In the rough-hewn world at Columbia Vista Corp.’s lumber mill near Vancouver, the sight of Joseph “Joey” Nelson ’00 pushing spectacles into place might invoke visions of Clark Kent there among the conveyor belts and screeching saws.

But if the workers around him knew that it’s Nelson’s laser-scanning equipment–technology he started developing as a high school kid–enabling their mill to convert raw logs into perfect lumber within seconds, they’d recognize a technological Superman in their midst.
Nelson founded his company, JoeScan, from his dorm room in Washington State University’s Streit Hall in 1999, the year before earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

A few years later, he and Ryan Phelps ’00, ’02 M.S., needed work after cutbacks at TriGeo Network Security. In less than a year, the two brought JoeScan’s first model to market. Since then, Nelson has hired four more people, including design engineer Austin Skyles ’02. And now JoeScan is a familiar name in the sawmill industry. “Our focus has been on making the scanners simpler to use and less expensive,” says Nelson, whose typical unit costs $8,000, well under the price of most competitors’ scanners.

The technology employs line lasers and ultra-fast digital cameras that allow computers to almost instantaneously reset automatic saws to get the most valuable lumber in the least time from every section of raw wood.

Joey Nelson remembers tinkering with computers at age five. Well before the Internet revolution he was writing programs and setting up bulletin boards with as many as 100 users.

“He’s always been a scientific and investigative kind of guy. He had to prove things to himself,” says his father, Rod Nelson ’70, whose Nelson Bros. Engineering primarily helps improve mill production through technology.

In the early 1990s, a railroad client wanted Rod Nelson to write software to guide rail-grinding equipment. He handed the job off to Joey, who was still in high school but was also enrolled in college programming classes. The result was so good it was used in the Chunnel undersea railroad connecting England and France. “It was unbelievable now that I look back at it,” Rod Nelson says. “At the time it seemed normal.”

During Nelson’s visit to Columbia Vista, eight JoeScan JS-20 scanners blasted red beams across passing slabs of wood to collect data to configure the blades. In less time than it would take a human to grab a measuring tape, smooth lumber was streaking down a conveyor belt.

To think, Rod Nelson tried to steer his son toward another career. “His advice was, don’t get into the sawmill industry because it’s somewhat of a dead end,” Joey recalls. But the son ignored his father’s advice. “My rationalization for getting into it is that the scanning technology actually could be used outside the sawmill industry,” even if his success in the sawmill industry so far hasn’t left him time to branch out.