Tech Tour Day Five: Tri-Cities Terrific
BAY CITY (WWJ) — The Tri-Cities of Saginaw, Bay City and Midland is another corner of Michigan where there’s a proud tradition of, you know, actually building stuff, even when it comes to modern technology.
And this tradition continues, even as the area remarkets itself as the Great Lakes Bay Region.
The fifth day of the 2013 Spring Tech Tour began bright and early at Duperon Corp. in Saginaw. The company has just moved in to a 74,000-square-foot plant that once housed an auto supplier, and then later a solar energy company that went belly-up.
Well, the building is certainly back in productive use now. The third-generation family company has refurbished it in a striking theme of dreams.
Duperon was originally a pump manufacturer, but Terry Duperon said the local drain commissioner complained that the best pumps in the world won’t stop a flood if they get clogged up with all the debris that floods bring. So company chairman Terry Duperon sketched out a solution on a napkin and got to work.
The result was the Duperon Self-Cleaning Trashrack, introduced in 1979. The rack is a rotating conveyor belt, tilted at an angle to the water flow. Metal “fingers” pick up grass, trash and other debris that would otherwise clog a pump intake and scoop it to the side of the top of the intake, where it can be disposed of. he screen, then it conveys the debris off the screen.
The original machines are still in use, but Duperon invented an improvement in 1985, the FlexLink and FlexRake, now used in more than 675 installations in municipal wastewater, industrial wastewater and open channel applications. Duperon engineered out submerged bearings and sprockets by making the long chain links themselves their own sprocket.
“The idea has always been the fewest parts possible,” Duperon said.
Duperon’s daughter, Tammy Bernier, joined the company in 1993 and took the reins as president and CEO in 2010. The company has 54 employees. Manufacturing of components is outsourced, mostly to Michigan suppliers, and assembly is still done in-house.
The company competes with as many as two dozen other firms in the field, from mom and pop operations to giants like Siemens and GE. More at www.duperon.com.
Then it was back to a familiar spot from earlier Tech Tours — Nexteer Automotive, the former General Motors Saginaw Steering Gear plant.
I toured a different part of the plant from previous tours — Plant 3, the oldest of six plants on the 400-acre Nexteer site. It was built in the early 1950s to make power steering pumps for GM.
Those guys swimming in hydraulic fluid would barely recognize most of Plant 3 today. Today it’s making the most modern electric-powered steering unit on the planet that will soon be a part of all three Detroit Three automakers. Heck, even the spiffy Ram 1500 I’m driving for the tour uses it. Nine out of 10 trucks and full-size SUVs will be using it within a few months.
And the new parts of the plant are kitchen-clean. No grease, no grime, no dust. The 2,700 hourly workers and 1,500 salaried and contract employees might as well be wearing white lab coats in a lot of this plant.
The parts of the plant that build EPS have been rebuilt literally from the ground up, according to Luis G. Canales, director of global external affairs at Nexteer.
Nexteer has announced more than $200 million in investment at the plant over the past two years. And 55 percent of the sourcing of assembly gear in the plant is from Michigan suppliers, Canales said. Those investment announcements include 325 new jobs at the plant — good jobs, in a plant where the average labor rate tops $27 an hour.
More at www.nexteer.com.
From Nexteer I headed to another manufacturing plant, but one with a far different vibe. Emcor, founded in 1982, is a small specialty shop with 18 employees in a plant at the edge of a Bay County woods where deer and wild turkey occasionally wander by.
Vice president Kyle P. O’Brien said his father started the company after the early-80s recession, opting to make parts for aviation instead of his legacy business of automotive.
Emcor is a global specialist in ball screws — cylindrical screws that convert rotary motion into linear motion. Big ones are used to move flight control surfaces on large aircraft, including the largest one there is, the C5 Galaxy transport plane. Smaller ones are used in everything from the B1 bomber to airliners. And small ones are used in missile fins, drone aircraft like the Predator, in spacecraft and in oil exploration.
The company’s been in its current headquarters since 2000. A 2008 addition added 5,000 square feet, bringing the total building size to 25,000. It’s full, but it’s adequate for now, O’Brien said.
The making of ball screws is as much art as science, O’Brien said, noting that even well-educated, degreed engineers need training and skill to make ball screw assemblies.
Emcor is known for the long tenure of its employees, which O’Brien estimated averages more than 20 years.
“If we get a big order we don’t just hire four or five toolmakers and then lay off,” he said. “We work overtime, we work harder, to get the order out. and when we do hire someone we invest a significant amount in getting them acclimated here.”
More at www.encorsolutions.com.
My final visit of the day proved that the old adage about small is beautiful.
The MidMichigan Innovation Center used to be housed in a big 112,000-square-foot former Dow Chemical agriculture building on the eastern outskirts of Midland. Last year, the MMIC moved to a mere 7,000 square feet in another Dow building much closer to downtown.
Yet today’s MMIC has four times the number of incubator clients as its original incarnation.
What gives? “Truly, Midland is now the incubator, and Saginaw and Bay City,” MMIC program director Chris Moutrup said. “We’ve taken on a lean model. It’s all about working with the companies, not working with a space any more.”
Today’s MMIC has 75 clients, only 11 of which are based at the MMIC itself.
The MMIC is also branching out into other areas of the economy. It just hosted a Health Tech Forum in which it spotlighted six growing young biotech companies, which Moutrup called “a vertically focused investment forum to recruit doctors and medical professionals into the angel investing arena.”
The event drew about 60 people. In the future, Moutrup said, the MMIC plans an agriculture tech forum.
Also since my last visit, the MMIC has expanded northwestward with a Traverse City office.
“We’re getting some good growth out of Traverse City,” Moultrup said. “There are some neat IT companies ther, and some inventor types.”
Included is Newgum, maker of a new baby teething care device, which just got funded for $5,000 in Grand Rapids’ Start Garden program. Moultrup credited the Traverse City success to the hard work of northern Michigan program director Heather Fortin.
Other tenants of the former “big” MMIC have graduated. Caltech Industries, which manufactures hospital and commercial disinfectants, was bought by Clorox, and today operates as a Clorox research center. Advanced Battery Concepts is still alive and well, making batteries for a wide variety of applications out of a plant in Clare. Also still kicking is Gantec, which produces natural products from an African tree for pest control and plant growth.
“When we moved out of that building we helped fill a lot of the vacant real estate in Midland,” Moultrup said.
I wrapped up my morning visiting four more MMIC clients. Serenus Johnson Portables, www.sjohnsonportables,com, builds temporary hospitals for disaster response or construction projects. It built a hospital in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo. in less than 90 days. SendGCash.com offers no-fee cash transfers to the Phillipines. Smudgebusters offers a really cool variety of screen cleaning and cases for smartphones and iPads. Mypaydayplan.com offers a way to “save up” for your major payments like house and car every month, making it more convenient to your paycheck schedule. And White IEQ Consultants offers advanced antimicrobial kits for health care workers that offer novel techniques that ward off so-called resistant bacteria, too.
All in all, quite a morning, and quite a region. There’s a real spirit here that should translate into lots of growth in the years ahead.
I want to especially thank Natalie Schiefer, assistant economic developer at Saginaw Future, who put together my itinerary for Tuesday and served as my escort during the day. Thanks a bunch, and hope to see you — all of you — next year!
Now it’s off to Grand Rapids, the de facto capital of West Michigan, where I’ll be seeing what the folks at the local economic development agency, The Right Place Inc., are up to. Should be fun!