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Many big companies realized during the Great Recession they can't continue to do things the same way they always have, but innovation has deeper roots in the Region economy.

Despite a reputation as a bastion of stodgy heavy industries, Northwest Indiana has spawned companies built around innovation. Local businesses have changed the way people around the world do laundry, reinvented milk to be healthier and even worked with innovation poster boy Elon Musk.

Fronius USA came up with a way to weld aluminum on to steel – a feat many claimed couldn’t be done – and now produces welding tools that are used by every major automaker. MonoSol has repeatedly expanded after creating a popular new product – pods of detergent one can quickly toss in the laundry machine. Fair Oaks Farms serves as a laboratory and teacher for the entire agriculture industry. 

Established companies also have innovated to keep up with changing times and preserve market share. ArcelorMittal, one of the Region's largest employers, has recently come up with stronger grades of steel and designs for lighter car parts to help automakers meet lofty new emissions standards. The steelmaker employs 200 researchers at ArcelorMittal Global R&D in East Chicago who work on innovations like railroad oil tank cars that resist puncture, nearly impenetrable pipeline steel that prevents explosions and a steel bridge that won’t rust for 125 years.

Fronius

In 2002, the Austrian-based company entered the U.S. market, and since located its headquarters in the AmeriPlex at the Port business park in Portage. The solar and welding company makes arc welding machines that are used by every major automaker and high-end electric cars. Fronius also supplies SolarCity, a solar service provider.

The plant in Portage makes solar inverters and data communications solutions for solar grids for SolarCity and other customers.

Fronius USA Chief Executive Officer Wolfgang Niedrist said the company’s innovation was always driven by customers’ needs for solutions, such as when automakers wanted to be able to weld aluminum onto steel to help lighten vehicles.

“In the automotive industry, there’s literally no single car that doesn’t have a Fronius weld,” he said.

At automakers’ request, Fronius USA is now trying to develop artificially intelligent welding robots that can operate independently. The solar energy division is working to make solar energy affordable for both residential and commercial customers.

“We encourage our people to make the impossible possible,” Niedrist said. “We believe nothing is impossible, which is why we’re one of the technology leaders in this market.”

Fronius invests as much as 9 percent of its budget into research and development, and constantly works on new services and products, such as smart meters that will help solar customers monitor electricity usage. It also looks at ways to improve existing technology to bring down cost.

“We want to generate energy sustainably for the planet in an environmentally friendly fashion,” he said. “One of our main goals is to bring the products to a price level people can afford. Smartphones used to cost $1,000, but are now $500."

Fronius strives to foster a culture of innovation.

“You need to have a clear strategy and clear values and beliefs, and then trust your people and encourage them to be innovative,” Niedrist said.

Not your grandpa's farm

Fair Oaks Farms was one of the first in the country to turn dairy cattle into an agritourism attraction and has blossomed into a Disney-like theme park that aims to educate the public about modern farming practices. The massive farm at the border of Jasper and Newton counties draws more than 600,000 visitors a year.

Innovations are manifold on the farm. Fair Oaks collaborated with Coca Cola to produce Fairlife, a new milk product that’s been engineered to have more protein and calcium, and less lactose and fat.

The farm takes cow manure and turns it into a biogas that's 63 percent methane, generating enough power to run 700 to 800 homes. So much is left over it is additionally able to fuel 42 tractor-trailers that carry out 60 loads of milk a day. The compressed natural gas reduces carbon footprint by 90 percent and also is usually at least $1 per gallon to $1.25 per gallon cheaper than the diesel equivalent. 

Fair Oaks also has been looking at the viability of filling its ponds with high-protein duckweed algae and using it as a more efficient feed system for its farm animals, and at removing phosphorous from water runoff so it can be reused to fertilize the fields, Fair Oaks Farms Chief Executive Officer Gary Corbett said. A third party is going to build a fertilizer plant at Fair Oaks so it can ship excess product across the United States.

Dairy farmers originally opened Fair Oaks Farms to the public in 2004 because of a concern about how animal rights activists were portraying poultry farms. While they weren’t criticizing practices at dairy farms, farmers became worried about that possibility and commissioned a study, which found the public knew little about how food was produced.

“There was a void between us and consumers, and they could drive us further apart,” Corbett said. “That didn’t seem to be a sustainable pathway for agriculture. We had to tell our own story, or have someone else tell it for us. We wanted to be far more proactive, and decided the best way to have credibility was to invite somebody into your house, and show them who and what you are.”

The agricultural industry must innovate because the Earth’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion or 10 billion by 2050, and the current food supply must be doubled when population is shrinking.

“We’re going to need technology and creativity and innovation to get us there,” he said. “In agriculture our mandate is going to be to produce more and more with less and less. We’ve got to make sure the food is safe, affordable and relevant to consumers while still taking care of the animals.”

Adventuring with pigs, really

Fair Oaks Farms has innovated by working with partners like the 64-year-old Belstra Milling in DeMotte that employs about 200 workers in its feed and pig businesses. The family-owned Belstra opened the Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms three years ago.

“There’s nothing like this in the world,” Belstra President Malcolm DeKryger said. “It’s not just windows, on the end you have a skybox view of everything without any odor or exposure. You can look below and see a large farm with 28,000 sows that produces 80,000 pigs per year.”

Visitors can see state-of-the-art technology such as electronic feeding stations and ultrasound pregnancy tests, as well as the miracle of life — on a mass industrial scale.

“You’re not seeing one or two calves getting born,” he said. “You’re seeing 200 live births every single day. It’s completely fascinating. We have to employ a window washer just to remove all the handprints and noseprints on the glass.”

MonoSol

Another growing innovative Region company is MonoSol, which is looking to hire 60 more employees this year at its Merrillville headquarters, LaPorte production facility and two plants in Portage. Business is in fact booming so much for the polyvinyl water-soluble film maker that it’s planning to soon start ahead of schedule the final two phases of its $95 million Duneland Facility at the AmeriPlex in the Port business park in Portage.

MonoSol started making products for the agricultural chemical sector in the 1950s and scored a big global hit after developing film for Tide Pods and Cascade Pods, single-serve units that changed the way people around the world do laundry and wash dishes.

“Most significantly, we developed soluble systems for fabric care, laundry and dishwasher detergent that’s consumer-friendly where it’s robust enough for consumer use but will dissolve instantaneously,” Chief Executive Officer P. Scott Bening said. “It’s something that took years and years to develop.”

MonoSol first tested films for single-dose laundry detergents in the 1960s.

“It failed miserably,” Bening said. “It was something consumers weren’t ready for.”

When they resumed the quest in the 1990s, they learned they had to make the pouches sturdy since, unlike the company’s original industrial customers, consumers don’t “read labels or follow instructions.” It was challenging to make films that dissolved quickly enough, especially in cold water in the laundry machine.

The company remains highly innovative, securing about 30 patents a year. Bening alone has seven patents to his name.

Innovation has paid off. The runaway success of Tide Pods has fueled double-digit growth at MonoSol every year since 2007, and it’s already doubled the business since the Japanese firm Kuraray acquired it in 2012. Business is booming so much that it even bought a DuPont plant it used to buy resin from so it could integrate its manufacturing more vertically.

MonoSol now has 80 percent or 90 percent market share in most of the markets it does business in, and for instance makes all the film used to coat solid surface marble and engineered stone in the United States. It had the foresight to create some of its markets.

“We were pushing for detergent development,” Bening said. “In 2012, we finally became a Tide supplier and it’s been a steep ascent since then. Procter & Gamble has called this the best innovation in laundry in 25 years.”

MonoSol is constantly looking to respond to consumer demand, improve existing products and launch new ones, such as unit doses in cosmetics, animal feed and shaving cream dispensers, Bening said. The growing company is now doing business in more than 40 countries.

“Innovation is the top driver for the entire business,” he said. “We’re constantly reinvesting in ourselves and our intellectual property.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.