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Firm Sees Appearances Measure Up : Special Instruments Test Products for Visual Characteristics

February 10, 1986|MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ | Washington Post

As Philip Hunter knows all too well, appearances can often be deceiving. When Florida citrus growers came to his company years ago, they had a unique problem: They had trouble making sure the color of their orange juice matched U.S. standards.

Their difficulties, Hunter said, led to squabbles with federal inspectors, but Hunter Associates Laboratory solved all that--it provided a device that would automatically tell growers that their orange was as orange as need be.

"What you see is not always what you think you see. We think you can translate what you think you see into something you can measure with an instrument," Hunter, president of the company that bears his family name, said in a recent interview.

Hunter and his company are in what's known as the "appearance measurement" business. That essentially means designing and manufacturing devices that can measure color, gloss, haze and other such visual characteristics in a wide range of business products.

It's a small field, but one in which the Reston, Va., firm has developed a comfortable niche.

The company does business with dozens of manufacturing concerns, including Procter & Gamble, Benjamin Moore paints, Ford and General Motors. Yearly sales are more than $15 million, Hunter said, and recently the firm broke ground for a 61,000-square-foot headquarters facility.

In other words, it's a far cry from the small testing and consulting firm founded in 1952 by Philip Hunter's father, Richard S. Hunter.

Richard Hunter originally worked right out of his McLean, Va., home. Today the company he spawned employs more than 160 workers in a complicated development and marketing operation that sells its products in more than 60 countries.

The elder Hunter, who was the brains behind HunterLab, got his start in 1927 as a scientist at the National Bureau of Standards, and then as an optical engineer at the Gardner Laboratory in Bethesda, Md., according to his son. In those early days, analyzing and measuring colors were exacting, time-consuming tasks that took hours.

Realm of Specialists

They were also largely the realm of specialists. According to his son, Richard Hunter saw substantial business applications. "He realized that the systems that the scientists developed were not that comprehensible to those of us in the business community," said Philip Hunter, who succeeded his father in 1981 as president after eight years with the firm.

The elder Hunter developed a model of color space--a scale, essentially, along which one can classify quantitatively color and other visual attributes of an object. He also developed instruments--known in the trade as "colorimeters" and "spectrophotometers"--with which businesses and others are able to measure those visual attributes according to his scale, known as the "L,a,b" system. Today, these instruments can perform in a matter of seconds tasks that once took Hunter hours.

Neither the scale nor the instruments were entirely new concepts. The trick was that the Hunter system was comprehensible outside laboratories.

Richard Hunter "introduced a concept that was more easily understood," said Charles G. Leete, secretary of the Manufacturers Council on Color and Appearance, a trade association for nine companies involved in the color-instrumentation business. "The other scales had numbers nobody else could relate to unless they were scientists," he said.

Although the science of optical engineering has advanced rapidly since the company was founded, the scale and the instruments remain at the heart of the business.

"Our perception of color changes from day to day. This doesn't," said Philip Hunter, pointing to one of the colorimeters in the laboratory.

Explaining the importance of the device, he added: "If you're in California and I'm in Texas, and I'm going to make one piece of equipment and you're going to make another--but they're going to bolt together--by using an instrument we make, you know you can match."

Measure Soap Color

HunterLab's first major customer was Procter & Gamble, which bought some instruments in the 1950s to measure the color of its soaps. Since then HunterLab has greatly expanded the scope of its business, said Hunter:

- GM and Ford use HunterLab instruments to help measure the finish on their new cars, as well as the upholstery inside.

- Textile manufacturers buy equipment to help them sort material sent to garment makers.

- Benjamin Moore, a paint manufacturer, used the instruments to set up a computerized color-matching system for its retail distributors. Customers can walk into the store, show an object, and ask to buy a paint that matches.

- USA Today uses HunterLab equipment to control color production at its printing plants.

- Frito-Lay uses colorimeters to measure the appearance of its corn chip snacks.

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