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Chippewa Valley firms land more defense work

Chippewa Falls, Wis. - Wisconsin attracts far fewer defense research dollars annually than states like Minnesota and Colorado, but a number of public and private initiatives are quietly positioning the state as a bastion for high-tech national security projects.

These projects and others like them could thrive as the war on terrorism unfolds and the nation responds to the unique threats it poses. Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, believes there is no reluctance on the part of high-tech companies or federal agencies to pursue defense research in Wisconsin.

"There is a pretty strong acceptance that Wisconsin has the right skill set," Still said. "Especially in anything to do with food, water, environmental contamination, biosensors, extreme materials - all the things we're already doing that could have homeland security applications."

Nowhere is that more evident than in the Chippewa Valley.

A budding defense corridor
The Chippewa Valley is home to a small collection of companies pursuing national defense-related research projects. With $36.8 million in funding approved as part of the 2007 defense appropriations bill - Rep. Dave Obey had requested $46 million - these projects promise to improve the effectiveness of U.S. soldiers while revitalizing the region's struggling economy.

Dr. Eric Jamelske, assistant economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and an investigator with the Chippewa Valley Center for Economic Research and Development, said the defense booster shot is part of a regional strategy.

"Overall, I know that the Chippewa Valley does want to be considered a tech corridor, but I do not think we are there yet," Jamelske said. "We are set up with the I-94 corridor to grow into this role, and that is certainly the regional economic development plan."

Rex Systems

One of these area firms, Rex Systems, Inc., has built its business on defense - and that business has been thriving.

Operating from its plant in Chippewa Falls, RSI has been a prime contractor on more than 4,500 U.S. military contracts, primarily in the manufacture of military electronics, transponders, and radar parts. The company has approximately 120 defense contracts annually with eleven U.S. Department of Defense agencies, contractors, and foreign governments.

RSI's success in sustaining older military systems has enabled its pursuit of innovative new projects in wearable, computerized communicator systems and battlefield "beacons."

In October 2005, RSI won $5.2 million to develop a first responder suit and $1.6 million for advanced hazard zone markers. The projects pull in an additional $5.6 million under the recent appropriations bill.

With added funding in hand, RSI has revamped its labs and hired seasoned engineers and specialized personnel, raising the total number of employees to about 50.

"The increase in employees is directly related to the R&D programs," Guelzow said. "The R&D programs have definitely brought things up a notch as far as the type of jobs and the type of people that have been brought in."

RSI's first responder system will integrate off-the shelf components to give firefighters, soldiers, and other emergency responders a host of enhanced capabilities. The computerized suit will use a technology platform that Guelzow called a "system of systems" - a base platform with many features that could be added or customized as needed.

"There's a myriad of applications," Guelzow said, from military training and hazardous materials situations to fighting forest fires. "This would have essentially a worldwide appeal."

Guelzow said that although the project has sparked inquiry from domestic and overseas markets, it is difficult to estimate the market value of such a product.

"There are around one million firefighters in the U.S. alone, but not all of them will need it," he said. "If it has the functionality that we hope and comes in cost-effective, it's got tremendous potential."

Initial product launch would be targeted toward major metropolitan fire departments with the budgets to accommodate the high-tech devices, Guelzow said.

RSI's hazard zone beacons will replace outdated devices - basically a lead weight with a rod - with an expandable marker with infrared lights and a global positioning relay.

Ideally, the devices would create more visible clear zones around nuclear, biological, and chemical contamination areas. It would also be deployable by a dismounted soldier or police officer and capable of signaling a central command center.

"What we're witnessing now is the evolution of the marking set," Guelzow said. "The new prototype integrated marking device does about eight functions in one. It can be used anytime there is a need to create a quick marking with the added benefit of visibility in a dark situation."

Supercomputers and vehicle simulators

Silicon Graphics Inc., a supercomputer producer headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., has developed multi-million dollar data processors and pilot simulators for the federal government for 20 years.

SGI employs 330 people in its sole manufacturing facility in Chippewa Falls. Many of these employees are recruited from the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System.

"We hire locally and we've found over the years that this area has a wonderful workforce, very dedicated, highly intelligent with a good work ethic," said Bill Bartolone, director of government affairs for SGI.

SGI has ongoing R&D partnerships with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., the corporate research laboratory for the Navy and Marine Corps, and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., a manufacturer of military aircraft, to develop a series of advancements in supercomputing solutions and visualization technologies.

The contracts have generated many cutting-edge devices, enabling military and scientific partners to manage terabytes of classified laboratory data with diskless servers and storage systems, and prepare fighters for combat in night vision F-16 and tank training simulators.

Military pilots using the simulator can navigate above stunningly accurate virtual landscapes reproducing the terrain and buildings that exist in places like Iraq.

"It's almost like being there," Bartolone said.

Bartolone also explained that SGI's long-term relationships with organizations like the NRL are vital. This year, SGI could receive another $5 million to advance processors at the NRL Laboratory Center for Computational Science and $2 million to push its simulator technology.

"They buy our biggest and best and push technology with other peripheral vendors and chip manufacturers in trying to build the biggest, fastest supercomputers possible," he said.

Food packaging

Greg Gard, senior vice president of technology and innovation for Pliant Corp., is leading ongoing R&D projects to improve military packaging. Pliant has been developing packaging for meals ready-to-eat (MREs) since 2003 and power source packaging since 2001.

These products are designed to improve the shelf life and flavor of portable meals and provide lighter weight, environmentally friendly battery containers.

"The military has requirements of a three-year shelf life, and that's fairly difficult to do," Gard said. "We're working with high-barrier laminates and other materials with our processing technology to try to satisfy those requirements."

Headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., the company operates 25 manufacturing and development facilities around the world employing more than 3,015 people with annual revenues of approximately $900 million from the food, personal care, medical, industrial, and agricultural markets.

Pliant's primary research center is located in Newport News, Va., but much of the $5.6 million it recently received for military packaging R&D contracts has been filtered to its 172,000-square-foot Chippewa Falls plant, which operates 24 hours a day.

The company is in the process of finishing a big addition there, called the Pliant Innovation Center, that will more than double the existing plant.

The advanced packaging utilizes multilayer processing, nano-composites, and "oxygen scavenging" technology to preserve and enhance food. A second thrust is developing tamper-evident and traceable packaging.

"We're basically printing the antenna on our flexible packaging material and coupling that with an RFID tag," Gard said. "In transit, if something happens, it'll break the circuit and you'll know someone tampered with it. But there are a lot of hurdles there, like addressing false positives."

In 2007, the company will begin developing materials for chemical biological protection suits, Gard said.

Other Chippewa Valley companies with contracts in the recent defense appropriations bill are: Cray, Inc., which develops advanced supercomputers in its engineering and development center in Chippewa Falls, $12 million; Extrusion Dies Industries, Chippewa Falls, which makes die technology to produce advanced plastics for food packaging and battery coatings, $3.2 million; and Small Tree Communications, which develops battlefield communication technologies and military digital information networks, $4.8 million.

Central and southeastern Wisconsin

In other parts of the state, defense spending has generated R&D projects with several companies, including Madison-based nanotechnology and life science technology producer Platypus Technologies; Madison-based high power laser development firm, Alfalight; and Neenah-based electronic manufacturing company, Plexus Corp.

"We have such a strong research base here in some core areas," Still said. "If there's an identified need at the federal level, we often have the potential to provide the solutions."

As part of the defense appropriations bill, Congress also approved $20.4 million in defense projects for southeastern Wisconsin companies.

The bill included $2.75 million for Modine Manufacturing of Racine to for an environmental-control unit; $1.1 million for PPG Industries of Oak Creek for munitions coating systems; and $1.1 million for Emteq of New Berlin and Milwaukee for an electronic propeller-control system.

The bill also included money for Milwaukee-based companies: $1.65 million for Astronautics for magnetic refrigeration technology, $1.1 million for Marquette University for fire and blast-resistant materials; $11 million for DRS Technologies for warship motor and drive systems; and $1.7 million for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the manufacture of lightweight materials and components.

On the manufacturing side, National Presto Industries, Inc., an Eau Claire-based manufacturer of small household electric appliances and pressure cookers, has profited from its production of ammunition.

In its July 28, 2006, announcement of second quarter sales and earnings, company president Maryjo Cohen said, "as in the first quarter, the defense segment contributed the majority of the quarter's earnings increase."

Catalyzing the defense sector

In recent months, Still has been working with education and industry leaders to build the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium, a nonprofit organization designed to bring classified homeland security research to Wisconsin institutions.

The organization, with its nine-person board, is awaiting a congressional earmark of $500,000 in start-up funds to be appropriated over three years. Still said the group will be truly operational sometime this fall.

"A lot of times when people think about defense research, they gravitate toward thinking about offensive weapons," Still said. "But the kinds of strengths Wisconsin has are largely clustered around defensive capabilities for protecting ordinary citizens.

"We're trying to create a mechanism that would help attract more classified, sensitive research to Wisconsin," he added. "It's all about trying to foster connections between our research institutions, R&D companies, and federal agencies with their specific needs."

Related stories

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Wisconsin consortium aims for defense business

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Small Tree receives $3.4M Defense funding for networking system

Tom Still: Wisconsin's failure to attract federal defense dollars crimps tech economy

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