Snohomish County's manufacturing "big gun" may be Boeing and the many aerospace equipment vendors that support the Big B, but dozens of small manufacturing companies, many focused on groundbreaking technologies, are quietly growing right here in the Marysville-Arlington area, creating local jobs while investing in innovative designs and processes.
The cities of Marysville and Arlington, with cooperation from the Tulalip Tribes, are working together to create a new regional Manufacturing/Industrial Center (MIC) for areas of Arlington that include current industrial zoning and the Smokey Point Master Plan area of Marysville. The designation would allow both cities to qualify for state and federal transportation and infrastructure improvement funding.
The MIC designation process is administered by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) and Snohomish County Tomorrow (SCT). The employment threshold for PSRC designation is a minimum of 10,000 existing jobs and an employment target of at least 20,000 jobs. Currently, the proposed MIC area does not support the required number of jobs.
But many existing local manufacturers are adding workers, both skilled and trainees, as they reach out to new markets and develop cutting-edge products.
Robin Gudgel is an innovator, a problem-solver whose passion flows in electrical currents. Gudgel got his start wiring amplifiers for Phase Linear, and in his early entrepreneurial career, was one of the guiding lights of Trace Engineering.
The engineers at Trace were designing electrical inverters, an electrical device that converts direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). The converted AC can be at any required voltage and frequency with the use of appropriate transformers, switching and control circuits. Inverters are commonly used to supply AC power from DC sources such as solar panels or batteries.
Trace was sold to Xantrex, one of its main competitors, and in 2000, Gudgel left that company and formed Outback Power Systems in Arlington. The company grew and prospered, and in 2005 Gudgel decided it was time to cash out and take life a little easier.
That didn't last long.
With his wife Mary at his side and his brother Bob, a gifted electrical engineer, ready to come onboard, Gudgel reinvested his time and money into a new company, Midnite Solar.
"Off-grid living presents a lot of challenges, and figuring out how to wire up your system should not be one of them," said Gudgel. "We design and manufacture the most sophisticated charge controller in the world. Our products work with solar and turbine installations on a residential scale."
Alternative energy sources, including solar, wind, geothermal and others, can generate more power than a homeowner can use, so the excess power is stored in batteries for future use. These batteries are connected to a specially-designed electrical panel that converts the current for household use, guards against power spikes, and allow for current interruption in case of an emergency. One of the key components of this panel is the charge controller, which, in addition to the fabrication of the panel boxes and connectors, is Midnite Solar's bread and butter.
"The Classic Charge Controller offers advanced features and built-in arc fault protection not available from any other manufacturer," Gudgel claimed. "Our new lightning/surge arrestor is the first in the industry to offer real protection to power electronics, at a competitive price."
Gudgel is not only an electronics genius, he's also a staunch believer in supporting the local economy.
"I could save money by building circuit boards in China," he said, "but if it's done here, in my shop, I know I can trust the quality. I want to keep people working here."
"We try to hire people who don't already have jobs," said Gudgel, "and we can train those with a good aptitude and-importantly-a good attitude."
Five years ago, Midnite Solar had three employees--Robin, Mary and Bob Gudgel. Now they employ 39 local people, and Robin anticipates additional growth. The company has doubled its manufacturing capacity by taking over the second half of the nondescript building it occupies just north of 172nd St. NE on 67th Ave. NE, and the Gudgels have invested heavily in "pick-n-place" machines that speed up the circuit board construction process.
Above the manufacturing floor is the "mad scientist room," a think tank occupied by seven engineers.
"This arrangement encourages a collaboration of ideas," Gudgel explained. "Even though each person is working on his own project, there's lots of overflow and cross-pollination of ideas."
One of the company's newest products is a "bird house," a power interruption mechanism that allows firefighters to shut down an AC/DC system in a solar-powered home without danger. The bright red, easily identifiable object looks like an oversized bird house, hence the name.
Everything produced at Midnite Solar is "highly tooled and highly customized," said Gudgel. The firm sells its products to wholesalers across North America and is seeing a surge in demand in Australia and New Zealand.
"We hope to actually be profitable by the end of the year," Gudgel said with a grin. "This is a very, very expensive investment, but we're confident that the demand for our products will continue to increase and we'll be able to grow even more."
And that's good news for the local workforce.
In a clean and modern facility near the Arlington Airport, a local manufacturing company is transforming the recycled plastics industry.
MicroGREEN Polymers produces polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, recycled plastic sheets that can be used for a variety of applications including signage, packaging, and food-contact applications. The versatile sheets, called InCycle, are made from recycled water bottles and products made from InCycle are also fully recyclable.
"This technology was designed by UW mechanical engineering graduate students in the 1990s," said Tom Malone, the company's president and CEO. "The company began in Arlington in 2002, and we've enjoyed a great relationship with the city over the years."
The company has a lofty mission statement: Creating a world where plastic packaging is not seen as a waste, but as a resource.
"As the demand for sustainable products continues to grow, this innovative technology offers an environmentally-friendly alternative to standard packaging materials," Malone explained.
The InCycle production process starts with recycled water bottles, mostly supplied by their partner Waste Management. The plastic is precisely heated and expanded using the patented Ad-Air process, which creates tightly controlled and customizable microbubble patterns inside the plastic. By varying the density and position of the bubbles, MicroGREEN can control the properties of the finished sheet.
InCycle is printable, foldable and formable, and can be embossed or debossed. The lightweight plastic has superior insulating properties, is waterproof and greaseproof, and is fully recyclable at the end of its life cycle. It's also less expensive than other "green" products.
Malone and Chris Jacobs, director of marketing and product development, shared that, while the product has been successful in many packaging and signage applications (Costco uses InCycle for its store signage), the real jackpot for the product is in its uses for food containers.
"InCycle is made of food-safe PET, which has been used in direct food contact package for decades," said Malone. "We can substitute InCycle for existing polystyrene applications, particularly for hot coffee cups or cold beverage cups, with the resulting container being one that's lightweight, strong, more insulating and less expensive."
The plastic-coated paper products that are used for many food-contact applications can only be recycled by one mill in America, Malone explained. InCycle takes advantage of the most available recycling stream, ensuring more of the products will be recycled rather than ending up in landfills.
In fact, Malone and Jacobs are anxious to enlist the help of local restaurants and beverage establishments to test the company's containers. MicroGREEN would supply takeout containers at a greatly reduced cost to companies willing to provide feedback regarding their use.
"I'd love to work with some local restaurants," said Jacobs. "They can contact me directly at (360) 435-7400, ext. 120."
The Retail Council of Canada recently mandated that supermarket clamshell packaging be made from PET by 2012, and several U.S. states are considering legislation banning the use of polystyrene food containers. All of that could be good news for MicroGREEN, and for the local economy.
The manufacturing facility has the capacity to grow substantially, and Malone estimates the workforce, currently numbering around 33 employees, will triple in the next few years.
"We've had no problem finding competent, conscientious local employees," said Malone. "We look for a good work ethic, technical aptitude, hard workers with high energy and a healthy dose of curiosity."
Most positions require little previous experience, as the specialized training is done on-site.
"InCycle lets consumers adapt a sustainable lifestyle without changing their behavior," said Jacobs. "It's a bit of mechanical magic."
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