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Tech Tour Day Three: Amazing Spinoffs Around Great Lakes Bay

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Claude Brown, president of Eovations LLC in Bay City, with Kevin Nichols, the company's research director, with samples of the company's engineered wood substitute

Claude Brown, president of Eovations LLC in Bay City, with Kevin Nichols, the company’s research director, with samples of the company’s engineered wood substitute

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(Check out my photos from the road! Click here)

Michigan has a long, proud tradition of 20th Century entrepreneurship in the technologies that built today’s world, from chemical to automotive.

So it makes sense that the part of Michigan that used to be called the Tri-Cities, but which is now known by the more pleasing and nautical name Great Lakes Bay, is building on advanced, spinout versions of those same technologies for the 21st Century.

The Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2011 Spring Tech Tour visited both longstanding and startup companies in Bay City, Saginaw and Midland Tuesday, and saw an amazing array of job-creating high-tech.

My day started at 7:30 at Eovations LLC, a startup company in Bay City that’s developing technology created at Dow Chemical.

The company takes polypropylene, rock dust, a tiny bit of lubricant and pigment, and combines them under heat and pulling force on a 300-foot-long production line to create attractive, durable and amazingly tough artificial wood planks. The material stands up to sledgehammer blows that shatter normal wood.

Applications include siding for houses, decking, docks, door and window frames, fencing, railroad ties, furniture and more. Siding made of the material easily meets a hurricane building standard of standing up to a 2-by-4 launched at 40 mph.

Eovations president Claude Brown said the six-employee company has ambitious growth plans — like $50 million in sales within a few years.

“It’s a spinout that became a buyout as investors became more comfortable with it,” Brown said. Investors include Universal Forest Products of Grand Rapids and McKinley Technologies of Bay City.

The company moved into a 77,000-square-foot former metal machining building in Bay City in November.

More information on the company’s products can be obtained from Brown at claude.brown@EoTek.com.

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Then it was off down I-75 — hey! Close enough to Detroit again to pick up WWJ Newsradio 950! — To Nexteer Automotive Corp., at the former General Motors Saginaw Steering Gear plant that’s now producing next-generation electric steering systems.

And boy, are they geeked about next-generation electric steering systems.

Luis C. Canales, director of global external affairs for Nexteer, and Kevin Ross, product line executive for the global steering business line, walked me through the history of electric power steering, which started 20 years ago in small cars. Nexteer pulled off the first mass-market application, on 600,000 Fiat Puntos in 1999.

Ross said Nexteer is unique in its industry because it designs its own circuit boards and all their electronic and mechanical components.

“Every nut and bolt in our systems are designed right here in central Michigan,” Ross said.

Ross said Nexteer’s systems are the lightest in the industry, allowing electric steering to achieve its full potential of improving fuel economy by about 1 mpg in a typical car.

And electric steering is also a key to advances like effective electric vehicles, hybrids, automatic parking systems, lane-keeping systems and more.

I got a tour of Nexteer’s engineering offices — 1,000 engineers, all working on steering — and its laboratories, where steering systems are tested for noise and vibration. I also had a bit of fun on the Nexteer test track hard by I-75, where I got to throw a Fiat 500 with Nexteer electric steering around a few sharp curves. (Awesome little car, by the way.) The company is hiring engineers, too

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Then it was back up to the rural area along the Bay-Midland county line to Dow Corning’s Auburn factory, where I met with the designated super-genius of the trip so far — Mark J. Loboda, chief scientist of compound semiconductors.

Loboda noted that Dow Corning has grown its semiconductor business from materials to protect a circuit board in a car or a phone, to materials that connect microprocessors, to making next-generation semiconductor materials.

In Auburn, Dow Corning uses high-tech proprietary processes to create silicon carbide, which allows designers to build much more powerful, hotter circuits than silicon alone.

“It’s between silicon and diamond, which is the ultimate semiconductor but very expensive and very hard to work with,” Loboda said. “Silicon carbide does everything silicon can do but you can press it much harder. You can’t overheat it. You can’t run too much current through it. You don’t need cooling so you can pack more computing power into the same space.”

Dow Corning’s silicon carbide operation in Auburn, bolstered by strong interest from the United States Department of Defense, has so far created more than 60 jobs.

Dow Corning is hiring at the plant now, everything from manufacturing engineers to physicists to chemical engineers to electrical engineers, at all education levels, from bachelor’s degree to Ph.D.

Have new program at Saginaw Valley.

Brian Money, site manager at Auburn, said the 200,000-square-foot plant now has around 230 employees making no less than 750 products.

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Then it was a short hop farther into Midland to a truly cool little company, Savant Group.

Rebecca Cox, vice president of operations and finance, said she was the only one of her parents’ 10 children interested in taking over the family business founded by her father in 1969.

The original Savant Inc. was formed by Cox’s dad, Theodore “Ted” Selby, in 1969, as a consulting firm in the oil and lubricant industries, in which he had been a longtime chemist for General Motors and Dow.

“Pretty soon he realized it was hard to be a technical consultant if you didn’t have a laboratory in your back pocket,” Cox said. “So he started acquiring instruments on his own and continued to build, so now we have a pretty advanced lubricant testing laboratory.”

The Savant Group established Tannas Co. in 1981 as an instrument manufacturing company, responding to the need for new testing gear in the lubricant industry. The Institute of Materials Inc. came along in 1983. It’s a publisher of information on engine oil data, at www.engineoilinfo.com. The institute employs a small army of people all over the world who buy engine oil all over the world and ship it to Midland, where it’s blind-labeled and tested.

“All that data is purchased by the lubricant industry,” Cox said. “That’s how they keep track of who makes what, whether it performs as promised. They use it for competitive intelligence and research and development for their next products.”

Savant Group also purchased King Refrigeration Inc. in 1996, makers of laboratory instruments for the lubricants industry.

Cox said the 45-employee company is growing — looking in particular right now for accounting, office administration and a chemist.

Cox said the company is also looking to add 10,000 square feet to its longtime 16,000-square-foot headquarters, labs and manufacturing space.

Those offices lie right next to a busy stretch of US-10 on Midland’s east side, where thousands of people drive by every day, completely unaware of the crucial high-tech part of the oil industry that they’re passing.

“That’s the way we like it,” Cox said with a grin. “That way we can just keep on doing our thing.”

More at www.savantgroup.com.

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My final stop of the day was Quad Sil Inc., which does business as Raven Analytical in a similarly obscure corner of a tech park on Midland’s south side.

There, co-founders and Dow Corning veterans John Blizzard and William McKellar gave me their best Bob & Ray impersonation. Or maybe it was the two guys from Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. Anyway, these two do fascinating chemical research and development work and finish each other’s sentences, eager to deny there’s much of anything interesting going on there when it’s patently obvious that there’s plenty of interest going on there.

Blizzard spent 35 years at Dow Corning in R&D and technical service. McKellar spent 39 years at Dow Corning, originally in R&D, but then went to law school and became a patent attorney for the silicone giant.

Today, QuadSil develops its own products, consults for other chemical companies, and provides water and wastewater consulting. It has a small branch lab in Roscommon.

“Most of our effort is more centered around smaller companies who cannot afford a chemist or their own intellectual property department, who need some reasearch or IP protection, and that’s where we come in,” Blizzard said.

The company currently has six employees, recently adding a lab water analyst, and is trying to add a seventh, a polymer chemist.

More at http://www.quadsil.biz/.

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That was it for my Tech Tour but that’s hardly it for the Great Lakes Bay region. The fine folks at Midland Tomorrow and Bay Future Inc. provided me with a ton of information on other recent tech-based economic development advances in the region:

* Dow Chemical has chosen Midland to be the site of its first full-scale production facility for the Dow Powerhouse solar shingle, a $250 million plant that will employ 1,270.
* It’s also the home of the Dow Kokam Advanced Battery Group, a joint venture between Dow Chemical and Kokam America, an 800,000-square-foot lithium polymer battery manufacturing plant that will employ 600 and produce enough batteries to supply 60,000 hybrid or electric vehicles per year.
* Dow is also investing $12.5 million to establish a Business Process Service Center with India’s Tata Consultancy Services Ltd.
* The spun-off Styron business of Dow Chemical will retain 180 jobs in Midland at a North America Operations Center
* San Jose, Calif.-based GlobalWatt is building a 500-job, $177 million solar module production plant in Saginaw.
* Saginaw Valley State University has approved a new graduate degree program, authorizing a Master of Science in Energy and Materials degree. The curriculum was developed with input from leading local employers, as well as regional chemists, engineers and physicists.

Thanks to everyone in the Great Lakes Bay region, especially Scott Walker of Midland Tomorrow and Magen Trask of Bay Future Inc., for putting this visit together for me.

And now it’s on to Grand Rapids, as the Spring Tech Tour continues.

More from my Spring 2011 Tech Tour

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