Kenowa Industries gets new solar work order

April 27, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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HOLLAND — Kenowa Industries just picked up a piece of business from the solar energy industry, marking the Holland manufacturer's first major participation in the alternative energy market.

The company, a custom fabricator of material handling equipment for industry, had previously had to lay off some employees but some of those are now back on the job, according to sales manager Mark Doyle.

This year marks the 30th birthday of Kenowa Industries, which employs 25 to 30 and which has been "primarily automotive for quite a while," said Doyle. Eighty to 90 percent of the company’s work was related to automobile production, but now that number is "probably about 60 percent," said Doyle.

"Over the last five years, and especially the last three years, we have been making a concerted effort to diversify and get out into other fields," he said. Those other industries include medical devices, aerospace, furniture, lumber, agriculture, and manufacturing in general.

The company makes equipment for material handling processes in various manufacturing settings, including factory racks for temporary storage of parts, work-in-progress carts, dollies and workstations.

Doyle said the deal worked out with a Georgia supplier to a solar panel manufacturer is "our first venture" into the growing renewable energy industry. Kenowa Industries received an order for about $250,000 worth of carts that will be used for moving glass solar panels from the end of a conveyor line.

The order was placed by Grenzebach Corp. in Newnan, Ga., a manufacturing company that supplies automated material handling systems to a company that is now making glass solar panels in the U.S. for sale throughout the world. Doyle said he did not know the name of the company, although he said he knew it was not making the panels in Michigan.

The cart made by Kenowa Industries is designed specifically for use with the Grenzebach conveyor system, which robotically loads panels from the conveyor into small shelves on the cart. Because robotic machinery is loading the panels, each cart must be built within precise tolerances "that we have not been held to in the past," said Doyle.

In the past, Kenowa Industries produced glass handling equipment for Magna Donnelly, but those carts were loaded by hand, so manufacturing tolerances were not so critical. The 40 narrow shelves on the new solar panel cart "have to be spot on for the glass to load in," said Doyle.

He said most southern manufacturers that were involved in the bidding process for the carts "could not really say that they could hold to those tolerances" required by Grenzebach.

Taking into account both lead time capabilities and a high degree of precision manufacturing capability, Grenzebach narrowed the supplier field to three companies, then finally selected Kenowa Industries.

"They said, 'You guys are the only ones that are going to be able to do this for us,'" said Doyle.

Kenowa Industries is a privately held company on East Lakewood Boulevard, owned by Ed Amaya and Mike De Vries. Doyle said annual sales now average about $4 million to $5 million.

The company nearly went under in 2004, Amaya told the Business Journal a year ago. It had lost its bank financing but was able to cut a new deal with Huntington Bank only days before it would have had to close down.

Building and repairing racks used in General Motors plants was an important part of Kenowa Industries’ business for years.

Today, it is a "very healthy company," with very little long-term debt, said Doyle.

About 12 other West Michigan companies supply Kenowa Industries, so the solar panel cart order is good news for a lot of people here.

Doyle said management at Kenowa Industries saw the automotive slowdown coming and prepared for it by trimming the labor force and working hard to find new markets. The solar panel cart order is "a shot in the arm," said Doyle.

"This is bringing back people we laid off," he said, although he was unable to give precise numbers.

Doyle said the company's management is now seeing signs that industrial activity in West Michigan "is starting to rebound."

"Our quotes are up," he said. "Customers are saying the third and fourth quarter will be stronger."

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