The state's manufacturing sector, struggling with a slumping automotive market, is angling for business making parts for the booming wind energy industry even as windpower generation in Michigan is in its infancy.
More than 30 manufacturing companies in Michigan have picked up business making parts or providing design or engineering work in wind, said Dan Radomski, vice president of industry services for Detroit-based NextEnergy.
The financial implication is significant: Results from a recent survey indicate that meetings the alternative energy accelerator arranged with solar and wind companies such as General Electric and Siemens helped generate more than $100 million in new contracted business for companies across Michigan.
That survey also found that companies who had successfully taken on work in wind stressed the need for others considering the field to do their homework, understand the market potential and the supply chain dynamics and know the major players.
"These suppliers, they know who the OEMs and Tier One suppliers that they supply are in the automotive industry, but it's a whole new market when you're entering into wind," Radomski said.
While it can be difficult for small suppliers to break into the business, not all wind energy supply chains are developed, and wind turbine makers "are constantly looking for new suppliers" in the U.S., Radomski said.
One company benefiting from diversification is Three M Tool & Machine Inc. in Oakland County's Commerce Township. The company recently won a five-year, $7 million contract to produce gearbox housings and forward housings for California-based Clipper Windpower, an expansion of work already under contract.
To prepare to meet its new production deadlines, Three M bought a 42,000-square-foot building in nearby Wixom equipped with a pair of 30-ton cranes for $2.5 million. It's spending $7.5 million on new milling and turning machines large enough to handle the massive cast-iron castings, which weigh 20,000 and 15,000 pounds, respectively.
Co-owner Michael Medwid said the new facility and equipment will enable the company to machine the parts much faster than before. He anticipates a need for about 20 new workers over the next year to keep up with demand.
"It's a lot different than automotive," he said. "We're forming basically partnerships with our customers where automotive has always been (a situation where) they really haven't been willing to partner up."
Michigan has a little more than 55 megawatts installed through wind turbines in the Thumb, in Traverse City and in Mackinaw City. Another 60 megawatts are currently under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Much more could be on the way if state lawmakers, as expected, approve renewable portfolio standard legislation that would require that a certain amount of the state's electricity come from renewable sources.
Jackson-based Consumers Energy has already cobbled together more than 20,000 acres in easements for locating future wind farms, which would each require about 30 to 40 wind turbines on 3,000-acre parcels. Preliminary studies show that those wind farms would create thousands of new construction jobs and hundreds of new operation jobs, to say nothing of manufacturing work, said Dennis Marvin, a communications director for the utility.
For now, much of the work in utility-scale turbines is coming from outside the state. Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Technologies Inc. is spending $15 million to upgrade a foundry in Alpena to cast and machine large iron hubs and baseplates for large wind turbine makers based in the U.S. and Europe. The project, which last year won state and local tax incentives worth about $3.4 million, is expected to create 150 jobs.
"It's an interesting transition story," said company spokesman Dan Greenfield. "It was a company that was in the automotive business, (the foundry was) vacated and then from there we bought the facility and we've been upgrading the facility."
The plant will double production capacity for subsidiary ATI Casting Service, he said.
"We have another facility in La Porte, Ind. that reached maximum capacity and we needed another facility very rapidly as demand from the wind energy market grows. The Alpena facility was kind of ideal to make that transition," Greenfield said.
In Albion, Patriot Solar Group, a spinoff of a company that makes parabolic satellite dishes, is manufacturing photovoltaic collectors, PV panels, mounting systems and frames. And Ann Arbor-based Danotek Motion Technologies LLC plans a move to a larger facility in Plymouth, where it will manufacture variable-speed permanent magnet generators for use in wind turbines. The new facility is expected to eventually employ 141.
While the upfront expenses for retooling have been considerable for Three M, Medwid said it's been worth it.
"I think we have the potential to get as much business as we can do for the foreseeable future," he said.