Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

North Carolina Rebounds from Effects of Offshoring and Recession

Saturday, November 11th, 2017

After spending two jam-packed days in Charleston, I drove to Greensboro, North Carolina as I didn’t want to fly there through Miami, FL and spend six hours sitting in an airport or on a plane. Since I had never been to either North or South Carolina, it gave me the opportunity to see some beautiful country. I drove by cattle ranches, tobacco farms, and tree farms of Curly Pines, which I learned are the best pines to use for furniture.

I had written about the devastation of the textile and furniture industry in my book published in 2009. I wrote, “North Carolina has been the most impacted state in the nation by layoffs due to trade.  Between 2004 and 206, almost 39,000 North Carolina workers have been certified by the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as having lost jobs to trade, more than 10 percent of the U.S. total of 386,755. Thus, I was very interested in visiting North Carolina to see what had happened to the textile mills and furniture factories and what new manufacturing sectors had developed.

My host for the trip was the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, which is actually a combined Chamber and economic development agency, and Brent Christensen, President and CEO, was my main tour guide. The Piedmont-Triad consists of the area within and surrounding the three major cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point. The metropolitan area is connected by Interstates 40, 85, 73, and 74 and is served by the Piedmont Triad International Airport. Long known as one of the primary manufacturing and transportation hubs of the southeastern United States, the Triad is also an important educational and cultural region.

These cities closely collaborate, so Loren Hill, President of the High Point Economic Development Corporation and Robert Leak, Jr. President of Winston-Salem Business Inc. shared the tour guide task. Mary Wilson, Communications & Public Relations Manager for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina drove over from Cary, NC to join us on the plant tours.

On Thursday, I was delighted that our first visit was to a company occupying a 100-year old former textile mill in High Point.  We met with Tom Van Dessel, CEO of BuzziSpace., who said they moved into the building in the summer of 2014. BuzziSpace is a Belgium company that has a manufacturing plant in the Netherlands.  The company makes acoustical furnishings that absorb sound to reduce noise and provide privacy in imaginative designs.

Mr. Van Dessel said, “We have about 40 employees now and will be up to about 115 soon. We are already producing about 30-35% of our products in this plant. We were originally looking for about a 30,000 – 35,000 sq. ft. building, but wound up selecting this 120,000-sq. ft., three-story, red brick building because of the potential. We funded a local printing/silk screen company (Splash Works) to be a tenant on the first floor of our building to be our vendor for digital printing on their fabric and felt furnishings. Our felt is made from recycled PET (soda bottles) mixed with 5% virgin industrial felt. We started with five colors of felt and now we have 12 colors.  We have a sole-source contract with the company that makes the felt. Some of our products are acoustical panels, furniture, honeycomb screens, lighting, filing cabinet covers, room partitions and various configuration of privacy spaces. Everyone wants open office space for collaboration, but you need to have private spaces for private conversations. Our panels absorb noise in certain wavelengths.”

The various configurations of privacy spaces have names like BuzziBooth, BuzziHood, BuzziHive, and BuzziHub.  Three of us sat in a BuzziHub (two couches facing each other with panels behind the couches), and the other two couldn’t hear what any of us were saying from a few feet away.

He explained, “We wanted to engage the community we are in, so we planted a community garden in the large “front yard” of our building. Our employees planted fruit trees, vegetables, berry bushes, and Muscadine grapes. At first, the vegetables and berries will be shared by our employees, but when the crops are larger, they will be shared with the surrounding community.  We want what we are doing to be an example to others to do similar things. We are surrounded by small “mill” houses that may still be occupied by former workers of the textile mill. Now, we are hiring some as workers.”

As we drove through High Point on the way to our next stop, Mr. Hill explained that while the city is no longer the hub of furniture manufacturing, it is still the hub for corporate offices, design centers, distribution centers, and furniture show rooms.

He said, “When I was growing up, it was an ordinary downtown of shops, offices, and restaurants, but now nearly every building downtown, including the former post office and library, have been converted to furniture show rooms. The city hosts the High Point Market, the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world in April and October, where furniture companies from all over the world display their products. About 75,000 attendees from more than 100 countries come to each market. It’s unbelievably busy during these two weeks of the year, but the rest of the year, the downtown little activity. The city government is now working hard on a public-private catalyst project to revitalize downtown next to the furniture market area.  That catalyst project will include building a multi-use stadium, a convention center, restaurants and shops, office space, a children’s museum, and urban housing.”

At our next stop, we visited the aviation training facility, located near the airport, and met with Kevin Baker, Director of the Piedmont Triad Airport (PTI), and Nick Yale, Director of the Guilford Tech Community College Aviation Training Facility.

Mr. Baker said, “The Piedmont Triad International Airport is at the center of an aerospace boom that has transformed the I-40 corridor into a job-rich center of aircraft manufacturing, aircraft parts supply, and aviation repair and maintenance. The Piedmont Triad region encompasses 12 counties and three major cities:  Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. The Airport Authority is the largest employer in the aerospace industry in the state and the 8th largest employer in the state. We have 1,000 acres of land available for development. We have been very active in bringing aviation companies to the area and are now home to more than 50 companies.”

He explained, “Honda Aircraft established its world headquarters, R&D, and manufacturing at the airport in 2006, and expanded in 2012 with a customer service facility. Honda Aircraft employs about 1,900 people with an average salary of $75,000, compared to an average salary of $45,000 for other jobs in the region.

HAECO Americas operates 600,000sq. ft. of space for repair and maintenance services for Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and Airbus aircraft, and HAECO has about 1,600 employees. In July, HAECO announced it will be building a new $60 million hangar at PTI and will add about 500 jobs. Cessna, part of Textron, established their 46,000-sq. ft. maintenance and service center at the airport in 1993, which has grown to a 137,000 facility, employing about 150 people.”

He added, “FedEx chose PTI because of the exceptional highway connections of I-40, I-85 and I-74. Also, there are four state highway connections to these interstates under construction.  FedEx occupies a 500,000-sq. ft. facility at the airport and has about 4,200 employees.”

“What makes our airport unique is that we have land available for development, uncrowded airspace, and parallel runways,” Mr. Baker said. In addition, we have our aviation training facility.”

Mr. Yale, explained, “In 1969, GTCC started its first aviation program, Aviation Management Technology, followed by an Avionics and Airframe and Powerplant mechanics program in 1970.

We have three buildings, totaling more than 143,000 square feet, located close to each other. The T.H. Davis Aviation Center (Aviation I) is a 36,000 square-foot building owned by PTI that we lease. It has seven classrooms, two computer labs, five laboratory classrooms and a large aircraft hangar with several aircraft including a Boeing 737. It has classes in all of our aviation curriculum. It also houses our aviation department administration and several faculty. Our aviation university partner, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), is also housed in this building.

Our Aviation II is a 60,000 square-foot building, located adjacent to the airport and close to several aviation manufacturing and repair companies. While we lease this building from the Samet Corporation, we have upgraded it several times to address special needs for aviation education. It contains seven classrooms, fourteen specialty laboratories as well as faculty office space. It largely supports the aviation systems technology and aviation electronics technology programs, as well as non-credit (continuing education) programs in aviation.

Our new aviation building (Aviation III), was opened in the fall of 2014 next to the Aviation II building. It has 42,000 square-feet and contains general classrooms, computer labs, a flight simulator lab, library and various student services spaces. It supports the college’s Aviation Management/Career Pilot program.”

He gave me flyers describing their aviation training curriculum for the following:

  • Aviation Management & Career Pilot Technology
  • Aviation Systems Technology
  • Aviation Electronics “Avionics” Technology
  • Aerostructures Manufacturing & Repair

He said, “The Aerostructures Manufacturing & Repair Certificate is a 17-week program, and about 90% nine out of every ten people get hired upon completion. We have expanded and tailored our programs to train people exactly the way our aviation industry wants. We are getting ready to work with HAECO on three more programs next year. Delta Airlines came to us because 80% of their employees would be eligible to retire in the next five years. They needed a new generation of trained workers.

We are working with Andrews High School in High Point to train high school students in an aviation technology apprenticeship program funded by the State legislature. We had 23 students sign up to participate in the apprenticeship program last spring. The students go to school in the morning and work for companies in the afternoon. A consortium of local companies is responsible for initiating the program. HAECO just did an interview process for 50 students to be apprentices.

It was a pleasure seeing how industries outside of furnishings and textiles are expanding in North Carolina and how former textile mills are being re-purposed. My next article will feature more about the apprenticeship program with interviews with a couple of manufacturers that started the program and highlight more about the redevelopment of former textile mills.

From Boats to Tires: Global Manufacturing is Thriving in Charleston, South Carolina

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

During day two of my visit to the Charleston, South Carolina metro area, we visited Scout Boats in Summerville, S.C., which as a boat builder, is a more traditional type manufacturer you expect to find in a deep-water port community.  A family-owned business, Scout builds luxury center console sort fishing and bay boats.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Potts, who founded the company in 1989. Mr. Potts said, “I have been in the boat business since I was 14 years old, and my wife and I made a decision to start making 14-15 ft. fishing boats in a garage we rented after planning for years and saving $50,000.

We got off to a good start, and then Hurricane Hugo hit and leveled our building.  We salvaged what we could and started over. The next winter, we got 11 inches of snow and the roof partially collapsed while we were developing a 17-ft. sized boat. This boat put us on the map, and we sold this model for years. We displayed this boat in the local boat show and came out of the show with a list of 31 dealers that we developed into a dealer network.  We sell exclusively through dealers.

In 1990, I prepared my plan for 1991 and predicted that we would do $750,000 in sales, and we did.  The only year we lost money was 2009. In 1992, we moved down the road to a 12,000-sq. ft. custom-built building.  However, we couldn’t expand, so in in 1995, we bought 16 acres of land and built Plant A. We added another building (plant B) and then added Plant C. Plant A build boats in size from 17-25 ft. Plant B builds boats 27-35 ft. in size, and Plant C builds 38-42 ft. models. built. Plant D will be a 100,000-sq. ft. building to build boats up to 53 ft. in size. We also have a small plant for R & D. We are a debt-free company, so we build when we have the cash.

Today, we have 28-30 models, and our annual sales will be $100 million this year.  For many years, we focused on 25-30 ft. boats, but we are expanding to build up 53 ft. sized boats.  We export 17-18% of our boats. Canada and Mexico are our two top markets, but from 2003-2008, our largest dealer was in Athens, Greece.

We have 380 employees now, and our five-year plan is to grow to 680 employees by 2020. We strive to be as diverse as we can be.  We sell yacht tenders for the large luxury yachts that are towed behind the large yachts. Our three adult children are part of our business and are very involved. Consequently, we have had an ongoing succession plan in place for more than ten years. I want Scout Boats to be a dynasty for years and years to come.”

Mr. Potts is the epitome of the exemplary American entrepreneurial spirit that once made our country the dominant manufacturing center of the world. To think that his company survived three recessions in his 28 years in business without going into debt is extraordinary.

Our next meeting was with Mark Fetten, president and CEO of Cooper River Partners, LLC that manages the Charleston International Manufacturing Center (CIMC) at Bushy Park in Goose Creek, S.C.  CIMC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pacolet Milliken Enterprises. CIMC is a 1,750-acre industrial complex in a heavy industrial zone, as well being a Foreign Trade Zone.  It has deep-water access to the Atlantic Ocean via the Cooper River with barge slip access and rail access via a rail spur. CIMC is located less than 10 minutes from two major highways in the region (I-26 and I-526) for trucking products.

In addition to the existing tenants, it has 300 acres of developable land.  The site is currently home to the following manufacturers:

AGFA Corporation – medical x-ray and technical imaging regional distribution center

Evonik – manufacturer of silica for tire production (under construction)

Kemira Chemicals – paper dyes, specialty chemicals for ink jet applications

Lanxess Rubber Chemicals – vulcanization for tires and peptizers used in rubber manufacturing

Nexans – high voltage underground and submarine cables

Philips Industrial Services – industrial and marine painting, fireproofing, hydroblasting, water jetting, epoxy floor systems, and industrial vacuuming

Sun Chemicals – organic pigments for paints, plastics, and cosmetics

Symrise – flavors and fragrances, menthol, sunscreens, and aroma esters (expansion project under construction)

Mr. Fetten discussed the biggest advantages CIMC offers are the utility services and other support functions that allow tenants to focus on their core business. “CIMC enables companies to get their products to the market faster with the existing infrastructure within CIMC, while minimizing CAPEX and risk,” he said.

Located only 1.5 miles from a major power station, CIMC has a one MW solar farm on the property that feeds back into the power grid. A second solar farm is in the final stages of planning. A wide variety of utility services are provided, including electrical, steam, compressed air, nitrogen, refrigeration, natural gas, and waste water treatment. Other services include on-site security, environmental management, and emergency responders.

CIMC was originally built up by Bayer Corporation over a period of 30 years, but in 1999, Bayer started divesting companies.  In 2009, Bayer sold the park to a privately held company of which Marc Fetten was a partner with two other gentlemen. Marc previously worked in M&A for Bayer, so he saw the opportunity.

The driving tour around CIMC showcased the advanced manufacturing legacy of the southeast. In addition to the $250 million in CAPEX I saw under construction, I got to see a gem of heavy industrial manufacturing.  The former General Dynamics and subsequent Jacobs Engineering plant was purchased by Cooper River Partners, LLC in the summer of 2016. This 94-acre facility located adjacent to CIMC, appropriately named CIMC North produced some amazing examples of advanced manufacturing, the nose cones to U.S. Navy Trident Class Submarines and later modular assembly and pipe fabrication.

CIMC North consists of 400,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space, 800,000 square feet of open-air assembly, an array of welding, assembly, blasting, painting and handling equipment, as well as a barge slip and rail access.  Also of note, are the ten bridge cranes, eight of which are rated for a 40-ton load. The two 20-ton bridge cranes have infrastructure in place to support transloading to and from railcars. According to Marc, “CIMC North expands our footprint and facilitates bringing prime industrial, warehouse and distribution space to the market immediately, which is in high demand in the Charleston region. Providing a dock, rail access, large capacity cranes and a 200-ton shuttle lift is a big cost saver for companies looking to minimize CAPEX. This model aligns perfectly with our sustainable approach of minimizing environmental impacts.”

Afterward, we met with Robert Brown, Communications Manager, and Arthur Dube, Business Director, Precipitated Silica & Rubber Silanes. of Evonik Corporation, the U.S subsidiary of Evonik Industries AG, which is a German company that is one of the world’s leading specialty chemicals company. Evonik Industries produces chemicals for a variety of applications, including adhesives, cleaning products, construction materials and employs more than 33,500 people worldwide in more than one hundred countries.

Mr. Brown said, “Evonik Corporation was formed in 2007 in Chester, PA and has 33 plants in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. We have about 5,000 employees in the U. S.  The new plant we are building in this Center will open in June 2018 and produce precipitated silica to supply the tire industry. We will hire about 50 people for this plant. This business park offers the existing infrastructure we need, and there is a high level of skilled workers in the region for the higher paying jobs we offer. There are also workers at other plants that may transfer to this plant. David Elliott will be the Manufacturing Director for the new plant.”

He explained, “Evonik helps improve consumer and industrial products, and this plant will make tires run better, longer, and be stronger. He said that South Carolina has become home to several major tire manufacturers, such as Michelin, Bridgestone, and Continental, so they are following their customers. Another reason for locating in South Carolina is that the Sumter area mines produce 99% pure silica sand that is used in producing our precipitated silica.

Wanli Tire Corporation, a Chinese tire manufacturer, is investing $1 billion to build a new plant in Orangeburg County, South Carolina.  Also, Giti Tire, based in Singapore, announced a new plant last year that is being built just south of Rock Hill, SC.”

These two additional tire plants will further boost the state’s status as America’s tire-producing capital and create over 3,000 new jobs for the region when they are at full employment.

I was given a brief explanation of how they make precipitated silica by mixing silica sand with sodium carbonate and melting them. Then, they dissolve the mixture in water and precipitate it. The resulting white precipitate is filtered, washed and dried in a proprietary manufacturing process. Any further detail exceeds my technical expertise to explain. I was shown samples, which looked like pieces of fluffy popcorn that were a great deal lighter than you would expect from what started as a piece of silica. As an additive to tires, the precipitated silica produces fuel-efficient tires with wet grip properties, which can save up to eight percent in fuel consumption compared to conventional car tires.

This two-day visit to the Charleston region confirmed what Harry Moser of the Reshoring Initiative has been telling me about the increase of manufacturing jobs from Foreign Direct Investment. The favorable business climate, low state taxes, developable land, and skilled workforce has made South Carolina an attractive location for European companies from Germany, France, Belgium, the U.K, and Denmark to expand their U. S. manufacturing presence. If the U.S. would lower the national corporate tax rate, we would not only attract more Foreign Direct Investment, but would attract more American corporations to return manufacturing to America.

Charleston Manufacturers Focus on Training Current and Future Workers

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

After visiting the Charleston Port terminal and the Mercedes-Benz Vans Training Center, I had the pleasure of visiting several manufacturers during my two-day trip to the Charleston metro area. We first visited Ingevity in North Charleston, where I met Michael Wilson, President and CEO, Dan Gallagher, V.P., Investor Relations, Eric Walmet, Charleston Plant Manager, Jack Maurer, Director, Communications and Brand Management, and Laura Woodcock, Manager, P.R.

Ingevity is a leading global manufacturer of specialty chemicals and high-performance carbon materials that are used in a variety of demanding applications, including asphalt paving, oil exploration and production, agrochemicals, adhesives, lubricants, publication inks, and automotive components that reduce gasoline vapor emissions. The company creates high value-added products from renewable raw materials. The name is “coined” from the meaning of four words:  genuine, ingenuity, innovation, and longevity.

Ingevity was spun off in May 2016 from WestRock, which has a long history and many name changes going all the way back to 1846 when it was founded as Ellis, Chaffin & Company. Ingevity is headquartered in North Charleston, and has manufacturing plants in South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Virginia, as well as two in China. Ingevity has four sites in the Charleston region: its headquarters with 205 employees, the manufacturing plant with 214 employees, the Ashley Center with 109 employees, and the Innovation Center with six employees for a total of 534 employees.

Michael Wilson said, “We recently announced an agreement to acquire Georgia-Pacific’s pine chemicals business for $315 million. This will give us a stronger more competitive pine chemicals business. We also signed a supply agreement with Georgia-Pacific which in combination with our agreement with WestRock, will put 70 percent of our crude tall oil requirements under long-term contract. There is little customer overlap between the two companies. And, because we do business in 65 countries, we believe we can accelerate global growth for the Georgia-Pacific products.”

When I asked him his impression of the manufacturing sector in the region, he responded, “The manufacturing base is very diversified. The business climate of South Carolina is world class. The mindset of the government has been beneficial. It is a right to work state and has low taxes.”

Eric Walmet gave us a tour of the Charleston plant and Innovation Center, where we saw some of the activated carbon end-products made by Ingevity. The products include carbon honeycombs, granular carbons, and shaped carbons used to reduce automotive gasoline emissions. The activated carbon is made by combining sawdust and acid through a proprietary process.

I could see that the plant was laid out on the basis of a Lean value stream mapping event, and there were the obvious signs of the application of Lean tools and principles on the shop floor.

Our next stop was IFA North America in nearby Ladson.  We met with Mauro Amarante, President and CEO, and Ryan Loveless, Training Coordinator.  IFA North America LLC, formerly known as MTU Drive Shafts LLC., was founded in 2002 and operates as a subsidiary of the German company IFA – Holding GmbH.

IFA is one of the world’s leading and largest suppliers of drive shafts and side shafts for the automotive industry. In North America, IFA produces more than two million drive shafts a year and employs more than 600 people.

Mr. Amarante said he has been in the U.S. 11 years, having previously lived in Germany, Brazil, and Verona, Italy where he was born and raised. IFA is currently building a new plant in Berkeley County (still in the Charleston metro area) that will be 234,000 sq. ft., where they will be manufacturing constant velocity joints. They plan to consolidate all their operations and expand to about 400,000 sq. ft. by 2023.

Mr. Amarante said, “South Carolina is very business oriented, and former Governor Nikki Haley was very business focused.  We have all the business conditions we need here to secure our workforce.  We were one of the partners with VTL and three other companies to start an apprenticeship program three years ago to teach basic manufacturing skills like math, statistics, gauging, and machine operations.”

Mr. Loveless gave us the plant tour where we watched their production team turn purchased metal tubes into several designs of drive shafts.  Mr. Loveless said, “In addition to our full-time employees, we utilize about 120 temporary workers from a private agency.  These people work for us for about three-six months, and then we select the best workers to add to our full-time employees base. We would like to reduce the number of temporary employees. This is why we are investing time and money into the apprenticeship program to grow our future employment pool.”

Again, I saw the application of Lean tools and principles throughout the shop floor.  We even had to watch a safety video before we got to take the plant tour, and I was glad I was wearing my own Sears Die Hard steel-toed shoes instead of having to wear their guest shoes. Of course, as an automotive Tier 1 and Tier 2 supplier, they are ISO 9001:2008 and TS 16949 Certified.

Next, we visited the VTL Group, also in Ladson, where we met with Jeff Teague, General Manager, and Brian Glasshof, Account Manager.  Mr. Teague said, “The company was started in 1919 and changed its name to Valeo Transmission Ltd. in 1997. The management team, Bruno Joan, Chris Elliott, and a third man who has since been bought out and retired, did a leveraged buyout in 2001.  Chris started at the company as an apprentice when he was a young man.

He said, “I started in November 2011 when the company was in a turn-around mode after the recession. I came from the Greenville/Spartanburg area.  We are now running in a very tight workforce market because of the low unemployment.

We specialize in the design, development, prototyping, and manufacture of high precision components and sub-assemblies for automotive powertrain applications. We have expanded by winning several new contracts.  This plant makes variable geometry turbo parts for Cummins and make engine components for Borg Warner.  Everything we do is built around CAFÉ standards for emissions. VTL Group employs 275 globally, and has 48 employees in this Charleston plant.”

He went on to tell me about the genesis of the region’s youth apprenticeship program. “We were one of the six companies that showed up at a meeting in 2013 to discuss starting an apprenticeship program, which launched in 2014. We had a signing day event for 11 students. Now, this fall we’ll have 100 in the program.  Apprentices can start when they are 16 years old in high school. There are now nine industry sectors and 122 companies in the apprenticeship program. Industrial mechanics is the most requested training.”

Two of their new apprentices were brought in to meet me:  John Cody Geiger and Ty’Celia Young.  Both are high school students.  Ty’Celia said, “My high school engineering teacher encouraged me to apply when I was a junior.” Cody said, “I got an email from my high school principal and applied as a senior, so I graduated before starting at VTL.”

They go to high school in the morning, and then take industry-specific college courses a couple afternoons, and go to work the other afternoons during the school year. In the summer, they work full-time. When they complete the apprenticeship program, they will be Certified as Journeymen by the Department of Labor. They will also have two years of paid work experience on their resume. VTL has hired two past apprentices as full-time employees.

There are 26 schools in the apprenticeship program, public high schools, as well as charter schools and private schools. The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce pays for the tuition, tools and supplies for all of the students, so the students are getting their training free of charge. The Charleston Metro Chamber focuses on in-demand occupations. Besides advanced manufacturing, Charleston is also becoming an IT hub.

When I asked about the curriculum, I was told that the community colleges already had curriculum, which the companies helped modify to meet their needs. The program has two main goals:

  • Fill the critical workforce needs.
  • Monitor the next generation of students to keep them in the region.

Apprenticeship training is not all the training provided at VTL. Every employee is allowed one hour a week for training, but it is up to them to take advantage of the opportunity. VTL uses ToolingU training modules for their in-house training program.

Mr. Teague gave us the plant tour, and I was amazed at how many robots they had doing various manufacturing processes and moving parts from one operation to another. No wonder that only 48 employees at this plant are able to maintain the work flow required of a Tier 1 and Tier 2 automotive supplier. The parts I saw in process were Variable Cam Timing engine components and turbo-charger components. Mr. Teague showed me their Lean scoreboard section where there are visual displays of all the metrics required for a Lean company.  Naturally, VTL is also ISO 9001:2008 and TS 16949 Certified.

From these tours, I could see why world class companies are choosing to locate or expand in the Charleston, South Carolina region. A very favorable business climate, excellent transportation options by truck, rail, and ship for both national and international destinations, a highly skilled, trained workforce, and apprenticeship programs make the region a desirable location for many manufacturing sectors, especially those that export their products.

Threat to the American Patent System and Inventors’ Rights

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

On August 11, 2017, a group of inventors went to the United States Patent Office to make a statement and give testimony against new patent laws that promote the theft of our intellectual property instead of protecting it. Afterward, the inventors demonstrated in front of the Patent Office, and several burned their patents.  Michael Caputo, Managing Director of Zeppelin Communications, stated, “Patents have become worthless.”  The C-Span video of the protest can be viewed here.

Why is the American patent system and inventors’ rights being threatened?  In September 2011, Congress passed and the president signed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) that changed the U.S. patent system to the party “first to file” instead of the “first to invent to bring the U.S. in line with other countries who adopted first to file patent systems years ago, supposedly to simplify the patent process for companies that file applications in multiple countries. Its central provisions went into effect on September 16, 2012 and on March 16, 2013.

At the time, supporters said it would improve patent quality by creating a new process for reviewing patents after they have been issued and allow third parties to provide information on other parties’ applications.

Opponents argued that there was no reason to change the U.S. system, and inventors and small businesses complained that switching to a “first to file” system would give large companies an advantage and hurt individual inventors.

To find out what has happened to the American Patent System and Inventors’ Rights since 2011, I requested information from Randy Landreneau, Founder Independent Inventors of America, Paul Morinville, Founder US Inventor, and Adrian Pelkus, President of San Diego Inventors Forum.

Randy Landreneau: “America has been the most innovative country on earth from the start. A key reason for this is the revolutionary patent system created by our Founders that provided intellectual property rights to any man or woman, rich or poor. The rest of the world had systems that were for the aristocracy and those favored by the powerful…America maintained a superior system in protecting the intellectual property rights of inventors until …the passage of The America Invents Act in 2011…While it is hard to quantify the effect of changing to First-to-File, this change does place a disadvantage on the independent inventor relative to the large corporation. But another change has had very measurable negative effects.

The America Invents Act created new and easier ways to invalidate an existing patent. Prior to this, to invalidate a patent required going to a judicial court with its various protections offered to the holder of a property right. The America Invents Act created procedures for an administrative court, the PTAB (Patent Trial and Appeals Board), that does not have the same protections. Approximately 70% of the patents that companies try to invalidate using the PTAB get invalidated.

There are efforts underway to get the PTAB procedures ruled unconstitutional or at least reigned in and similar to the procedures of a Judicial court. Certainly, the PTAB procedures are doing great harm to American innovation.”

A more recent bill was even worse – The Innovation Act (H.R. 9), which passed the House in December of 2013. But, the Senate version (PATENT Act, S.1137) was fought effectively and did not pass the Senate.  However, these bills were reintroduced in subsequent sessions of Congress until the summer of 2016, when it became clear these bills were not moving forward.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent pushing a false narrative that nefarious entities called “patent trolls” are using frivolous litigation to make companies pay them unfairly. More often, in actuality, an inventor has a patent that is being infringed by large corporation that he cannot afford to fight in court. So, he sells his patent to a company that does have the wherewithal to fight in court (a non-practicing entity or NPE), and the infringer loses because he is guilty.

One element of the Innovation Act was ‘Loser Pays.’ If an inventor sues a corporation for patent infringement and does not win, he could be liable for the infringer’s legal costs. This could be more than $5,000,000. This liability would also be a personal liability to an investor with an interest in the patent (piercing the corporate veil and placing personal assets at risk).

There are still efforts underway by multinational corporations to get a similar bill passed in the future. Currently, there is the threat that something similar to the Innovation Act will come back.

But, the more current threat is how the courts have been moving toward not considering a patent as the property right that it has been for 200 years. A three-judge panel actually ruled that a patent is a public right. If the courts start to widely regard patents as not being property rights, as some feel they are already doing, this will greatly harm American innovation. If a court does not respect the rights of an inventor, court procedures end up being applied in ways that work against him. Recently, there have been numerous cases where judges ruled that a patent was too abstract, and the inventor was not given the normal due process of providing witnesses, testimony, or otherwise fighting to retain his intellectual property.

There is an effort underway to get the U. S. Supreme Court to take up this issue and rule in the favor of patents being property rights. If this effort succeeds, we will have, at least temporarily, stopped the erosion of inventor rights that are so important to this great nation. I and others are involved in fighting to maintain the rights of inventors, and to expand them where they have been reduced in recent years.”

Paul Morinville wrote his opinion in a paper titled, “We’ve Been Googled,” when H.R. 9 looked like it would pass in which he stated that “H.R.9 creates a Patent System without Inventors. Over the last decade, Google and others have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby Congress and produce an ingenious ‘patent troll’ narrative, which distorts the reality of invention in America. In this decade long war on inventors, H.R.9 is the Google lobby’s latest accomplishment. Not surprisingly, H.R.9 is not directed to fixing the fictional problem of ‘patent trolls.’ Instead, H.R.9 mounts its considerable damage on the patent system in general, specifically harming inventors and small patent-based businesses.”

Morinville explained, “If this bill becomes law, inventors will not be able to enforce their patent rights against moneyed corporations like Google. However, moneyed corporations like Google will still be able to enforce their patents against small businesses with even more devastating consequences to those small businesses. Patent litigation is about risk and cost versus reward. If risk or cost is too high in relation to reward, a patent cannot be enforced.”

Adrian Pelkus: “I’m an inventor named on 14 issued patents and have made my life as a serial entrepreneur doing new product development for over 30 years. Along the way I have created many startups and raised millions of dollars on the back of IP. I have coached inventors and startups every Thursday since 1985 and have run one of the larger inventor clubs in the U. S. since 2005, the San Diego Inventors Forum (www.sdinventors.org.)

He said, “What is most absurd about the America Invents Act to American inventors is the fact that with PTABs we can lose our ISSUED PATENTS… A company challenging a patent wins 90% of the time. The cost to defend is so expensive that inventors give up and are unable to afford achieving their dreams.”

Now, issued patents guaranteed as a Property Right in the constitution are being challenged. A business that infringes would just pay a royalty to the inventor if found guilty hence ‘efficient infringement.’ The biggest incentives to create new ideas and businesses are weakened because the guarantee that an issued patent will protect your IP interests and investments is gone. Patents can now become liabilities. The proposed bills to penalize an inventor with loser pays and threatens to make their investors pay was beyond absurd; it would be economic and intellectual suicide. The end of our rights and hopes as inventors is in plain sight.”

Adrian became connected to Randy Landreneau and Paul Morinville when they reached out to other inventor groups, and he was invited to join the fly-in to Washington, D.C. to fight H.R.9 in April 2015. After that fly-in to Washington, D.C. he became focused on fighting against bills that would destroy our patent system and joined the board of US Inventor in August 2016. He was already on the board of the United Inventors Association and had been working to unite the inventor clubs and groups nationwide.

In January, 2017, the Policy Panel of US Inventors authored a USI Policy Section 101 paper and in February, it was determined that they had to “get as many inventors as possible calling Congress and writing about the threat of a new bill.” 

Adrian said, “I sent out my first call to action to all the clubs and sent a second one the next week and every week since. I discussed the plan to unite the groups and clubs with Stephen Key of Invent Right and Louis Foreman of Edison Nation, who asked how they could help. With their help, we have united 24 inventor groups nationwide to fight the threat to our American patent system and protect inventors’ rights.

I established a bimonthly phone conference with the heads of the biggest organizations in the inventor community, inventor clubs, and individual inventors in an effort to create a coalition that would support a petition that reflects our concerns about and suggestions to change the America Invents Act. This coalition is a historic cooperation that will unite the inventor community and bring a voice to Washington, D.C. they need to hear!

We now have a petition that we believe will help make America great again by making it a great place for American Inventors again. This petition represents concerned citizens, inventors, entrepreneurs, and businesses from coast to coast. I’m proud to contribute my efforts to help America by restoring its patent system. 

I agree with Landreneau, Morinville, and Pelkus that the America Invents Act is gradually destroying the American Patent System. If a bill similar to H. R. 9 passes Congress, it would the final nail in its coffin.

Why is this important? Because most new technologies, especially break-through or disruptive technologies, come from individual inventors who either start a company or license their technology to companies that are more able to take them to the market.

As a mentor for San Diego’s CONNECT Springboard accelerator program and fellow director on the board of the San Diego Inventors Forum with Adrian Pelkus, I work with inventors designing new products or break-through technologies. Local inventors have the opportunity to compete in the San Diego Inventors Forum annual invention contest for best new consumer product or best new technology. All contestants must have applied for at least a Provisional patent before they can participate. The future success of their product or technology is contingent upon their having a patent they can protect from infringement. Their ability to raise the financial investment they need to bring their product to the marketplace depends upon their being able to protect their patent. No investor will take the risk of investing in a product or technology that cannot be protected.

Please join the American inventors coalition formed by Adrian Pelkus, Randy Landreneau, Paul Morinville, and others to save American inventors by signing the petition at http://www.usinventor.org/petition.

 

North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

When I was first invited to North Dakota, the plan was for me to visit the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks, but it was about 80 miles away from Fargo, and the Site’s Director was going to be out of town the week of my trip.

My first thought was questioning why North Dakota was selected as one of the six UAS test sites compared to San Diego, which is home to Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk and General Atomics’ Predator unmanned vehicles. I had given a presentation at the San Diego Lindbergh Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in the spring of 2013 while they were collaborating to prepare a proposal for being selected as a test site and was surprised when San Diego was not selected.

I posed this question to my host, Paul Lucy, the first evening we met during my trip, and he supplied part of the answer. It turns out that the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks had a long history of training airline pilots starting in the late 1960s and more recently expanded into training pilots for unmanned vehicles.

In December 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration selected North Dakota to be one of the six test sites, officially known as the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. According to the website, the mission is:  “Collaborate with FAA and industry partners to develop equipment, systems, rules, and procedures to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the NAS without negatively impacting existing general or commercial aviation.”

After I had written my other articles about North Dakota, I set up a phone interview with Nick Flom, Executive Director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. He took over the position in 2016 after the founding Executive Director, Robert Becklund, was promoted to Brigadier General and Deputy Adjunct General for the State of North Dakota. However, Nick is not new to the center since he was Becklund’s first hire when the site was established.

Nick provided me the rest of the answer as to why North Dakota was selected. He said, “When they were preparing for the selection process, the entire state went into what we called the “one voice” effort by the Governor, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, and the Office of the Adjunct General of the National Guard, the University of North Dakota, and other organizations in the state. Over $20 million was committed to establishing the UAS Test Site because the FAA test site designation did not include any Federal funding.”

As a point of reference, he told me that whole population of North Dakota is about 775,000, and there are only three Congressional Representatives. The population of the City of San Diego, California where I live is nearly double at 1.4 million.

He explained that “the wide open space of North Dakota was a big consideration, and there is no restricted air space because of population density. The FAA also wanted to diversify the test sites to reflect extremes of temperatures, and North Dakota has some of the highest and lowest temperatures of the U. S.”

The UAS Test Site website sums up the reasons why North Dakota was chosen as follows:

  • “Unequalled history, legacy, and culture of UAS.
  • Immediate access to uncongested airspace statewide and custom tailored to support your research.
  • Diverse climate and open terrain.
  • Unified commitment from North Dakota and congressional leadership, local industry, and key business decision makers.
  • State grant program to match funds from industry-academia research.
  • Strong relationship with Grand Sky, a UAS Business and Aviation Park at Grand Forks Air Force Base.”

When I asked what are his responsibilities, he answered, “We have a couple of different missions to integrate unmanned vehicles into the national air space:  supporting industry as rules are being developed, providing the test environment for application-based processes in agriculture, building inspection, insurance claims, etc., and as an economic driver for agriculture and energy. We look at unmanned vehicles as an opportunity to diversify the state’s economy. Grand Forks has an Air Force Base that has underutilized space, and there was 217 acres in Grand Forks available to establish a UAS business park. The first two tenants in the park are General Atomics and Northrop Grumman. General Atomics has a flight training facility for their sales of vehicles to foreign countries. They were training their pilots to fly in civilian air space. Northrop Grumman flies Global Hawks out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base to support some of their military customers. We help support these capabilities and have the goal of flying beyond the line of sight using the radar system at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Right now, when General Atomics is doing flight training, they have a chase airplane following along. When they can fly beyond line of sight, they won’t have to have a chase aircraft follow along and will be able to execute their mission at a lower cost.”

Nick Flom provided me with more detail about UND’s history of pilot training. He said, “UND started with two airplanes in the 1960s, and then added a helicopter program in 1980. Now, they have 150 airplanes for commercial aviation pilot training. They were the first university to add unmanned vehicle pilot training in 2010, and are now filling the increasing demand for unmanned vehicle pilots. They are the first university to offer a four-year UAS Operations Bachelor of Science degree in the U. S. We have a close relationship with UND, and we can leverage a lot of their research. The President of UND established the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems on the campus. The top leaders understand the importance of unmanned aircraft.”

Nick explained, “UND offers specialized training and curriculum development for UAS crew training and certification that includes human factors, safety management systems. It has an indoor UAS flight laboratory, a Predator Reaper Integrated Networked Computer Environment (PRINCE) simulator, a Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS) simulator, as well as a UAS Scan Eagle aircraft and simulators.”

From the University of North Dakota Aerospace home page, I learned that UND specializes in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) research, education and training for private industry, government, UAS researchers and UND graduates. The UAS research collaboration includes:

  • “UND Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research (IUAR)
  • John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences
    • Aviation, Atmospheric Sciences, Computer Sciences, Space Studies, Earth Systems Science & Policy
  • UND Aerospace Foundation
  • Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NP UAS TS)
  • UND School of Engineering
    • Unmanned Aircraft Systems Engineering Lab
    • Robotics and Intelligence Systems Lab
  • UND Department of Psychology
    • Northern Plains Center for Behavioral Research”

From all of this information, I could see that it was entirely appropriate for the UAS Test Site to be established in North Dakota near University of North Dakota.

I asked Nick about funding for the UAS Test, and he responded, “The state of North Dakota has appropriated dollars to support the test center. We also contract with government agencies such as NASA and the FAA as well as private companies to do services for which we are paid.”

Before ending our discussion, I asked Nick what were the future plans. He answered, “It depends on the needs of industry. The ability to fly aircraft beyond line of sight is very important, along with the ability to safely perform operations over populated cities. Right now, it is one pilot per aircraft, but it may be possible to have one pilot flying more than one unmanned vehicle.”

In retrospect, I realize that San Diego County would not have been a good choice for a FAA test site as we have too much restricted air restricted air space due to three military airports, San Diego’s Lindberg Field international airport, several small airports spread throughout the county, and the Tijuana, Mexico international airport right across the border. In addition, the population of San Diego County is 3.3 million, and there is only a small variation in temperature from winter to summer. There is no doubt in my mind now that North Dakota was a good choice for being selected as one of the six designated test sites.

North Dakota Manufacturers Ride Innovation to Rapid Growth

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

On the second day of my visit to Fargo, North Dakota, we went to see Andy Dalman, President/CEO of Advanced Bone Technology, which is developing SimuBone, a product that replicates a human bone. SimuBone is the first product to combine internal and external geometrical precision with mechanical properties adaptable to customer specifications, providing the look, feel, and performance desired in a clean, biohazard free, consumable product.

Andy said, “We are only a three-person team now, working out of our own apartments because we are all still students at North Dakota State University. I was part of a professor/student team that performed the initial research starting in 2012, and I was the student. But, I am in my final semester. We have a patent pending, and the University owns a portion of the patent. The standard for device, therapy, and procedure development is human cadaver or animal testing. My goal is to reduce the need for cadavers in medical research, medical device design, surgical training, public safety testing and more. SimuBone has no biological components and can be manufactured on-demand at a fraction of the cost of alternatives.”

He explained, “We make artificial bone out of composite materials using additive manufacturing (3D printing). We can replicate many different bone parts for use in education. We can produce a model based on a CT scan, which can be interpreted into a 3D model in liquid silicone. We own all of our own equipment and have been buying standard equipment that we modify. We use some modified Foam Labs equipment now because we don’t need to go to very high temperatures.”

I asked, “What other opportunities exist? Andy responded, “We have the opportunity to revolutionize medical training by providing realistic feedback without using a cadaver. Right now, medical training uses plastic models – plastic melts or burns. However, orthopedic and dental are two of the slowest industries for adopting new innovation.”

He added, “Our vision is to determine what it would take to become an in body implant company. We have a feeder grant through the North Dakota Department of Commerce. We are “boot strapping our company and have raised $140,000, but our total investment has been $200,000 to date. Of this amount, $120,000 has come from North Dakota, and another $25,000 has come from a grant from VentureWell as one of their E-team members.”

When I asked how they are marketing, he answered, “We are still figuring that out, but we are reaching out to more innovative dentists and doctors. We are currently marketing for dental applications and allowing students to give feedback. The properties of the material are bio compatible, but we are currently working on out of body applications because it is a long approval process for implant parts. We spoke to orthopedic doctors before we were ready. We do know that our market will be high dollar and low volume.

Our next stop was Appareo, which designs, develops and manufactures innovative electronic and software solutions for original equipment manufacturers, as well as direct-to-market.

We met with COO David Batcheller and Brenda Wyland, Director of Marketing. Appareo has established itself as a recognized leader in the custom design, development and manufacture of innovative electronic and software solutions within the industries of aerospace and agriculture.

Batcheller said, “Appareo was founded in 2003 and moved into the NDSU Technology Incubator when it opened in 2007. We started designing and manufacturing flight data recorders for airplanes and helicopters. Once we employed 50 people, we built our current building near the incubator in the Research Park and moved into it 2010. In 2013, we expanded our manufacturing facility to accommodate a second production line, but we quickly outgrew our space and purchased the adjacent manufacturing facility in 2014.”

He said, “Appareo’s proximity to the NDSU campus played an important role in the company’s growth. We have access to the product of NDSU, which produces some of the finest minds in the nation. ”

He explained. “Through the creative application of cutting-edge technologies, we create complex end-to-end solutions that include both mobile and cloud-based components. We are an accredited FAA Parts Manufacturing facility and are ISO 9001:2008 certified. All of our products are designed, developed, built, and supported in the USA. While our engineering and manufacturing expansion takes place in Fargo, we continue to expand our engineering capabilities with teams based in Tempe, Arizona and Paris, France. Having Appareo offices in Paris and Tempe is critical for building upon our global presence, but we have an unwavering commitment to Fargo as our home base. We’re fortunate to have access to a rare talent pool here; some of the most passionate, brightest high-tech engineering minds in the nation.”

He added, “Contributing to the growth of our agricultural business is a joint venture with AGCO Corporation, the world’s largest OEM dedicated solely to agriculture. Under the joint venture, called Intelligent Ag Solutions, we develop innovative electromechanical devices and systems, as well as technology for advanced machine control systems. We are the only company controlling agricultural products by WIFI. We work with agricultural equipment manufacturers to infuse these technologies into their equipment.

We have developed another new family of products under the Stratus brand to meet the aviation needs to comply with the FAA mandate that requires all aircraft operating in airspace that currently requires a  Mode-C transponder to be equipped with ADS-B Out before 2020. This family of products, a portable receiver, transponder, and TSO charging port, provides real-time weather and traffic information directly to pilots in the cockpit.”

His concluding remarks after we toured the shop floor were: “We have established a trajectory of rapid growth, averaging a compounded annual growth rate of more than 45%.”

Then, we drove 40- miles south of Fargo to Wahpeton to visit two companies, Giant Snacks, Inc. and ComDel. At Giant Snacks, we met with General Manager Lucy Spikermeir. Giant Snacks is a manufacturer of large sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and most recently, pistachios.

Lucy said, “The President, Jay Schuler, took over his father’s business. We came out on our own to be only the second company to specialize in large seeds. We select sunflower farmers with proven excellence for growing large sunflower seeds. We work with each farmer during the growing process and monitor the seeds as they are processed, cleaned, seasoned, and roasted to perfection. We had the roaster custom built for us. We are using more and more robotics and automation in our plant.”

When she gave us a plant tour, I was quite impressed with the size of the tanks for the processing and cleaning of the seeds. They are huge – possibly 10-12 ft. in diameter and 12 – 15 ft. high. Their roaster is nearly as big, and everything from the transfer of seeds from one stage to another as well as the filling of the individual bags is all automated. There were actually only about 15 people working on the shop floor to do everything from processing the incoming seeds to packing the bags into shipping boxes. They design their own boxes so they can be used on their automated line.

Lucy told us, “For many years, Frito Lay was the official snack for all of the pro baseball teams except for Minnesota teams. The players really liked the larger size of our sunflower seeds and the variety of the seasonings. The Minnesota teams must have shared their snacks with other teams because we were called by the new snack manager of the dugouts asking if we could provide seeds for more teams. Now all but one of the major league dugouts uses our seeds.”

She explained, “We get out pumpkin seeds and pistachios from California, but our sunflower seeds are grown locally. In the upper Midwest, we have a 70 percent market share. We are experiencing big growth in Texas and the West, but nationwide, we only have a 15 percent market share. About 80 percent of our sales are in gas stations and convenience stores, but we are getting into more chain stores. We own the land, so we could triple the size of our building. We have 35 employees, but it is still a very seasonal business. January through March is slow for sunflower seeds. This is why we added pistachio seeds to our line. We are growing double digits every year, and we will continue to add new products and new seasonings.”

I really hadn’t eaten sunflower seeds since childhood, so had no idea of the variety of seasonings:  Dill Pickle, Toasted Coconut, BBQ Ranch, Spicy Garlic, etc. Lucy gave me my choice of flavorings for bags of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios, and my family enjoyed them all when I returned home.

Our last stop was ComDel Innovation, where we met with President Jim Albrecht, CFO Bruce Weeda, and General Manager Art Nelson. ComDel Innovation is a precision manufacturer that supports their customer’s commercialization process, integrating all aspects of product development under one roof. ComDel Innovation’s contract manufacturing services include injection molding, assembly operations, precision machining, fabrication of tooling and stamping dies, metal stamping & forming, thread rolling and metal finishing.

Jim said, “Our site was founded in the mid 1970s as a 3M manufacturing location, which was spun off to Imation in 1996. ComDel Innovation was formed when Imation decided to exit manufacturing in 2007. Many of our initial employees worked for 3M and Imation, providing a tremendous nucleus to form a company around. About four years ago, ComDel Innovation created an ESOP as a way to recognize the employees for their contribution to the success of the business. The name ComDel Innovation represents our commitment to deliver innovation and results for our customers. The value offered is in support of customer’s product development needs and providing high quality products. We operate in two buildings totaling 260,000 sq. ft., running 24 hours a day and 360 days a year. ComDel Innovation started with 60 people in 2007 and is currently at 275 employees. Much of our business is the result of working with customers in the U.S. Over the past few years we have seen opportunities to work with business that are reshoring products from other regions of the world.”

I asked if they are a Lean manufacturer, and Jim said. “We had great heritage, as part of 3M and Imation, where lean principles and the continuous improvement tools were taught and implemented throughout the organization. ComDel Innovation carries those tools and practices forward in support of our customers. We also utilize a Total Quality Management Program to manage the quality of materials we purchase. High-end computer-aided engineering software is integrated into our design process for custom assembly equipment, molds, tooling, and fixtures. CAD/CAM software is leveraged for our precision machining and grinding operations.

During the plant tour, I could see why ComDel Innovation is successfully capturing business and why businesses would consider them for reshoring product to the U.S.I saw considerable automation being used in their plastic injection molding, machining, and metal forming departments. ComDel Innovation utilizes assembly cells for low to high volume production. They use robots for removing parts from machines in the injection molding, machining, and metal forming departments. They have a Materials Laboratory to perform complete thermal and mechanical testing for thermoplastic resins and conduct failure/defect analysis. It is apparent they have invested a considerable amount of money in utilizing state-of-the art equipment and systems. This is the path that American manufacturers need to take to be competitive in the global marketplace.

As I ended my trip to North Dakota, I can envision the North Dakota Department of Commerce realizing its goal of expanding its manufacturing base by fostering emerging companies and supporting the growth of existing companies. With its very favorable business climate, North Dakota maybe able to attract companies from other upper Midwest states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

NDSU Research & Technology Park Leads Region in Job Creation

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

On the first day of my visit to Fargo, North Dakota, I met with Chuck Hoge, Executive Director of the North Dakota State University Research & Technology Park (RTP), which is “dedicated to enhancing the investments in North Dakota State University by the citizens of North Dakota. The development of facilities and research centers conducive to cutting-edge research is also part of the NDSU Research and Technology Park.” The Research Park operates a 50,000 sq. ft. technology incubator, which offers space, facilities, and services to technology-based entrepreneurs and businesses.

Mr. Hoge also serves on the Fargo Moorhead Growth Initiative Fund Board. Prior to the Research Park, he was president of the Ottertail Corporation Manufacturing Platform for six years, and before that, he was president and CEO of Bobcat Corporation.

Mr. Hoge said, “I was on the board of directors of the Park before I became Interim Director in 2013 and the Executive Director in 2016. The Research Park is a 501 (c3) corporation with its own Board of Directors. The Park is home to two NDSU research buildings, the John Deere Electronic Solutions building, and two buildings occupied by Appareo, one of our Incubator graduates.”

Explaining the purpose of the research park, he said, “The Park’s goals mirror those of the State of North Dakota. Our shared mission is to diversify the economy through high-tech STEM jobs, develop the workforce and provide valuable, in-state career opportunities for North Dakota students. In the past, many of NDSU’s 15,000 students were seeking well-paid, high-tech positions out of state, so we made it our goal to create those opportunities for them in-state. The Research Park has created 1,339 direct jobs, of which 52% are held by graduates of North Dakota colleges and universities.”

“In the Incubator, our mission is to help companies succeed faster, which is why we have two of our partner organizations in the Incubator; the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Bank of North Dakota. The SBDC helps startups with anything from business plans to financial modeling and because the Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned bank in the country, they have many programs aimed at helping startup companies.”

When I asked for information about the founding of the Research Park and incubator, he said, “The Research Park was founded in 1999 and the incubator in 2007. Our funding sources were a combination of private donations, a State Centers of Excellence grant and an EDA grant.”

Hoge, said, “The Bank of North Dakota isn’t the only state entity creating programs for local startups. The Department of Commerce’s Innovate North Dakota program provides up to $32,500 in startup funds to companies in four phases ? $2,500, $5,000, $10,000, and $15,000. In the last couple years, we had over 50 companies in the Fargo area use the program to kick start their companies with a great success rate. The program doesn’t only provide monetary support; the company founders attend entrepreneur training boot camps to network with fellow founders and learn from world-renown entrepreneur, Dr. Jeffery Stamp of Bold Thinking, LLC.”

He told me that the incubator has 12 current incubator clients and has graduated five companies:  Appareo, Fargo 3D Printing, Intelligent InSites, Myriad Mobile, and Pedigree Technologies.

“In addition to programs designed to target local entrepreneurs, we also have a student competition called Innovation Challenge, where $27,000 is awarded to teams of NDSU students with the most innovative ideas. Through three rounds of judging by industry professionals, the students are challenged to pitch their innovations through a written proposal, a trade show scenario and a mock fundraising pitch. We want to inspire students to think about entrepreneurship as a career path and we use innovation as the gateway to entrepreneurship. We had three companies get their start in Innovation Challenge last year and we are hoping for more this year. The program is financially supported by a combination of a University Center EDA grant, state matching funds and contributions from local businesses and organizations.

The Incubator Manager, John Cosgriff, has a background in venture funds, and he assists companies with intellectual property, human resources and raising capital. We have monthly founder meetings where the entrepreneurs advise each other and ‘Lunch and Learn’ events where founders learn from and network with industry experts.”

After I returned home, I was emailed an Economic Impact Study released November, 2016, and a few highlights are:

  • Its companies support an estimated 1,300 indirect jobs in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
  • Its companies employ 489 graduates of NDSU (37% of total RTP employment)
  • Another 202 are graduates of other North Dakota University System schools.
  • 107 student interns are employed by the RTP companies.

While at the Incubator, we met with Chad Ulven and Corey Kratcha, who are the co-founders and CTO and CEO, respectively, of one of the incubator tenants, c2renew, which “uses proprietary biocomposite formulations to design materials, compounds, and parts that satisfy demanding engineering specifications.” With this technology, it is possible to take advantage of lower-cost, renewable resources while meeting, maintaining, and even improving upon the mechanical properties required for a product.

Dr. Ulven said, “I was trained in advanced composite materials when I was in graduate school and at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds Army Research Laboratory. Then I became faculty at NDSU researching agricultural products for use as fillers for composites. I wanted to use a variety of materials and built several predictive models based on biomass constituent make up. I met Corey by chance, and we decided to take the technology out of the lab and spin it off to make products. We started working with big companies like Bobcat and John Deere, but the time to market was too long.”

He explained, “We decided to target companies that are focused on new products and started working with EarthKind to develop consumer market products using a PLA based resin along with flax fiber.”

They showed us some of the products where their materials are used:

EarthKind Pouch Pod – All natural repellent holder that uses flax sourced from North Dakota farms as the filler to the resin.

Bogobrush – An eco-friendly toothbrush where materials, production, and shipping all take place in North Dakota and the surrounding area. The company gives a toothbrush away for everyone bought.

Corey said, “In a partnership with 3DomFuel, we have developed a collection of bio-based 3D printing filaments called c2composites. Our expertise in biocomposite formulation matched with the expertise 3DomFuel has in producing filament means that anyone with a 3D printer capable of printing PLA can print with the following custom filaments:

Wound Up – a coffee plant fiber waste filled filament

Buzzed – made from byproducts of beer production

Entwined – made from industrial hemp

LandFilament – made from upcycled municipal solid waste

We have created many different biocomposites for various customers, but we had never created anything that was 100 percent done for us. So we thought about ways to take one of our favorite things, coffee, and use it in a new and innovative design. We developed the c2cup by creating a new biocomposite formulation that is a hybridization of a bio-based resin and coffee plant fiber. We then used this biocomposite to make 3D printer filament and printed the first coffee cup. The biomass resources we use are taking the waste off the hands of the producer to be utilized in a rapidly renewable manner. We use carbon rich byproducts that also have high lignin content that improves a material’s UVA resistance. We look at how we can meet performance specifications by finding a solution that is bio-based, renewable, and sustainable.

We have a 9,500 sq. ft. production facility in a nearby industrial space. We have at least two interns from NDSU at any one time that we meet through the Incubator and other meetings.

We now have experience working with a wide variety of thermoplastics including: PP, PE, PLA, ABS, ABS/PC, and PA, and a wide variety of agricultural inputs are possible as fillers:

  • flax fiber
  • wood flour
  • hemp fiber
  • sunflower hull
  • dried distiller grains with solubles
  • soybean hull
  • oat hull
  • sugar beet pulp

Our formulations are more environmentally responsible since the petroleum feedstock can be replaced with agricultural byproducts which would otherwise be left to decay in the soil or be sent to the landfill.”

Chad told me about the collaboration they are doing with NDSU researchers to spin out c2sensor, as a result of the “development of a micro-sensor made from biocomposites and non-bioaccumulating metals. He said, “The Sensing Earth Environment Directly (SEED) Sensor can be placed during planting for in-situ measurement of soil conditions, as opposed to current methods which often require a combination of direct (i.e. soil sampling) and indirect measurements (i.e. remote sensing).

Biodegradable materials used in SEED Sensors allow them to degrade after use where planted without adding toxins to the soil. Since wireless communication with the sensor is based on passive radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, batteries are not required for operation. This technology has been tested in lab and in field trials.”

Chad said, “The SEED Sensors provide:

  • Salinity levels for allowing adjustments as needed
  • Nutrient levels for variable rate fertilizer applications
  • Moisture levels to have more focused irrigation
  • pH levels to more proactively manage inputs
  • Real time soil analysis for end of year fieldwork
  • couple with aerial mapping via UAVs or satellite imager”

At the end of our visit, Chad said, “We also provide engineering services to help design, analyze, and develop plastic and plastic-composite parts for virtually any application. While we specialize in utilizing natural and recycled materials in place of virgin polymers, we also produce solutions with more tradition materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber.”

If c2renew is an example of the cutting edge technology of the startup companies in the Incubator, North Dakota will certainly be able to reach its goal of accelerating the growth of startup and emerging companies to expand their manufacturing base and keep college graduates from leaving the state. The Park’s website describes the success to date: “The NDSU Research & Technology (RTP) Park and its companies have seen tremendous growth over the last five years according to a survey conducted by EMSI in 2010 and repeated by the RTP in 2015. As of December 2015, there were 1,105 jobs at companies located in the park and 234 jobs at RTP incubator graduate companies located around the Fargo-Moorhead area. This is a 50 percent increase over the number of jobs at the end of 2010.”

It would have been great to be able to visit with more Incubator tenants, but we had other more established companies to visit the rest of the day that I will discuss in my next article.

 

North Dakota Focuses on Accelerating Growth of Emerging Companies

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

The last week of April, I visited the Fargo, North Dakota region as the guest of the North Dakota Department of Commerce’s Economic Development & Finance Division, which is charged with coordinating the state’s economic development resources to attract, retain and expand wealth. My host was Paul Lucy, former director of the Economic Development & Finance Division, and we visited several companies and met with heads of organizations working to accelerate the growth of emerging companies and retain successful existing companies.

For many people, the only impression they have of Fargo is based on the movie and subsequent TV series of the same name. I never saw the movie and haven’t watched the TV series, but have a cousin in Fargo who is always bragging about what is happening, especially what celerity is coming to perform. I learned that the Red River is the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota, and about 230,000 people live in the greater Fargo/Moorhead region. It has one private and two public four-year universities, along with several community, technical, and business schools. With nearly 30,000 college students, it is a college town that rivals any in the nation.

As we began our first day of appointments, Paul said, “There are development projects in motion that have  a vision of making downtown Fargo a more vibrant place to live and work, which could lessen urban sprawl and result in more efficient investment in city infrastructure and services. An added bonus would be the preservation of more of North Dakota’s fertile farmland for agriculture production.”

Our first appointment was a breakfast meeting at Emerging Prairie, a co-working space in downtown Fargo. We met with Greg Tehven, Executive Director of Emerging Prairie. He said he grew up on a farm and is a 5th generation North Dakotan. When he was attending the University of Minnesota, he remembers that one of his professors recommended that North Dakota be turned back to the prairie because from 1930 – 2000 there was a “brain drain,” when the best and brightest left the state.

Greg said, “I never intended to go back to North Dakota when I graduated, but while I was an undergrad at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in 2003, I co-founded Students Today, Leaders Forever. After graduating, I joined the Kilbourne Group and worked on a variety of projects to stimulate growth and entrepreneurship in downtown Fargo.

He explained, “I burned out and worked my way around the world in 2010. I had a Rotary Ambassador scholarship and got accepted to the University of Manchester to study social change in 2011. I had a year before I started school, so I worked for Doug Burgum for a year and discovered “urbanism.” When I gave a TEDx Talk in Minneapolis, I made a conscious choice that instead of studying social change, I wanted to practice social change.”

He said, “Three of my friends and I founded Emerging Prairie in 2013 to turn Fargo into a vibrant startup community. Our mission is to connect and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Fargo-Moorhead. We do so by operating a wide variety of events and initiatives, such as the Drone Focus Monthly, the Prairie Den co-working and event space Hackathon, Meetup groups, and the Intern Experience. We have TEDx Fargo, an independently organized TED event, and 1 Million Cups Fargo, the largest and most active 1 Million Cups program in the country.

We support tech-based entrepreneurs. We are not very involved with manufacturing – most of our entrepreneurs are in software. We provide entrepreneurs: (1) a founders-only retreat (2) a platform to share their work and investment opportunities, and (3) access to consultants. I believe in transfer of information, but not a formal mentor relationship. We have to make it a “cool” climate for college students. We host midnight brunches and do a lot of weird and strange things. We have 144 members of our co-working space, modeled like a student union. We have no desire to maximize profits, but to maximize impact. Millennials are wired to maximize impact rather than maximize profits.”

He expanded, “We host the Ted Ex Fargo and will have about 2,000 people at the event this summer where the CEO of the Kauffman Foundation will speak. We host an Ecommerce conference in Moorhead. We support the drone industry and run a drone conference that started two years ago with 240 attendees the first year and 330 the second year. We expect about 600 people this year on May 31st. We host different other events and also operate an online publication that highlights the regions entrepreneurs and innovators that are turning Fargo into a flourishing tech hub. In 2016, we became a 501(c) 3 non-profit.”

Our next visit put what Greg has said into perspective. We visited the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation (GFMEDC) where we met with James Gartin, President, Mark Vaux, Executive V.P, Business Development, and Lisa Gulland Nelson, V. P., Marketing and Public Relations. Mr. Gartin said, “Our goal is to be a key catalyst for business growth and prosperity for the region. As far back as five years ago, we felt that we had a difficult situation because of our workforce and ability to attract new companies with our extremely low unemployment rate that is currently3.4%. Every time we get a RFQ, the first thing we get asked is:  Do you have enough employees? We made a commitment early on that we weren’t going to take away employees from our existing employers. While we still work to attract companies to our region, we realized that if we need to work with our two universities to change the philosophy from ‘research for papers’ to ‘research for commercialization’ to facilitate start-up companies.”

He explained, “We have funded Emerging Prairie since its inception and are helping them to support entrepreneurism. We attend and support 1 Million Cups, where the entrepreneurial community meets with K-12 superintendants, organizes manufacturing tours for high schoolers, and recruits companies to our community.

He added, “Governor Doug Burgum’s son, Joe Burgum, is committed to making Fargo the best place on earth to live. He founded Folkways that is a community-building collective dedicated to supporting the region’s culture creators. He created the Red River Market,  successfully lobbied to bring the ride-sharing service Uber to North Dakota, and puts on a course to help entrepreneurs launch local businesses.”

He said, “At North Dakota State University’s Research and Technology Park, there is great collaboration to make it a leader in developing Intellectual Property. Entrepreneur magazine ranked Fargo in the top 10 for entrepreneurism. We have a number of ‘0-60’ speed companies in operation, and a lot more that are on the cusp. The most important thing is that our senior leaders are seeing a difference in the growth of business. We modeled our approach after Brad Feld’s book, Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, based on Boulder, Colorado. The start-up phase is ten years, and we are only 4-5 years into the program. Cities can’t push entrepreneurism. You can’t make people start companies, but you can help to build the ecosystem.”

The supplemental material I was provided revealed that the costs of doing business in North Dakota are around 15 percent less than the national average because of the following:

* Research and development tax credits

* Corporate income tax exemption

* Property tax exemptions for new or improved buildings

* No personal property or gross receipts taxes

* No sales tax on eligible services, manufacturing or computer/ telecommunications equipment

* Seed and angel capital investment tax credits

* Early-stage financing resources

* State-sponsored workforce training grants

The GFMEDC website states, “Some of our largest employers include divisional, regional, national and global headquarters & facilities for Microsoft Business Solutions, Bobcat Co., John Deere Electronic Solutions, Border States Electric Supply, RDO Equipment Co., Tech Mahindra, Titan Machinery, Nokia HERE and American Crystal Sugar.” The Microsoft campus came about when Great Plains Software, Inc. was acquired in 2001. There doesn’t seem to be a dominant manufacturing industry in Fargo, as the list of top manufacturers includes farm and construction equipment, power equipment, windows/doors, metal fabrication, steel, and composites.

We also discussed the challenges of solving the skills gap and attracting the next generation of manufacturing workers. Mr. Gartin said, “Tip Strategies out of Austin, TX did an economic development strategy study for us on how to grow economy and our workforce. We have funded the plan and are implementing it. We have some of the most unique workforce strategies in the country. Industry and education mesh. We have a very robust manufacturing Day that we handle. We have funded a Maker Space in Moorhead and helped NDSU create a Maker Space, job shadowing and internships. We have a Tri-College University consortium. Students can take classes and get credit at any of the colleges and pay the same rate. Last year, the two-year technical schools collaborated so that students can take classes at any one for the same rate.”

Tri-College University is a unique consortium that allows students enrolled at any one of its five member institutions to take courses at the others at no extra charge, and to apply the credits toward graduation requirements at the home campus. The five member colleges are:

  • Concordia College – Moorhead
  • Minnesota State University Moorhead
  • North Dakota State University – Fargo
  • Minnesota State Community & Technical College – Moorhead
  • North Dakota State College of Science – Wahpeton & Fargo

When I mentioned The Playbook for Teens program I have written about that mentors middle school girls to get them interested in STEM careers, he said, “We think it needs to start in elementary school in the second or third grade when students are starting to learn math. At NDSU, there is an Engineers in the Classroom program where engineering students work in classrooms to teach math. They matched first and second graders with an engineering student to work with them on project based learning. It was tested in an 8-week program, and every student jumped up two levels. This year, there is an engineering student in every classroom, and the students are about to be tested. This could be the opportunity to show that this works, so that we can apply for a Pew grant to fund the program.”

Mark Vaux said, “Our business development program is based on attraction, business retention, and expansion. We visit at least 150 companies on an annual basis looking for opportunities and challenges, so we can help them through the challenges and barriers to growth and recommend actions to take. If companies are buying new equipment or adding workers, there are state programs that will help them.”

Lisa Gulland Nelson described some of the Workforce programs they have:

  • Operation Intern – primary sector business are eligible for matching funds of up to $30,000 per legislative biennium or $3,000 per intern for hiring North Dakota college students or high school juniors or seniors.
  • New Jobs Training Program – matching grants to assist qualified North Dakota employers in training or upgrading their employees’ skills.

Overall, I was impressed with North Dakota’s policies to provide a favorable business climate for its businesses and wish that California would adopt some of these same policies. The Fargo region is smart to focus on emerging businesses to retain their college graduates and keep them from going to other states for jobs. My next article will cover the incubator at the NDSU Research & Technology Park.

Why Universities are Important to Rebuilding U.S. Manufacturing

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

The fact that more and more manufacturers are returning manufacturing to the U. S. or keeping manufacturing here instead of moving to Mexico or Asia is good news, but on February 23, 2017, President Trump met with two dozen manufacturing CEOs at the White House.

While they “declared their collective commitment to restoring factory jobs lost to foreign competition,” some of the CEOs “suggested that there were still plenty of openings for U.S. factory jobs but too few qualified people to fill them. They urged the White House to support vocational training for the high-tech skills that today’s manufacturers increasingly require…The jobs are there, but the skills are not,” one executive said during meetings with White House officials that preceded a session with the president.”

“We were challenged by the president to … come up with a program to make sure the American worker is trained for the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow,” Reed Cordish, a White House official, said after Thursday’s meetings.”

Training today’s workers in the skills they will need for the jobs of the future in manufacturing is important, but we also need to educate the next generation of manufacturing workers. We need more engineers to rebuild American manufacturing, and universities play a key role in providing this education.

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. David B. Williams, Executive Dean of the Professional Colleges and Dean of The College of Engineering at The Ohio State University, located in Columbus, Ohio, to discuss the role universities are playing in rebuilding manufacturing and educating the next generation of manufacturing workers.

His official biography on the University website states, “Williams is involved in many university-industry economic development partnerships. He serves on the boards of ASM International, the State of Ohio’s Third Frontier Advisory Board, Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (formerly American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute), Columbus 2020, Metro Early College STEM School, EWI, Ohio Aerospace & Aviation Council, and the Transportation Research Center.”

Dean Williams said, “Ohio State University is a manufacturing R&D and training Powerhouse. Manufacturing is a critical part of the state of Ohio’s economy and accounts for 17 percent of the state’s GPD. It is also the state’s largest industry sector. We have partnered with over two hundred manufacturers in developing and funding research that can be used in their industries. It is a very important part of the college. We use the talent of our professors, graduate, and undergrad students and technology. OSU is committed to innovating applied research for product design, technology commercialization, and manufacturing for industry through its programs.”

Dean Williams mentioned that on October 1, 2016 the Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME) was designated as a new Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) affiliate organization, and that Ohio State’s MEP program will work directly with manufacturers to identify and execute growth strategies. Afterward, I was provided with information that states: “The Ohio State University’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME) will receive up to $8.6 million in federal, state and industry funding over the next five years to lead a program facilitating growth of small- and mid-sized manufacturing companies in the 15 county central Ohio region. The program is funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technologies, with matching funds provided by the Ohio Development Services Agency, which administers operations through seven regional affiliates.”

I found the information about Central Ohio’s manufacturing interesting very interesting: “The central Ohio manufacturing economy is comprised of approximately 3,350 self-identified manufacturing companies across the 15 Central Ohio counties. More than 90 percent of them have 50 or fewer employees. Many small and medium-sized manufacturing companies are aware of the growth challenges they face, but still require assistance to overcome them.” The size of companies is similar to San Diego County, in which 97% have fewer than 50 employees.

Dean Williams told me that the Center’s Executive Director, John Bair, is a successful entrepreneur, not an academic, and added that they had invited him to head up the Center after he had sold his company and semi-retired.”

He added, “We invite manufacturers to bring their problems to us, and then we put together teams of experts to work with them to solve these problems. The company gets to keep any of the Intellectual Property developed in the process of working together.

Dean Williams also said that Ohio State is home to the Ohio Manufacturing Institute, which “serves as a public policy mechanism for manufacturing within the state and nationally that facilitates the use of available technical resources for economic development.” He said, “OMI acts like a clearinghouse for Ohio to provide manufacturers with the tools they need to collaborate with a statewide network of technical resources. Its state and national policy recommendations reflect a thoughtful response to industry problems and issues OMI also engages in outreach programs that support manufacturers—from small to medium-size firms to original equipment manufacturers—by aligning with industries, academic institutions, technology support organizations and government.”

As an example, Dean Williams said, “We have had a long relationship with Honda since they moved to Marysville in 1978, which is about 45 miles northwest of here. About five years ago, we started partnering with Honda to help them develop solutions to some of their manufacturing problems. Their high-end NSX brand is currently made with advanced engineered materials and is produced at only a rate of 7-8 vehicles per day. They want to produce the Accord using the same materials and technology. At the Center, we have put together teams of experts to solve this problem.”

Dean Williams said, “Hundreds of students study abroad for part of the education. Their experience abroad strengthens their performance and helps train the people necessary to maintain and repair the machines. They are still lots of manufacturers in Ohio. We graduate about 2,000 engineers per year and about half of them stay in Ohio. There are 14 engineering colleges in Ohio, and we have the educational base to drive the 21st Century manufacturing.” Since the U.S. is only graduating about 50,000 engineers a year compared to the estimated 500,000 per year in China, Ohio State University is doing more than their fair share.

With regard to the next generation of manufacturing workers, he said, “A big part of the problem is that parents think manufacturing is like what it was in the past, so they don’t want their children to get involved in manufacturing. I was at SpaceX recently and met the chief welding engineer, and she was a graduate of Ohio State with a degree in welding. Young men and women can even get a Masters Degree in ‘joining’ through Ohio State’s online welding engineering master’s program: https://online.osu.edu/program/mswe. This discipline includes a deep understanding of the properties and testing of materials that can be welded.”

He said, “We are part of seven of the National Networks of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMIs). One of them is LIFT, which I looked up and found that it is “an industry-led, government funded consortium. By reimagining processes and procedures, the highly linked and leveraged network is facilitating technology transfer into supply chain companies and empowering the lightweight metals workforce.” Ohio State University, the University of Michigan in Detroit and EWI are the founding members of this NNMI consortium that was established February 25, 2014 following a competitive process led by the U.S. Department of Defense under the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation (LM3I).

Dean Williams stated, “We also partner with the community colleges under an economic grant program to develop the existing workforce through continuing education. Overall, through a variety of programs and camps, we interact with 70-80 high schools on a semi-regular basis. One program is Hometown Ambassadors, where students talk to younger students at their High School alma maters to help them understand the opportunities in manufacturing today.”

Since Dean Williams is on the board of ASM International, it was fitting that Ohio State University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering hosted the ASM Education Foundation’s Materials Camps for two years (2013 and 2015). These one-week training camps provide the opportunity for high-school teachers to work hands-on with metals, ceramics, polymers and composites and learn how to incorporate these activities and demos into their science classes.

The Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) was a partner with ASM International and the ASM Educational Foundation for the 2015 camp. “Curriculum content on the use of lightweight metals and new technologies [were] integrated into the programs at 45 camps around the nation…designed to enrich, stimulate and enhance the technical competence and teaching skills of middle and high school STEM teachers.”

Summer camps for teachers and students are important to attracting the next generation of manufacturing workers. More universities need to get involved with the summer camps and other programs of ASM International, the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Institute “Dream it. Do it” program, and Project Lead the Way.

Advanced Technologies being developed at Carlsbad Gateway Center

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

For the last couple of years, I have been the guest of several economic and Chamber of Commerce organizations to visit their region to tour manufacturing plants and write articles about their region’s industries, but two weeks ago, I was invited to visit an industrial park right in my back yard ? the Carlsbad Gateway Center, a Makers’ place with over 80 businesses in a 16.5 acres business park (Carlsbad is 25 miles north of the City of San Diego).

Courtney Rose of Olive PR introduced me to Toni Adamopoulos, Property Mgr. of the business park. She said, “The tenant mix includes innovation, food production, health and wellness, new technology, in addition to standard and warehouse uses. The park’s small spaces, affordable rents, flexible zoning, and wide array of  allowed permitting makes it a perfect location for small, start up, and incubator businesses to get started on their road to success in a welcoming park-like setting. Besides technology companies, the zoning permits storefront businesses such as a bakery, coffee shop, craft beer, and Kombucha beverage.”

We first visited Emcraft Systems founded by Kent Meyer and colleagues in Moscow, Russia in 2012. Kent said, “We started the company six years ago to design, build, sell, and support ARM Cortex-A and Cortex-M System-On-Modules (SOMs), which are micro controller systems programmed with Linux.” Emcraft is a California LLC headquartered in Carlsbad, and with an engineering office in Moscow, near Moscow State University. Emcraft partners met in Silicon Valley in 1998 while working on a Posix real-time operating system, and the relationship has lasted across several companies and cities. Kent continued, “We have about 6,000 customers in 36 countries, all using our system on modules or Linux/uClinux kits. All of our manufacturing is done in the U.S. We use independent contractors instead of having employees, and we form teams to handle different projects for customers.”

He explained, “We are working to highly automate the effort of embedding Linux and ARM microcontrollers for the coming wave of intelligent systems. Our customers use our system on modules to speed their time to market, and we are optimizing the design and manufacturing processes to meet the pricing needs of the market. We have found a way to be very productive with our team of 20 local and remotely cooperating engineering contractors, with our main office and manufacturing based in the US.”

In addition to Emcraft Systems, Kent is involved in local STEAM education. He has worked with local schools and the Carlsbad Education Foundation (CEF) to teach robotics and programming to youth. CEF is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization that provides private support for public education programs throughout the Carlsbad Unified School District. The Foundation is also located in the Carlsbad Gateway Center.

We got into a discussion about attracting the next generation of engineers that is too long to cover in this article, but Meyer called the next generation the “Minecraft” generation because of the technological skills and interest learned through the online collaboration and building in that game. He started as a robotics coach over six years ago when his own kids were doing LEGO robotics with the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) for fourth to sixth graders, which was funded by the Carlsbad Ed Foundation. After doing that, he said, “We came up with our own little curriculum where the robotics could be used to teach interested kids in a very productive way, while also trying to find entrepreneurial ways to improve the ratio of students to technology to get as close to a one-to-one ratio with tech as possible.”

He said that they recently developed an “IoT Educational Platform” using Chromebooks, Linux, MQTT and Node-Red to see what kids might come up with when taught IoT concepts. The effort culminated in a presentation to the Carnegie Mellon SATURN conference in San Diego, where the kids showed a highly interactive MQTT platform of over 60 nodes all communicating and collaborating (robots, drones, lights, toys, etc) and connected to Skype and email over Node-Red. The effort won Kent and the team the distinction of “2016 Top Embedded Innovator” by Embedded Computing Design magazine. Click on this link to read the interview with Mr. Meyer after the award.

Next we met with Dr. Robert Boock, CEO/CTO and Co-Founder, of Glucovation. Dr. Boock previously served as the Senior Technical Director of Research and Development at Dexcom where he was responsible for managing the research and development of Dexcom’s CGM membranes and biotechnologies. He was part of the group that developed materials for Dexcom’s SEVEN PLUS. He was a co-inventor of G4 PLATINUM sensor and was a key player in its development and commercialization. He holds more than 44 patents and over 100 pending patents as well as having more than 25 peer reviewed journal articles.

Dr. Boock said, “Our company was formed to develop the most advanced Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) that will be affordable to those desiring to monitor their diabetes.” I have several partners, and we are now up to 12 people. They will realize development and work on licensing Agreements. We have signed a deal with a Chinese company and are negotiating a deal with another Chinese company.

He explained, “We are creating a technology that doesn’t require finger sticking. We are trying to develop a simpler but just as accurate method that doesn’t require any action by the user. We want to penetrate the Type II market, which is reaching epidemic proportions. Our product will prevent its escalation. We think that we will have the right product at the right time. Type I is 2% of the population, and Type II has escalated to an estimated 13% of the population. We would rather increase the breadth of our reach rather than make more profit. Outside the U.S., this epidemic of diabetes has the potential to bankrupt countries.”

He continued, “Dexcom and Medtronic are the two biggest players in the continuous monitoring field, which takes a reading every five minutes. They have only penetrated 15% of the Type I population. The future of Type I treatment will be the artificial pancreas (sensors within a pump).

He added, “We can also measure lactate which is a precursor to septic shock, and we could also monitor burning of ketones to know if a person is burning fat when exercising. We are developing a suite of sensors that will monitor five to six of the active metabolites.”

Finally, he said, “We are doing development in cooperation with our licensees, but we are the owner of the core technology. We should be moving into the Chinese market in 2018. The U. S. is more difficult because there is a PMA one-year review cycle after clinical trials, but in China it is only a six-month review cycle. We are doing trials in China, but haven’t started in the U. S. yet.”

Since I am aware of how long it takes to develop any biotech or medical device product before it finally gets to market, I found his last comment very apropos:  “We don’t do it for the money; it’s a calling.”

Our last meeting was with Martin Bouliane, founder and President of R&3D Engineering. He is a mechanical engineer who started his career in 1993 involved in product development. He worked with Cirque du Soleil for a while as a product designer. He was previously the owner of R&3D Engineering in Canada, where the company was primarily focused on consumer product design from 2000-2007. He moved from Quebec, Canada to California in 2007.

Bouliane said, “After moving to California, I worked for two medical device companies before re-launching R&3D Engineering as a U.S. company in 2012. The company was originally focused on medical device design, but some of my customers turned to me to help them get into production. I started working with robots that they purchased from Fanuc. A team from Fanuc visited our company and invited me to become an authorized Fanuc robot integrator. We now focus on custom robotic automation design and fabrication for about 75% of our business, and we have grown to a dozen employees.”

He added, “One of our biggest problems is finding skilled people as we need people who can make things work. We have a customer who makes desalination filters, and we started working with them two years ago and have designed a robot system to move the filters, which were heavy for workers to move around. Some of our local customers have been in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry for high volume production of disposables. We are creating a system for one company that dispenses oil, and are building machines to produce the blister pack for the oil.”

He explained, “One of the big reasons for advances in automation is that machine vision has become more and more advanced, so we can program the robots to do inline inspection. We also design and build the peripheral systems to surround the robots. The robot might be only 10% of the system, and we can configure the robot to do multiple tasks. More and more companies are benefiting from integrating robotics and automation into their manufacturing operations.”

This interview was eye opening to me because I had seen very little automation or use of robotics in local companies with which I do business. The main reason is that 97% of San Diego County Advanced Manufacturing businesses are companies with fewer than 50 employees. Another reason is that I do not do business with biotech companies as they do not buy the type of fabrication services I represent. I recruited Mr. Bouliane to speak at our upcoming March Tech San Diego Operations Roundtable event on the subject of the advances in robots, automation, Artificial Intelligence, and machine vision. He will also discuss the future of automation and robotics and give his opinion on whether jobs will be lost or created. There is a wide divergence of opinions on the answer to this question, so it will be interesting to hear his opinion.