Colorado manufacturers largely defied the status quo this year. As employment growth continued in the face of national and global headwinds, the state's multifaceted manufacturing economy continued to see notable gains in its cannabis, food and beverage, and high-tech sectors.
There's an emphasis on high quality, craftsmanship, and local ingredients in the sectors experiencing the most rapid expansions, but the expansion extends well beyond IPAs and natural foods. The state's manufacturing makeup is defined by diversity. The manufacturers that caught my eye in 2019 vary from startup to 90 years old and make everything from hot sauce to turbomachinery for rocket engines.
The common thread? Nimbleness. Every single one of the 10 companies that follow has admirably adapted to changing market forces over the course of their compelling histories.
Founded in 1986, Alpha Spectra manufactured more than 150,000 radiation detectors in its first 33 years in business. The Grand Junction company is one of the largest producers of NaI(Tl) crystals on the planet.
The crystals are used to detect gamma radiation in Alpha Spectra's products as well as other companies' machines. "Each isotope has its own signature, and that's the basis of the technology," says founder and CEO Frank Wilkinson. "It's 1,000 times more sensitive than a Geiger counter."
Alpha Spectra's top market is homeland security, followed by health physics, oil and gas, environmental sampling, and other industries. "We are pretty much the sole supplier [of crystals] to the world leader that manufactures handheld devices," says Wilkinson.
CompanyWeek contributor Gregory Daurer talked with bootmaker extraordinaire Mickey Mussett for his April 2019 profile of Ghost Rider Boots. Mussett, a former adman, makes some of the most artistic footwear in the West, using time-tested tools and processes as he crafts about 20 pairs annually in his Denver garage. A pair starts at $3,000 and the price tag is based in large part on his undeniable attention to detail.
"There's like 80 to 100 steps to making a cowboy boot," says Mussett. "So, the biggest challenge is to make sure each one of those is done precisely correctly. And no two pairs of feet -- and no two feet -- are exactly alike. Everything is custom. It's not like I have a pattern, and you come in, and I can just take that pattern and put it to your size and here we go. I start from scratch. They're one-off, every time. So, it's to solve those creative challenges -- and challenges in their feet."
The Denver company has evolved from a distributor of automated packaging equipment to manufacturer. "We're a combination house of engineering, sales, service, and fabrication," says CEO Kevin Weber. "We build machines. We work with OEMs where we sell their equipment. We integrate complete lines with our partners' and our own branded equipment. We build third-party machines in our own fabrication shop."
Colorado's vibrant food and craft brewing industries have fueled Right Stuff's growth as a manufacturer, but cannabis has also emerged as a big growth driver as manufacturers turn to automation. "CBD and THC are rapidly growing parts of our business," says Weber. "The industry was used to adding labor to a task," he adds, but many cannabis companies started investing in automation instead around 2017. Right Stuff has since built filling lines for tinctures, flower, and even softgels.
The July profile of the manufacturer of motorcycle accessories by CompanyWeek writer Angela Rose shined a light on an emerging manufacturing model. The Colorado Springs company utilizes 3D printers for production as well as prototyping, but also leverages more traditional methods and machines.
"Instead of going the traditional route and outsourcing, I decided to buy a few more 3D printers and manufacture the product myself," explains MotoMinded founder Chris Vestal. "We have 10 3D printers now and are upgrading to 12 soon. But we aren't just making 3D-printed products anymore. We also have a laser cutter/engraver and a CNC router and are using these other manufacturing methods in parallel to produce new products."
Founded in 1929 (and the oldest company on this list), Denver Bookbinding Company has withstood challenges by finding new markets. When the digital revolution saw libraries mercilessly cut their bookbinding budgets, third-generation owner Gail Lindley helped lead the charge to diversify from libraries to self-publishing authors and printing businesses. Libraries still account for about 30 percent of Denver Bookbinding's sales, but printers account for half and self-publishers 20 percent.
Lindley recently made a desert tortoise named Magellan the company mascot. The indefatigable reptile is now featured in art around the office and on a tattoo on Lindley's wrist.
The symbolism? "We keep moving forward," she says.
CompanyWeek writer Margaret Jackson's profile of the Littleton-based manufacturer highlighted the largely unseen environmental consequences of fishing with artificial lures made from plastic that takes more than 200 years to degrade. Bio Bait's lures break down in as little as two years.
And most plastic lures expand to four times their original size in a fish's belly, which makes them feel full, so they don't eat the food they need and end up starving to death. Because Bio Bait's lures break down in their bellies, they are less harmful to the fish.
"This is a very word-of-mouth industry," says VP Ryan Weaver. "Big names are starting to get behind our mission of the conservation of our waterways. We're starting to make a bit of a splash in a really big pond."
The Erie-based company is reinventing the supply chain for additive manufacturing. Its catalog now includes 3D-printable aluminum, copper, and custom materials, as the company researches composites, tungsten, and tantalum.
It's all about helping manufacturers push boundaries. "Almost certainly, it's not a direct swap for a part that's already exists," notes President Jacob Nuechterlein. "If it's a part that's already there, it's probably designed to for manufacturing from a different technique -- casting, milling, and machining -- and most engineers are designing for those old techniques."
In Arvada, Barber-Nichols has spent more than half a century innovating on turbomachinery for aerospace, cryogenics, and other applications. "Generally, we've always been going faster than pretty much anybody," says President Dan Thoren. "When you spin faster, you can make your machine smaller."
Early Barber-Nichols' turbopumps would break 3,600 revolutions per minute (RPM). By the early 1990s, they would hit 6,000 RPM. Today, Barber-Nichols' turbopumps are capable of hitting 150,000 RPM or more.
Roccor's first product, a high-strength composite hinge for a solar array on a small satellite, opened the door for the company to make complete systems. The company has since made a habit of taking on custom projects that evolve into commercial products.
CEO Chris Pearson highlights work for a "big aerospace prime" developing a meter-wide, umbrella-like parabolic communications dish for a small satellite. It had to unfold from a small enclosure in an extraordinarily precise manner: The margin for error was a thousandth of an inch in the extreme conditions of space.
The first such system launched in 2018 after more than two years of R&D and "a big investment for Roccor," says Pearson, and it has since emerged as a product line for the company. "It's become a great springboard," he says. "Once you gain reputation with a couple of these space customers, it's a pretty small community and word gets around pretty quick."
"Merfs' motto is affordable quality," says founder and CEO Kelly Schexnaildre. "We're less expensive than Tabasco wholesale." A bottle of Merfs typically wholesales for 50 cents to $1 less than a bottle from the Louisiana hot sauce titan. Other local sauce makers are often twice the price.
"I'm really into understanding my cost structure down to the last penny," adds Schexnaildre. "Numbers are what make or break a business. I'm not in the hot sauce business, I'm in the numbers business. The hot sauce is just the vehicle to drive the numbers."
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Reach him at email@example.com.