On the second day of my visit to Fargo, N.D., we went to see Andy Dalman, president/CEO of Advanced Bone Technology, which is developing SimuBone, a product that replicates a human bone. SimuBone is the first product to combine internal and external geometrical precision with mechanical properties adaptable to customer specifications, providing the look, feel, and performance desired in a clean, biohazard free, consumable product.
Dalman said, "We are only a three-person team now, working out of our own apartments because we are all still students at North Dakota State University. I was part of a professor/student team that performed the initial research starting in 2012, and I was the student. But, I am in my final semester. We have a patent pending, and the university owns a portion of the patent. The standard for device, therapy, and procedure development is human cadaver or animal testing. My goal is to reduce the need for cadavers in medical research, medical device design, surgical training, public safety testing and more. SimuBone has no biological components and can be manufactured on-demand at a fraction of the cost of alternatives."
He explained: "We make artificial bone out of composite materials using additive manufacturing (3D printing). We can replicate many different bone parts for use in education. We can produce a model based on a CT scan, which can be interpreted into a 3D model in liquid silicone. We own all of our own equipment and have been buying standard equipment that we modify. We use some modified Foam Labs equipment now because we don't need to go to very high temperatures."
I asked, "What other opportunities exist?” Andy responded, "We have the opportunity to revolutionize medical training by providing realistic feedback without using a cadaver. Right now, medical training uses plastic models – plastic melts or burns. However, orthopedic and dental are two of the slowest industries for adopting new innovation."
He added, "Our vision is to determine what it would take to become an in-body implant company. We have a feeder grant through the North Dakota Department of Commerce. We are ‘boot strapping’ our company and have raised $140,000, but our total investment has been $200,000 to date. Of this amount, $120,000 has come from North Dakota, and another $25,000 has come from a grant from VentureWell as one of their E-team members."
When I asked how they are marketing, he answered, "We are still figuring that out, but we are reaching out to more innovative dentists and doctors. We are currently marketing for dental applications and allowing students to give feedback. The properties of the material are bio-compatible, but we are currently working on out-of-body applications because it is a long approval process for implant parts. We spoke to orthopedic doctors before we were ready. We do know that our market will be high dollar and low volume.”
Our next stop was Appareo, which designs, develops and manufactures innovative electronic and software solutions for original equipment manufacturers, as well as direct-to-market.
We met with COO David Batcheller and Brenda Wyland, director of Marketing. Appareo has established itself as a recognized leader in the custom design, development and manufacture of innovative electronic and software solutions within the industries of aerospace and agriculture.
Batcheller said, "Appareo was founded in 2003 and moved into the NDSU Technology Incubator when it opened in 2007. We started designing and manufacturing flight data recorders for airplanes and helicopters. Once we employed 50 people, we built our current building near the incubator in the research park and moved into it in 2010. In 2013, we expanded our manufacturing facility to accommodate a second production line, but we quickly outgrew our space and purchased the adjacent manufacturing facility in 2014."
He said, "Appareo's proximity to the NDSU campus played an important role in the company's growth. We have access to the product of NDSU, which produces some of the finest minds in the nation."
He explained: "Through the creative application of cutting-edge technologies, we create complex end-to-end solutions that include both mobile and cloud-based components. We are an accredited FAA Parts Manufacturing facility and are ISO 9001:2008 certified. All of our products are designed, developed, built and supported in the USA. While our engineering and manufacturing expansion takes place in Fargo, we continue to expand our engineering capabilities with teams based in Tempe, Ariz. and Paris, France. Having Appareo offices in Paris and Tempe is critical for building upon our global presence, but we have an unwavering commitment to Fargo as our home base. We're fortunate to have access to a rare talent pool here; some of the most passionate, brightest high-tech engineering minds in the nation."
He added: "Contributing to the growth of our agricultural business is a joint venture with AGCO Corp., the world’s largest OEM dedicated solely to agriculture. Under the joint venture, called Intelligent Ag Solutions, we develop innovative electromechanical devices and systems, as well as technology for advanced machine control systems. We are the only company controlling agricultural products by Wi-Fi. We work with agricultural equipment manufacturers to infuse these technologies into their equipment.
“We have developed another new family of products under the Stratus brand to meet the aviation needs to comply with the FAA mandate that requires all aircraft operating in airspace that currently requires a Mode-C transponder to be equipped with ADS-B Out before 2020. This family of products, a portable receiver, transponder, and TSO charging port, provides real-time weather and traffic information directly to pilots in the cockpit."
His concluding remarks after we toured the shop floor were: "We have established a trajectory of rapid growth, averaging a compounded annual growth rate of more than 45%."
Seeding Success in Wahpeton
Then, we drove 40 miles south of Fargo to Wahpeton to visit two companies, Giant Snacks, Inc. and ComDel. At Giant Snacks, we met with General Manager Lucy Spikermeir. Giant Snacks is a manufacturer of large sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and most recently, pistachios.
Lucy said, "The president, Jay Schuler, took over his father's business. We came out on our own to be only the second company to specialize in large seeds. We select sunflower farmers with proven excellence for growing large sunflower seeds. We work with each farmer during the growing process and monitor the seeds as they are processed, cleaned, seasoned and roasted to perfection. We had the roaster custom built for us. We are using more and more robotics and automation in our plant."
When she gave us a plant tour, I was quite impressed with the size of the tanks for the processing and cleaning of the seeds. They are huge – possibly 10-12 ft. in diameter and 12 – 15 ft. high. Their roaster is nearly as big, and everything from the transfer of seeds from one stage to another as well as the filling of the individual bags is all automated. There were actually only about 15 people working on the shop floor to do everything from processing the incoming seeds to packing the bags into shipping boxes. They design their own boxes so they can be used on their automated line.
Lucy told us, "For many years, Frito-Lay was the official snack for all of the pro baseball teams except for Minnesota teams. The players really liked the larger size of our sunflower seeds and the variety of the seasonings. The Minnesota teams must have shared their snacks with other teams because we were called by the new snack manager of the dugouts asking if we could provide seeds for more teams. Now all but one of the major league dugouts uses our seeds."
She explained, "We get out pumpkin seeds and pistachios from California, but our sunflower seeds are grown locally. In the upper Midwest, we have a 70% market share. We are experiencing big growth in Texas and the West, but nationwide, we only have a 15% market share. About 80% of our sales are in gas stations and convenience stores, but we are getting into more chain stores. We own the land, so we could triple the size of our building. We have 35 employees, but it is still a very seasonal business. January through March is slow for sunflower seeds. This is why we added pistachio seeds to our line. We are growing double digits every year, and we will continue to add new products and new seasonings."
I really hadn't eaten sunflower seeds since childhood, so had no idea of the variety of seasonings: Dill Pickle, Toasted Coconut, BBQ Ranch, Spicy Garlic, etc. Lucy gave me my choice of flavorings for bags of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios, and my family enjoyed them all when I returned home.
Our last stop was ComDel Innovation, where we met with President Jim Albrecht, CFO Bruce Weeda, and General Manager Art Nelson. ComDel Innovation is a precision manufacturer that supports their customer’s commercialization process, integrating all aspects of product development under one roof. ComDel Innovation’s contract manufacturing services include injection molding, assembly operations, precision machining, fabrication of tooling and stamping dies, metal stamping & forming, thread rolling and metal finishing.
Albrecht said, "Our site was founded in the mid 1970s as a 3M manufacturing location, which was spun off to Imation in 1996. ComDel Innovation was formed when Imation decided to exit manufacturing in 2007. Many of our initial employees worked for 3M and Imation, providing a tremendous nucleus to form a company around. About four years ago, ComDel Innovation created an ESOP as a way to recognize the employees for their contribution to the success of the business. The name ComDel Innovation represents our commitment to deliver innovation and results for our customers. The value offered is in support of customer’s product development needs and providing high quality products. We operate in two buildings totaling 260,000 sq. ft., running 24 hours a day and 360 days a year. ComDel Innovation started with 60 people in 2007 and is currently at 275 employees. Much of our business is the result of working with customers in the U.S. Over the past few years we have seen opportunities to work with businesses that are reshoring products from other regions of the world."
I asked if they are a lean manufacturer, and Albrecht said. "We had great heritage, as part of 3M and Imation, where lean principles and the continuous improvement tools were taught and implemented throughout the organization. ComDel Innovation carries those tools and practices forward in support of our customers. We also utilize a Total Quality Management program to manage the quality of materials we purchase. High-end computer-aided engineering software is integrated into our design process for custom assembly equipment, molds, tooling, and fixtures. CAD/CAM software is leveraged for our precision machining and grinding operations.
During the plant tour, I could see why ComDel Innovation is successfully capturing business and why businesses would consider them for reshoring product to the U.S.I saw considerable automation being used in their plastic injection molding, machining, and metal forming departments. ComDel Innovation utilizes assembly cells for low to high volume production. They use robots for removing parts from machines in the injection molding, machining, and metal forming departments. They have a materials laboratory to perform complete thermal and mechanical testing for thermoplastic resins and conduct failure/defect analysis. It is apparent they have invested a considerable amount of money in utilizing state-of-the art equipment and systems. This is the path that American manufacturers need to take to be competitive in the global marketplace.
As I ended my trip to North Dakota, I can envision the North Dakota Department of Commerce realizing its goal of expanding its manufacturing base by fostering emerging companies and supporting the growth of existing companies. With its very favorable business climate, North Dakota maybe able to attract companies from other upper Midwest states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.