1997-2007…The Era of Energy Awareness
Harbec ended the late 90’s and entered the 21st Century with continued growth in their customer base and increased technical expertise. They survived the Y2k threat, economic slumps and other challenges while continuing to grow in size, capability and customer base. As they did, the amount of space dwindled and by 1998 and 1999 they needed to get serious about another expansion. Around this time, they had a wonderful opportunity with a customer to do a very large project in the models department. It would be very profitable but they were going to need more equipment and more space.
As they set out to design the space to fulfill the upcoming needs and give them opportunities for continued growth, Harbec’s president, Bob Bechtold began to investigate alternatives in the areas of energy. He knew that they would need to air-condition the space after dealing with the “Sweat Shop” environment their molding facility became in the hot days of summer. Unfortunately, the price of air conditioning would add a significant overhead cost and make it more difficult to be competitive. They needed an alternative that would be cost effective and insure a comfortable and safe working environment.
Ever since he could remember Bob was captivated by the potentials of renewable energy. He installed his first wind turbine at his own home in 1981. He was also intrigued by geothermal energy and in the early 90’s installed heat pump and geothermal ground loop system to heat and air condition his home. These experiences showed him how this amazing invisible “fuel-less” energy could make a significant difference in the cost of heating and cooling a home so he started to think of ways that he could try to apply similar advantages to the company. He had also become more aware during those days of the increasingly evident negative impact that burning fossil fuels was having on the environment. It made him proud to be able to give his family the comfort and security they needed in an alternative way that was reliable, cost effective and not environmentally damaging.
Armed with what he had learned from his home experiences, he began to investigate how it might benefit Harbec. By the late 1990’s he had developed a plan that he believed would give Harbec the same advantages and pride that he had realized at home. He put together a proposal with the help of a unique energy engineer who was exceptional because he was willing to listen to Bob’s ideas and consider them with an open mind. Most engineers were very conservative, and because Bob’s plan was not being done or they had no experience with it, they would not even try. This person was willing to consider alternatives and then apply his engineering knowledge, to determine if it was plausible.
Eventually Bob put together a proposal and tried to get financing. Bob reflects, “Unfortunately, I made the mistake initially of over emphasizing the environment or ‘green’ aspects and how it would help to improve the future of our children and the planet. After several months of failure I realized that I was inadvertently branding myself as a burnt out hippy or a tree hugger and after being turned down by more than 30 banks between here and Ohio, I decided I needed a new way to ‘sell’ my proposal. After a few months and with the help of numbers I was able to get from the engineers, I presented a new proposal for the same project but only used financial reasons and economic benefits for doing it. This time they listened and took me seriously and the needed expansion of 17,000 feet and our first energy project got funding in 1999 and was completed and operational in 2001.”
Harbec added the needed new space along with an onsite generation (combined heat and power) facility that included the first phase of an energy solution that was destined to grow and change significantly during the next 15 plus years. By pursuing the efficiency opportunities that energy awareness taught them, Harbec was able to realize the economic advantages that Bob had experienced at his home. This also insured that they had a pleasant and comfortable place to work. Furthermore they were able to make a significant improvement in quality in molding. Before this their number one quality issue was moisture in their material, causing assorted dimensional and cosmetic issues. After installing A/C, they reduced and almost eliminated the problem by controlling the moisture in the system’s output.
Along with all these benefits, an unexpected advantage was presented to them. The wind turbine became a differentiator that identified Harbec as a unique company. Bob says, “I never could have intentionally branded the company so effectively if I tried.” As a result, the community has come to know them as the wind turbine company and usually thinks of Harbec as a caring and responsible manufacturing company even if they don’t know exactly what they do.
Initially most of the employees thought that this was just a personal passion or hobby and did not get the idea that it was saving the company a lot of money. Then one-day Harbec’s controller suggested that a good way to help everyone better understand the economic advantages that this energy management system gave Harbec was to convert the savings of energy costs to personal impact that resulted in every employee’s profit sharing. So at the next company meeting he turned the savings for the company into the dollar impact on everyone’s profit sharing check. The employees were amazed.
What started out as a simple way to control energy cost, improve working conditions, help profitability and reduce expenses, grew in unplanned ways. As time passed, the other unspoken side (environmental benefits) of the energy project started to become acceptable to be considered by businesses. It had also been renamed and what used to be called green or renewable was now referred to as ‘sustainable’ and the environmental issues became more acceptable to consider. Today not only is it acceptable, but the majority of the modern world is on its way to an economy that is based on carbon values. Meanwhile, Harbec stands as one of a very small number of manufacturing companies worldwide that have taken responsibility for the carbon that would normally be produced in their manufacturing efforts and, cost effectively, eliminated them.
As this decade drew to a close, a series of new challenges presented themselves The Great Recession, which was the worst economic period since the Great Depression affected Harbec with a down turn in business. Fortunately, they lost no customers during the recessionary period, but the customers they had, greatly reduced their orders. To survive they needed to reduce and economize where ever possible, and so they did.
During this period, they were also entering the world of metal additive manufacturing. Initial experiences came from their DTM machine which not only allowed them the ability to grow nylon parts to .005” accuracy but also to produce metal parts. In those days they did this by first growing what was called a ‘green part’ which was a mixture of polymer and metal powders. The resulting shape from the growing process was similar to the consistency of chalk. The green part was carefully removed from the DTM machine and placed in a nitrogen environment kiln along with strategically placed bronze pellets. The kiln heated the combination to the correct temperature where the polymer powder would vaporize. This created microscopic voids between the metal powder and caused the bronze to melt at the same time. The melted bronze then infiltrated the voids by capillary action and the result was a part that was a perfect blend of 60% tool steel and 40% bronze.
This new potential was not only interesting for them to use for metal prototype parts, but it intrigued them as a possibility for use in mold making efforts. The thought of mixing the wear ability of tool steel with the conductivity of bronze should have been a perfect mixture for molds. However, each time the metal parts came out they had a slight droop factor that would cause them to be inaccurate and as unusable as mold details. Harbec had tasted the potential of metal additive, now they just needed to wait for the technology to improve, and it did. Meanwhile, Bob was investigating a new technology in Europe called Direct Metal Laser Sintering that was able to grow the metal parts directly and needed no secondary sintering process.
The company that had invented this was EOS and so Harbec set their sights on obtaining this new capability. This was to prove to be difficult, because an American company was working hard to keep it from coming to the USA. They persisted though and as a result they were the first company in the US to receive an EOS DMLS machine, which is still being used today.