Emerging Manufacturers of the Year


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.


Upgrading the Tuber Section

Upgrading the Tuber Section

Lamb Weston’s expansion of a french fry processing plant showcases the state’s potato industry.
No doubt you’ve noticed that Washington is in the grips of a gustatory frenzy, with an entire industry growing up around the desire to provide eaters and drinkers with the latest in exotic, artisanal, handcrafted, small-batch, organic food and beverages.
For sheer economic impact, though, few comestibles can top the humblest of vegetables and possibly the most popular mass-market product made from it: the potato and the french fry.
Lamb Weston, part of packaged-foods giant ConAgra Foods Inc., is adding a second french-fry production line to its existing plant in Richland. Construction is expected to be finished by autumn 2017. 
Even by the standards of big agriculture, in a region that does food processing in a big way, the Lamb Weston project is no small potatoes. The $200 million-plus investment will add 128 full-time positions to a plant that already employs 500. The new line will increase annual processing capacity by more than 300 million pounds of spuds.
Potatoes don’t get quite the same attention as Washington’s other major agricultural commodities — wheat and apples — but they are a big deal nevertheless. In 2014, potatoes were a $771 million crop in Washington, placing the state second only to Idaho (which touts “Famous Potatoes” on its license plates) in the nation. The Washington State Potato Commission says Washington growers plant more than 160,000 acres annually in the Columbia Basin and the Skagit Valley, producing yields per acre that are the highest in the world — about 30 tons — and twice the national average.
Making stuff from potatoes is also a big deal in Washington. Nearly 87 percent of Washington’s potato crop gets processed as dehydrated potatoes, potato chips and frozen french fries. The commission says Washington leads the United States in frozen french fry production, accounting for 20 percent of the nation’s output. Fries are also a major contributor to Washington’s export economy: Of the french fries made in this state and shipped internationally, Japan alone purchases about 65 percent.
Growing, harvesting, transporting, storing and shipping large quantities of potatoes make for a sizable economic presence. With about 4,500 employees across the Columbia Basin, Lamb Weston operates an innovation center in Richland, it has corporate offices in Kennewick and it runs processing facilities in Connell, Pasco, Quincy and Warden, in addition to the Richland plant that’s being expanded. It sources potatoes from growers in the Columbia Basin — its purchases will increase when the new line begins operating — and it sells frozen potato products like packaged french fries under its own brand names as well as for sale by retailers under private labels. 
It’s not alone, of course. Idaho-based Simplot has potato-processing plants in Moses Lake and Othello, each making an array of products, including french fries. The Canadian potato giant McCain Foods also has a french fry plant in Othello.
French fry consumption is considered a maturing market. At times in the past decade and a half, there have been reports of consumption plateauing and even declining. Still, the London-based market research firm Euromonitor International predicts a 10 percent increase — about 2.6 billion pounds — in the worldwide frozen-potato category between this year and 2020.
That projection appears to be enough to encourage ConAgra, which is spinning out Idaho-based Lamb Weston as a separate publicly held company this fall, to invest not only in the Richland expansion but also in Boardman, Oregon, where it plans to make more hash brown patties and potato puffs.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to help our customers realize their global growth projections,” says Lamb Weston President Greg Schlafer of the expansion, “but we need to make more french fries to do that.”
The Richland project will add operations, maintenance and technical staff — a mix of salaried and hourly positions — to run the line. But the economic impact goes beyond those employed at the plant, during and after construction.
For example, more food processing means more work for companies that manufacture food-processing equipment, such as Walla Walla’s Key Technology, which makes optical inspection systems, laser sorters and sizing, grading, and packaging conveyors for potato lines. While the company won’t get specific about customers and their projects, Key’s most recent quarterly earnings report mentions “a large seven-figure order received from a major potato processor.”
The Lamb Weston expansion also signals the potential of the Tri-Cities and the state as a place for large-scale food processing. Schlafer cited cooperation from Governor Jay Inslee’s office, the state Department of Commerce, the Association of Washington Business, the city of Richland and the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, as being key “community partners.”
TRIDEC President and CEO Carl Adrian believes the Lamb Weston announcement will certainly be heard elsewhere in the industry. While they might not care to admit to it, Adrian says, executives at other food companies see announcements like Lamb Weston’s and start asking, “If they’re there, how come we’re not?” 

Potato Power
The humble spud’s impact in Washington state.

160,000 | Washington acres planted in potatoes
#1 | Washington potato growers’ worldwide ranking in per-acre yield  
87% | Proportion of Washington potatoes processed into french fries, potato chips and mashed potatoes
99% | Proportion of Washington potato farms that are family owned
$4.6 billion | Industry’s impact on the state economy
23,500 | Jobs supported by the Washington potato industry
8% | Proportion of potato volume that becomes a byproduct (such as starch for the paper industry or feed for the cattle industry) in a french fry plant

Shoestring Operations
Companies making french fries in Washington

Lamb Weston | Plants in Connell, Pasco (2), Quincy, Richland and Warden

J.R. Simplot Co. | 
Plants in Moses Lake and Othello

McCain Foods | 
Plant in Othello
SOURCE: Washington State Potato Commission