"This was a do-or-die project for us," says Gary Swanson, president of Mentor, Ohio-based Thermotion Corp., referring to his company's innovation project undertaken in 2008 and 2009 with the assistance of the MAGNET Product Design & Development engineering team.
Thermotion's proprietary electrothermal actuator technology had been developed under the auspices of Gould Corp. in the early 1970s. It originally served very specific niche applications for the automotive, appliance and aviation industries. Although the company's own research and engineering team had made incremental technology updates straight along, by 2006, Thermotion found itself having difficulty penetrating new markets. Growth was stalling.
"While it was clear we weren't going to expire overnight, it was also clear that, without innovation, the company would have a very limited future," Swanson says. "Our investors were not interested in supporting a couple-million-dollars-a-year company. They told us they wanted us to figure out how to get out of this box."
In 2007, Swanson sat down to review dozens of proposals from the previous three years—proposals that had not turned into customers. He and his team pinpointed three critical limitations to the company's existing product line, and decided to focus on developing a dramatic innovation that would deliver:
- greater energy efficiency
- longer life expectancy
- faster recharge (stroke return)
These three improvements would allow Thermotion to not only outpace competitors in its current markets, but help the company gain entry into big existing markets like heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) and growing new markets like medical devices.
Swanson and his team began working on a thermomagnetic technology that they believed had the potential to deliver the improvements they were seeking.
"We had a basic concept of what we wanted to do," Swanson recalls. "But getting it from the concept phase into a true design—I wanted a fresh set of eyes for that. So that's when we contacted MAGNET."
In June 2008, the MAGNET Product Design & Development (PDD) engineering team held a full-day ideation session with Swanson and his engineering team.
Since the Thermotion team was already beyond the brainstorming stage, this initial session became an opportunity to bring the MAGNET team up to speed on Thermotion's proprietary technology and the challenges they wanted to overcome. By the end of the session, everyone was talking the same language, says Swanson.
Over the next nine months, the Thermotion team met with the MAGNET PDD team on a weekly basis to review conceptual models, mechanical drawings and 3D prototypes.
"Our process with the MAGNET group has been really enjoyable on a number of levels," says Swanson. "Not only did we get the job done, but we developed an esprit de corps. We felt they were as involved as our own guys, and that they recognized that this little gadget was a do-or-die proposition for us. The MAGNET engineers really understood that."
Mike Keller, senior design engineer with MAGNET PDD, says the Thermotion R&D engineering team brought a deep knowledge of their company's technology and applications that enhanced the design process.
"They were great to work with," Keller says. "We often work with companies that have no engineering staff at all. And since this new product was incorporating some of the technology from their existing products, we really benefited from their expertise."
After modeling the initial design prototypes, the MAGNET PDD team created working prototypes for bench testing by machining a glass-filled nylon material that could survive intense heat and cold.
"We discovered that the extruded material we were using had residual stresses, so that once we machined them down to a thin wall stock, under certain conditions they would tend to warp," recalls Keller. To create prototypes sturdy enough for field testing, the MAGNET team created aluminum insert molds so they can manufacture real injection-molded parts.
"That way, we won't have to guess whether a possible failure might be due to warpage," says Keller. "These prototypes will show us exactly how they will function in mass production."
Swanson says the MAGNET team's ability to rapidly create Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) prototypes saved Thermotion tens of thousands of dollars by eliminating costly retooling after release to production.
"There was pretty much a constant back and forth between the engineers talking about things like tolerances and stack-ups," recalls Swanson. "We'd meet on a Tuesday to discuss a concept iteration, what sort of clearances and reliefs we needed. The next Tuesday, we'd be looking at those parts and we could see whether we got it right. It was so helpful to actually hold the parts in your hands."
The shape of Thermotion's original working design had a long, narrow footprint. During one of the design conferences, Swanson suggested an idea that allowed the designers to shrink the entire assembly in half, creating a much more compact footprint. Swanson says this will be a real selling point to customers who want a device that will just "plug-and-play."
At the end of the project, the new design surpassed all Thermotion's performance improvement targets:
- Energy efficiency was improved from 18 to 20 watts to less than 1 watt
- Life expectancy was increased from one to two years to 10 years
- Recharge was improved from 1 minute to instantaneous
By late 2009, Thermotion was ready to offer its innovative new product for field testing with one of its major clients, the U.S. military. By the summer of 2010, the new technology was in field tests on hundreds of ground vehicles of several types, including the Humvee, which is used by all branches of the military and by the defense departments of many other countries.
Swanson says his company fully intends to continue manufacturing and developing its technology right here in Northeast Ohio. Without the new technology developed under this project, many of his current employees would already be unemployed, as the company would have had to cut back to the bare minimum needed to support production.
"We firmly believe that if the new technology does what it's supposed to do and meets the price targets we've projected, we are on track to double or triple our sales over the next three or four years," says Swanson. "With our existing electrothermal technology, we don't see much of any growth opportunity. So this product is our lifeline."