Tales of layoffs and cutbacks in Ohio's manufacturing sector are being eclipsed by a surprising new narrative, one of job growth and profits, as firms use old skills to court a new and 'greener' clientele.
Based just outside of Cleveland, Cardinal Fastener & Specialty Co. is the epitome of the clean energy-driven manufacturing renaissance sweeping the Rust Belt state.
By adding a wind industry line to its production of hot forged bolts — which are used to build oil rigs, bridges, trains and construction machinery — the small firm has nearly doubled its annual revenues in less than four years.
Interestingly, the manufacturer's decision to enter the clean energy technology market was more happenstance than strategic.
John Grabner, who founded the firm in 1983 and is also CEO, received a desperate phone call in 2007 from a wind turbine company in Iowa. A European supplier had fallen through on an order of heavy-duty fasteners for the towers, and the turbine maker needed high-quality bolts — and fast.
Grabner filled the order, and then became "intellectually curious," he told SolveClimate News. He was soon reaching out to other turbine manufacturers and meeting with their suppliers overseas to familiarize his firm with the emerging wind energy market.
"We said, 'We need to structure our company to meet their demands and expectations.'"
Two years later, President Obama stopped off at Grabner's plant along his White House-bound inaugural train ride in 2009, during which he touted his plan for an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and underscored the role of clean energy in creating jobs.
Grabner met Obama again last month as a participant in a small business forum at Cleveland State University. While there, he also spoke with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who keeps a Cardinal Fastener bolt on his desk in Washington, the exact one the firm uses in its wind towers, Grabner said.
"The renewable energy industry is a cornerstone of [Obama's] reinvestment plan, and we were doing that and growing significantly in that," Grabner said of the 2009 visit.
'Poster Child' for Entering Clean Economy
"We're a poster child for how to grow a manufacturing company from what it used to be to what it needs to be," he continued.
Today, Cardinal Fastener's wind parts division has grown 900 percent since its first order and accounts for 40 percent of the firm's $10 million-plus yearly revenues. The venture added 25 new positions to its then 40-member workforce.
The company's bolts will be used in the 55 turbines built by Vestas, the Danish wind manufacturing giant, for a 99-megawatt wind farm in northwestern Ohio by developer Paulding Wind Farm II LLC, a subsidiary of Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy.
The fastener maker also works with nearly 15 other turbine builders, including Gamesa SA, a prominent Spanish firm, in addition to more than 100 global suppliers involved in the fabrication, transportation, construction and maintenance of the some 8,000 parts needed to build wind turbines.
Much like Cardinal Fastener, Ohio's 21,250 manufacturing companies are well positioned to add the clean energy supply chain to their traditional client base of automotive, aerospace and original equipment manufacturer, or OEM, industries.
Manufacturing Expertise Moves to Turbines
Manufacturing is the largest of Ohio's 20 industries and accounts for nearly 18 percent of the state's economy, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association reported in 2008. Ohio produced $84.1 billion worth of goods that year, ranking it third nationally after California and Texas for industrial output.
"We make a lot of stuff that goes into stuff — gears, transmissions, breaks, sheet metal," said Scott Miller, director of energy and environment programs at Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership & Public Affairs. "A lot of that always went into the automotive sector, but these days those are the exact same components that go into a wind turbine."
ELPC spokesperson Peter Gray said: "We're trying to show in realistic terms what green jobs and renewable energy means, specifically in the Midwest ... and especially in the supply chain, which sometimes gets overlooked."
The study highlights firms such as the century-old Cincinnati Gearing System, a precision gear and transmission maker that now directs nearly 25 percent of its business to demand for wind turbine engines. Crown Battery, an 80-year-old battery manufacturing facility outside of Toledo, added storage products for wind and solar energy systems to its production line in 2009.
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Solar suppliers are also on the rise.