Emerging Manufacturers of the Year

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Small Company (tie)
Smartplug Systems, Seattle

Seen one electrical plug, you’ve pretty much seen them all, right? That’s not true anymore in the industrial segment, where SmartPlug has come up with a new design for a shore-power plug for the marine industry.

Ken Smith, the founder of SmartPlug, got the idea from repairing fire-damaged boats, thinking about the causes of those blazes and ways to prevent them. The big culprit, Smith decided, was the conventional design of ship-to-shore electrical connections that could overheat and loosen.

SmartPlug’s heavy-duty plug and receptacle are designed to increase contact surface while reducing weight-bearing load, as well as opportunities for water intrusion and corrosion. There’s no twisting involved to plug it in, which, over time, can loosen the connection. Side levers lock the plug in place, and the cover of the receptacle doubles as a clamp to make the connection more secure. SmartPlug also incorporates a built-in thermostat to shut off power in case of overheating.

Result: a reduction in the chances of marine fires. In addition to its 30-amp and 50-amp marine plug systems, SmartPlug has been lining up certifications for international sales and is now developing products for the RV, trucking, electric-vehicle and industrial markets. The company lists more than 400 dealers in the U.S. and Canada.

Small Company (tie)
MC Energy, Spokane

From left, MC Energy CEO Mark Folsom, R&D director Curt Higgins and business development director Cory Arnold, photographed by Matt Mills McKnight.

The wind-energy category isn’t just for big multinational companies to play in. Small companies like MC Energy can build markets too. Founded by Mark Folsom, a manufacturing entrepreneur with several other ventures, MC Energy is building small wind turbines—5 and 15 kilowatts—for the farm, residential and commercial market.

These turbines aren’t scaled-down versions of the giant wind turbines used by utilities. MC Energy’s turbines use a direct-drive design between the blades and the generator, eliminating the gearbox that can be a source of expensive failures. The blades are designed to fold back on the housing as wind picks up, in a shape resembling a badminton shuttlecock. That ability means the turbine doesn’t have to be shut down or locked in place during wind gusts. The turbine drive shaft connects directly to the generator, so there’s no complicated and expensive gearbox to be repaired.

MC Energy has been creating a dealer network to build sales, and wants to address a flaw in the small wind-energy market—little support for consumers once the sale is made—by maintaining close contact with its buyers. The company also hopes to build a manufacturing plant that will get half of its electricity from on-site wind and solar power.

Midsize Company (tie)
FluxDrive, Sumner

There can be problems with mechanical couplings in the drive shafts of machinery: They break down, they transmit vibrations and they require a huge surge of power to start (and the owner pays for that peaking capacity). Variable-frequency drives, which rely on electronic controls, have their own drawbacks.

One solution is the magnetic coupler or clutch, which replaces the physical connection between an electric motor and a pump or blower. By using magnets to transfer the torque across an air gap, and varying the distance between them to vary the speed, magnetic connections significantly reduce the amount of energy needed to start or keep a motor operating.

Magnetic couplers are preferable to mechanical or variable-frequency drives, FluxDrive says, because they’re safe and reliable in harsh environments such as saltwater or chemical vapors, are easily installed on existing drive trains, require less maintenance and operate more efficiently.

FluxDrive was started in 2003, but 2010 was the year it moved from development stage to manufacturing and sales. The company raised $1.4 million in capital to develop sales and marketing channels as well as to expand its product line of adjustable-speed drives.

Initial customers of Flux Drive products have been zoos, aquariums and aquatics facilities. Sales were just $150,000 in 2010, but the company is aiming for eight to 10 times that amount in 2011.

Midsize Company (tie)
NewWood, Elma

Lost in the various corporate shufflings and restructurings at Boise Cascade was a 275,000-square-foot plant in Grays Harbor County at which new technology was to be used to produce a composite wood-plastics material for siding. Boise Cascade actually started the plant and tested the technology, but shut down the facility before reaching commercial volumes of production.

Enter John Bowser, a former building-products executive and industry consultant, who purchased the plant with the intent to start production in the second quarter of this year. His plan is to turn recycled wood and polyethylene plastic into boards and panels that can be used for fruit bins, pallets, crates, concrete forms, siding, flooring and fencing.

The Composite Materials and Engineering Center (CMEC) at Washington State University has been working with NewWood on potential markets—researchers have identified more than 100 uses for the product—and CMEC is also documenting the material’s durability and recyclability.

At full capacity, NewWood expects to recycle more than 170 million pounds of wood and plastic waste a year, and employ 150 people. Aside from taking lots of wood and plastic out of the waste stream, NewWood hopes its products will prove easy to work with in making products superior to existing alternatives: fruit bins that can be washed and reused, fencing boards that are resilient in any climate, and food crates that are resistant to bacteria.

 

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