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Making the mold

Posted on July 10, 2004

Local company uses natural products for vehicle interiors

Composite America is a natural competitor.

“We have an interest in anything natural,” said Scott Greelis, president of the upstart Fargo company.

At its plant at 401 27th St NW, Composite America molds fabrics containing hemp, flax and jute into interior panels for machinery, vehicles and airplanes.

The seeds for Composite America were sown in 2000, when Greelis took his idea for turning natural fibers into manufacturing components to Fargo entrepreneur Joe Crary.

“I thought this was tied closely to what North Dakota was trying to do, in adding value to agricultural products,” said Greelis, a University of North Dakota engineering and University of Mary-Fargo Center management master’s graduate.

With the help of Crary, Greelis put together a team of investors. The team includes two hands-on partners lured out of retirement to help get the company off the ground. Carl Wendelbo, former owner and president of Precision Machine, a West Fargo company he sold to Otter Tail Corp., came aboard as vice president of manufacturing. Don Goering, former president and owner of GPK Products of Fargo, is senior consultant.

They flew around the country taking a look at the emerging use of the so-called “green” and “eco-friendly” technology, visiting with large manufacturers as well as potential material providers.

What they found is that natural fibers are starting to be used by U.S. automakers for car interiors. They also learned that European companies, such as BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and Audi, have been using the fibers for more than a decade.

And they became sold that the use of natural fibers not only is less expensive than using synthetics, but results in more durable interiors that better dampen sound.

“These materials are unbelievable and their potential is unbelievable,” Goering said.

Materials containing hemp can only be purchased from companies in Canada, as the growing of hemp is illegal in the United States. The industrial-grade hemp is sought by industries because of the strength of the long fibers formed in stems of the plant.

“The fact that the automotive industry was starting to use these materials spoke volumes to me,” Goering said. “With all of the federal regulations they work under, if they’re using it, I know it’s material that has been proven.”

Still, Composite America’s business plan steers clear of the automotive industry. For one, Fargo is too far from Detroit to effectively serve the big automakers, Greelis said. Moreover, overhead to produce at Detroit-production volumes would be extremely costly.

Instead, they searched for niche markets, such as agricultural and construction equipment manufacturers.

“We started to talk to customers and then took the plunge,” Greelis said. “Much to our chagrin, we couldn’t find the equipment we needed in the U.S., because the technology is so new.”

Wendelbo said he got involved in the project because he was intrigued with the idea of building a business from scratch, using new technology and natural materials.

Composite America bought a thermoforming press machine from a German company and had it shipped here in five cartons. Then they went to work.

Composite America inked contracts with Bobcat, to make interior panels for its skid-steer loaders at Gwinner, North Dakota, and its new Tool Cat vehicles in production at Bismarck, and with Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minnesota, and Polaris of Roseau, Minnesota, to make engine hood liners for snowmobiles.

Jim Asche, production development engineer for Bobcat at Gwinner, said Composite America has been supplying his plant with skid-steer loader headliners for about a year.

“It’s great to have it coming right out of Fargo,” he said. “The product, as I see it, is a value enhancement for us and for our customers. It’s more durable, better looking and holds it shape for a longer period of time.”

Also important, he said, is that the Composite America headliner is recyclable.

Composite America most recently landed a contract to create panels for the cockpits of Cirrus airplanes. Cirrus manufactures its single-engine planes in Duluth, Minn., and also assembles components in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Tom Bartoe, Cirrus vice president of operations, said the company’s engineers found Composite America at an automotive trade show in Detroit.

“We were looking for new technology, and going for more of an automotive, soft-touch feel for our interior, which Composite America provides for us,” Bartoe said.

Cirrus will produce 550 airplanes this year, all with interiors by Composite America. Not only are the interiors attractive, but they dampen engine and air sound, Bartoe said.

“Everything we touch is acoustically driven. The first thing the engineers we work with want to know is, what is this going to do to our decibel readings,” Greelis said.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce has supported Composite America with two equity investments totaling $416,000 from the North Dakota Development Fund, according to development fund CEO Dean Reese.

“This is the kind of creativity North Dakota companies are capable of,” said Linda Butts, director of the economic development and finance division of the Department of Commerce. “This is the kind of business we want to support in the state.”

Early business partnerships allowed Composite America to grow to 20 full-time employees.

“We have a very good group of core people here,” Greelis said. “We have some experience, some youth. What you gain with youth is enthusiasm. What you gain with experience is the drive to see the job through.”

Composite America buys natural fiber material in sheets and rolls from a number of North American suppliers. Most of the material is interwoven with some plastic to aid the forming process.

The thermoforming press machine — equipped with a 100-ton press and a 170-ton press — is the heart of the operation.

Aluminum forms — with a top and bottom impression, not unlike a waffle iron — are inserted into press machines for the array of parts Composite America makes. Its engineers design the forms, which are then machine tooled and remain property of its customers.

Once a panel, floorliner or headliner is formed, the part is precision cut by high-velocity water jets controlled by robotic arms.

Every 50th piece is measured, using a three-dimensional testing device, for accuracy. Prem Borse, a native of India with a master’s degree in engineering from North Dakota State University, said that even if the slightest variation is found, they backtrack the problem and recalibrate machinery to ensure accuracy.

Greelis said they anticipate building the work force to between 30 and 35 employees within a year. “We’d like to double our sales by a year from now,” he said.

The company is working with the North Dakota Soybean Council on a test project to determine the financial feasibility of converting oil from the soybean crushing process into solid forms, which in turn could be shaped into panels.

“We’re always looking at new processes and new techniques — anything and everything new,” he said. “We want to stay ahead of the competition and make sure we stay around.”

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