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Retooling Michigan: Tanks to Turbines

June 8, 2010 - 6:13pm

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Editor's Note: This story was updated Oct. 13, 2010, to reflect the additional equipment purchases, manufacturing goals and customer additions for Loc Performance Products.

Tanks strike fear in enemies during battle, and for good reason — the 120-mm main gun of an M1 Abrams tank is both deafening and destructive. Now a company that has manufactured geared systems for those mobile weapons for more than 20 years is part of the forces working toward energy security and independence.

Weapons of mass production

In southern Michigan, Loc Performance Products is retooling space in its existing factory in Plymouth, where it builds gears and gearboxes —which provide rotating force from gears to move vehicles — for the U.S. military. The retooling project, funded by $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s State Energy Program from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has been used to purchase three new pieces of equipment that allow Loc to produce larger parts for main gearboxes and generators for utility scale wind turbines.

Loc has been the sole source provider to the U.S. government for final drive assemblies for the iconic M1 Abrams tank — in service since 1980 in conflicts such as the Gulf War and the Iraq War — and other tracked vehicles.

With the Recovery Act funding, this is the first time the company has entered the renewable energy materials realm.

“The market was taking off, and we started to educate ourselves on the guts of the turbine to see if anything made sense for us,” said Louis Burr, president. “We found that there are typically five to eight gearbox systems per turbine, and these units are very similar to what we already make, so we’re designing our own.”

Loc is currently rolling parts off its production line and recently acquired two new customers. Higher levels of production are targeted for the second or third quarter of 2011.

From automotive to wind jobs

New market demand means Loc also needs to hire more workers.

The Recovery Act gave the U.S. Department of Energy $3.1 billion in funding for grants to states under the State Energy Program. Michigan received $82 million from that funding, which the state has directed toward:

  • $39.4 million to reduce energy consumption in state-owned buildings
  • $39.3 million to facilitate energy efficiency in the private sector and drive supply chain diversification into renewable energy sectors, which includes the award to Loc Performance Products
  • $3.3 million to create opportunities for wind energy in Michigan, including measuring potential locations for new wind farms

“At first, it’s going to be high-paid engineering types of jobs, but we will then need 90 more manufacturing employees to reach our target of capturing 5 percent of the global market,” Burr said. “If we go beyond that, we’ll obviously need even more people, and many of these folks are skilled machine operators, plenty of them coming from the automotives arena — being in Michigan means there is a huge workforce available for us to put to work.”

Burr said his company doesn’t have any plans on making its venture into renewables temporary. According to the company’s current five-year plan, manufacturing for wind turbines is slated to be about one-third of its business.

“We have a lot of resources dedicated specifically to this market and being successful in it,” Burr said. “It’s going to have a substantial impact in Michigan for us to hire 90 people directly here, and then our partners are going to have to hire people to support that activity — these numbers could all increase dramatically as we become more successful.”

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