and applications. In 1989, the pair and a graduate student completed the first experiments that showed StereoDIC’s potential as a measurement technology. Today, StereoDIC is CSI’s most popular measurement system.
“I don't think we had any doubts about developing the systems and selling them. We just had no idea where our work would be going,” McNeill says. “My belief is that DIC is the solution looking for problems, but it still amazes me when there’s a new problem that we can fix that we didn't think about in the development stage.”
By the time Schreier graduated in 2003, CSI had worldwide customers purchasing DIC systems. He eventually became president in 2005, a position he continues to hold today.
“I'm proud of him, and he's done everything he can to keep this company moving. We give CSI advice, but whatever direction they go, Steve and I support it and help with any transitions,” Sutton says.
Schreier also maintains a solid relationship with USC, as several alumni with DIC experience currently work at CSI.
“We've worked with students that later became employees after they’ve had internships or worked on independent research or design projects,” Schreier says. ”Most USC students are already familiar with our technology, so CSI is a natural fit if they’re interested in DIC.”
Alum Alistair Tofts began working at CSI in 2007 after earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He liked CSI’s innovation and creativity and had previously used DIC for a measurement laboratory.
“I liked that we were designing our own hardware and being a small company, we could implement new ideas and make changes quickly to improve a product. It felt that CSI was like a Silicon Valley company on the East Coast,” Tofts says.
Tofts started at CSI as a mechanical engineer before being promoted to his current position as director of sales and marketing. Once he became comfortable in his position, he approached Schreier about returning to USC to earn his MBA while continuing to work full-time.
“I completed the program in 28 months, and CSI was very supportive and flexible if I needed some extra time off to do my work. This says a lot about how CSI treats their employees,” Tofts says.
Schreier believes the DIC market still has tremendous potential and growth. For example, when CSI started in 1998, several hours were required to analyze images from small cameras using available hardware. But high-speed cameras that CSI uses today have more memory to handle bigger data sets, such as acquiring images at a rate of five to 10 million frames per second.
“If you look at our history and similar techniques, it's tied to the development of imaging and computing technology,” Schreier says. “There is a big improvement in the accuracy of this technology. Problems can be fixed that were not possible five years ago, and I don’t see a slowdown in these developments.”
CSI plans to increase the flexibility of DIC software to easily integrate it with various modeling approaches. They also plan to modify hardware for drones and other vehicles, and develop a one-off DIC system for specialty applications, such as rail, aircraft, and civil infrastructure measurements. As CSI looks to the future, it is actively recruiting new employees – from USC and beyond – to position itself to maintain its place as a world leader in DIC technology.
“Our technology developed at USC and improved over the years by CSI is not only effective, but it is the most impactful measurement technology that has been developed in over a century,” Sutton says. “I will always be proud of the fact that we never gave up and pushed through all the detractors, providing our technology to industries, government and academia on a global scale.”