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NW UAV's 2011 Expansion in McMinnville

Sep 17, 2011

Cutting edge manufacturer expands

By Nicole Montesano Of the News-Register

One of the nation's largest manufacturers of engines for unmanned surveillance drones is moving its factory from Bunn Village to the former Valley RV sales and service site, a 28,000-square-foot facility on 10 acres at 11160 S.W. Durham Lane.

The move is designed to facilitate an expansion likely to mean more family-wage jobs for McMinnville.

Northwest UAV Propulsion Systems, founded six years ago, employs nearly 60 people in development, engineering, marketing, production and sales. According to Jody Christensen, executive director of the McMinnville Economic Development Partnership, the company has already built up its work force in preparation for the move and plans to expand further.

"This new facility will give us room to spread our wings and take advantage of strategic growth opportunities," said owner and president Chris Harris. "We're kind of bursting at the seams here. We've probably added 25 people already this year."

Harris said he anticipates more additions, which could be good news for county residents. "We prefer to hire local," he said.

"In some cases, I have to go out of state for certain engineers," he acknowledged. "We're kind of in a rural area. There aren't a lot of mechanical engineers knocking on my door.

"Those types of talents, aerospace engineers, aren't Oregon's strengths... So I have been bringing in some engineers from out of state."

But he said, "We prefer to hire local. Then you don't need to get into moving expenses and so forth."

NWUAV designs and builds engines, control systems and support products for unmanned surveillance drones. They are known in military and defense circles as unmanned aerial vehicles, hence the UAV acronym.

The U.S. military uses the camera-carrying drones to gather intelligence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Harris said the tiny machines NWUAV is involved with do not carry weapons of any kind. "It's all surveillance," he said.

Although unmanned drones have existed for 20 years, Harris said, the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have triggered explosive growth in the industry over the past five or six years. "That's what has fueled the whole growth of this industry," he said.

However, he said the utility of the underlying technology isn't limited to military applications. He went on to reel off a long list of potential civilian uses.

"Now people are trying to get the Federal Aviation Administration to open up national airspace so they can utilize them in the civilian market," he said. Potential users include police and fire departments and utility companies, he said.

"Maybe they would detect gas leaks or emissions underground, or be used for power-line patrol, making sure hunters don't shoot the insulators out, those types of things," he said. "Agriculture is starting to use them ... to fly over the field and tell you where you might be light on fertilizers, those types of things... Up in Alaska, they'll have UAVs flying around the clock looking for whales during their migration period."

Other possible uses, he said, include tracking hurricane development or evaluating damage from natural disasters.

Currently, NWUAV markets its products primarily to Insitu Inc., a Boeing subsidiary that manufactures the actual aircraft. "They have customers throughout the Department of Defense, and not just U.S. customers," Harris said.

In addition, he said, "At any one time, there are 20 engines flying 24/7. In the Arctic, our product is up there doing scientific research, counting seals on the ice floes."

Two other divisions may also be housed at the new site at the southern edge of McMinnville - RP Advanced Mobile Systems, developer of the Strike Razor Tactical LT ATV, and NW Rapid Manufacturing, which specializes in rapid production of parts using a process called selective laser sintering. Laser sintering facilitates the rapid manufacture of complex geometric parts for unmanned aircraft, using computer-generated designs.

The parts are created layer by layer. The process allows designs to be changed quickly and relatively inexpensively, because individual injection molds are not required.

Harris said the ability to design, create and test a new part quickly is important.

"The low volume things we do, it lends itself well to," he said. "Injection molding might run you $50,000."

He said, "We can generate a part for, say, $300 to $400. We can go test it and decide, 'That didn't work out; let's make it bigger,'" without having to make a costly investment in custom tooling.

Christensen was elated at the development.

"Last year, MEDP recognized Mr. Harris as its manufacturing leader of the year," she said. "NWUAV has a spectacular history of innovation, and we are thrilled to see what the future holds for this powerhouse company."

The company plans to complete the move by late fall, transforming the site's focus from lumbering behemoths of the road to nimble darters of the sky.


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