Two leaders bump heads in tape- and disc-cleaning field

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At the Scopus Company, they believe in never allowing your heads to crash. Your computer heads, that is.

Scopus - one of a growing number of firms in the computer-service industry - specializes in the maintenance and repair of the magnetic devices, or ''media,'' that receive and store information, including computer tapes, disc cartridges, and disc packs. William Dwyer, company vice-president, says, ''We have become so dependent on the computer (as a society), that when it goes down, we (Scopus) have to stick people on planes, in trains, through disasters - anything to get there within a couple of hours to fix it.''

Like the development of the technology it services, Scopus is skyrocketing. From 1977 to 1981, the company experienced 422 percent growth. Recently, Inc. magazine listed it as one of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the United States.

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Scopus is the brainchild of Mr. Dwyer and James Armstrong Sr., two former managers at Burroughs and Memorex. In 1971 they acquired a $25,000 bank loan to fill what they foresaw as a need in the computer industry. ''No one was doing maintenance (of computer tapes and discs) professionally,'' Mr. Dwyer says. So they set out to create a ''small service organization to maintain magnetic media in computer installations around the New England area.''

They put eight service people on the road, traveling from one computer installation to another, cleaning and inspecting on a contract basis. It soon became clear that their ''small service organization'' had national appeal. Today, there are nine regional sales and service offices dispatching 64 servicemen across the country to customers ranging from individuals to Citibank Corporation. Fiscal 1983 sales, says Mr. Armstrong, are expected to hit $8.6 million.

Another firm experiencing rapid growth in this field is Precision Methods Inc., of Lorton, Va., with $6 million in sales for 1982. As the principal competitor of Scopus, it is the only other company that offers maintenance of disc packs nationwide. Both PMI and Scopus are privately held.

The success of Scopus, Mr. Armstrong says, comes from finding a niche in the computer-service industry that was hard for other firms to fill. Tape- and disc-manufacturing giants like IBM, Memorex, and Nashua, he says, have little interest in such a labor-intensive service. And most competing firms are unable to provide large-scale sales and service networks, which ''require years to develop,'' he says.

Armstrong sees no slowdown in demand for his company's services. Dwyer says the firm takes on from 500 to 600 new accounts each month. In the disc area alone, he says, over 5 million packs and cartridges are currently in use. Scopus has yet to tap more than 5 percent of the potential market, he calculates. Changing technologies are not seen as a major threat to the company, because ''we just follow the innovations and learn how to fix them,'' he says.

The need for maintenance services stems from the fact that data stored on magnetic media ''should be cleaned and inspected regularly,'' Armstrong says. When neglected there are often failures in the ability of the computer to call upon needed data, he notes. And this data is valuable. ''We handle millions of dollars worth of information every month,'' Dwyer says.

The most serious type of breakdown is called a ''head crash.'' Dwyer explains that the computer's heads, the devices that read the information on the disc, travel as low as 25 microinches above the surface of a disc, spinning at speeds up to 3,400 revolutions a minute. (A microinch equals one-millionth of an inch.)

This technology requires that the disc surface be free of contamination and rotate perfectly. Says Armstrong: ''If a thumbprint, which is 300 microinches tall, or a smoke particle (250 microinches) is on the disc surface, the head (travelling 25 microinches above the disc surface) will crash.

''It's like an airplane trying to land on a runway with a 20-foot wall in the middle of it.''

Other factors, such as human mishandling, heat and friction, and fires and floods, lead to tape or disc damage or loss of retrieval ability. Often tape and disc damage is irreparable. But, instead of discarding the discs (which command prices of up to $1,000), an owner can send them to Scopus headquarters or three other locations where technicians can rebuild them at approximately half the retail purchase price.

Much of the competition between Scopus and Precision Methods has focused on the best way to clean disc packs. At PMI, says Ogden Thompson, vice-president, ''We clean them manually, without fluid.'' Scopus, he says, cleans the packs with a machine that contains water and detergent cleaning fluids. He says the possibility of residue being left on the disc has raised objections to the automatic cleaning process from disc manufacturers and others.

Armstrong counters for Scopus by saying, ''We have letters from magnetic media manufacturers that recommend wet cleaning and a letter from the University of Lowell Research Foundation that certifies from tests that our cleaning fluids leave no residue.'' The controversy is as yet unresolved.

In the past year Scopus has initiated a retail-products line that includes the sale of remanufactured and new tapes and disc packs. The rebuilt media are sold at 70 percent of the retail price, and they carry a lifetime guarantee. Scopus is now offering its new and remanufactured disc packs and specialized repair machinery for sale internationally, Armstrong says. Interest has come from Europe, Canada, and Asia, he adds.

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