On a Motiv roll

August 14, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Three years ago Brunswick bowling balls went south of the border, taking more than 140 jobs in Muskegon with them — but bowling balls are again rolling off a Muskegon production line.

In addition to the Brunswick jobs lost, Brunswick's move of its bowling ball production to Reynosa, Mexico, also took about 10 jobs away from Tech-Line Products, which has offices in Spring Lake and a manufacturing plant in Muskegon.

Late last year, Tech-Line began production of its own brand of bowling balls, called Motiv, which restored about seven of those jobs. Tech-Line is a subsidiary of Wilbur Products Inc., which is owned by Scott and Dave Wilbur, sons of the founder, Wes Wilbur.

Despite the recession, Motiv balls are selling well, and Scott Wilbur, president of the company, said he anticipates producing about 50,000 balls this year. Each sells at retail for $175 to $225, according to Wilbur.

"We're doing really well," said Wilbur. "We've got four (models of balls) out there now, with two more probably to be released yet this year. And we're designing (more products) for next year."

Tech-Line made all the cores for Brunswick high-performance balls for 20 years, Wilbur said. Tech-Line also produces supplies for bowling alleys and bowling pro-shops.

"One thing that helped us out was that we had a relationship in the bowling industry already. Because we've been selling pro-shop supplies for over 20 years, (distributors) knew who we were," said Scott Hewitt, marketing director for Tech-Line.

"So even though the bowling balls were a new division of the company — a new brand called Motiv — fortunately, the pro-shops knew who we were," he added.

In late July, Motiv was exhibited at a bowling trade show in Detroit attended by representatives of bowling alleys and pro-shops from the Midwest.

"We were just jam-packed with people lined up to talk to us," said Hewitt. He said their booth was so busy that when the show ended, a person who had staffed a nearby booth for a bowling shoe company jokingly asked them not to go into the shoe business.

Technological innovation is a major reason Wilbur Products has survived over the years. The company, which employs about 25 people, invented a process a few years ago for repairing hockey sticks using composite materials. That product, now patented, is called SRS, and has been endorsed by at least one pro player.

In the early 1990s, bowling ball design was revolutionized by technology that enabled a “high-performance core” to help guide the ball down the lane. Tech-Line Products began manufacturing the cores early on, and in the process of producing millions of cores, perfected its manufacturing operation and developed a knowledge of bowling ball engineering.

In 2007, Tech-Line began research and development to design something new in bowling balls. The result was its proprietary NeoMar graphics, technology that allows a multi-color graphic to become part of the bowling ball cover, eliminating the need for engraving the image on the surface.

"These are actually deep urethane graphics incorporated into the ball surface," said Scott Wilbur, "so you could sand the ball or polish it and not damage the graphics, whereas on the polyester screen-printed ones, you can't sand them or do anything to them or it will ruin (the image). So these are high-performance, reactive urethane bowling balls with a huge advancement in graphic systems."

NeoMark graphics also allow the bowling ball to travel consistently down the lane, even as it rolls over the images, according to the Motiv Web site.

"We do things that nobody else can do," said Wilbur. "I guess we don't get turned off by beating our head against the wall. We keep going until we finally break through," he joked.

So far there are no plans yet to increase employment on the Motiv production line.

"We were just happy we could bring back the employees we had to let go when the other corporation moved to Mexico," he said.

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