By Eric Peterson | Oct 17, 2019
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Turbine engineers Bob Barber and Ken Nichols started their namesake company after being asked to relocate from Colorado to Illinois by their previous employer, Hamilton Standard.
Thoren describes Barber and Nichols' response as defiant: "No way!" Leaving Colorado was a non-starter.
Regardless, Hamilton Standard was a primary customer in the company's early days. The duo worked as consulting engineers, and their clients then passed the Barber-Nichols designs on to manufacturers.
Barber and Nichols "expanded that technical knowledge into all kinds of technical equipment, which is what we today call turbomachinery," says Thoren.
Customers liked the company's handiwork and asked them to handle production as well, leading Barber-Nichols into manufacturing. At first, the company outsourced work to local job shops, then assembled and tested in-house. "Naturally, that kind of progressed to this notion that customers would like us to do all of it," says Thoren.
Two key events took place in the 1980s: Several key employees bought ownership stakes from the founders, the company bought a machine shop. Vertical integration catalyzed innovation, which had been a big calling card since day one.
Barber-Nichols' "high-performance, high-speed turbomachinery" has set the bar for 50 years, says Thoren, in industries ranging from power generation to cryogenics to aerospace.
"Generally, we've always been going faster than pretty much anybody," he explains. "When you spin faster, you can make your machine smaller."
Early Barber-Nichols' turbopumps would break 3,600 revolutions per minute (RPM). By the early 1990s, they would hit 6,000 RPM. Today, Barber-Nichols' turbopumps are capable of hitting 150,000 RPM or more.
That exponential advancement can be traced to bringing manufacturing in-house. "When you're running things that fast, it's very precise engineering and manufacturing that has to go into it to keep it all together," says Thoren.
Barber-Nichols continues to offer design and engineering services, he adds, so the firsthand experience with manufacturability can be invaluable. "We bring a little bit of practicality to it," explains Thoren. "Machine tools got more and more accurate over time, and you can grind to tighter and tighter tolerances. That has spawned a whole new area for us, because theoretically engineers can make things that go to amazing performance criteria, but then you have to manufacture it. So there's this disconnect between the engineering perfect analysis and the reality of making parts that have some amount of tolerance associated with them. So we bridge the gap at Barber-Nichols because we have the engineering capability and the manufacturing capability and we do design for manufacturability . . . for some of our customers who don't understand what you can make and what you can't make. They don't have a sense of what is manufacturable."
Thoren highlights the company's uncanny "ability to move from market to market," citing energy, aerospace and defense, cryogenics, and advanced transportation. (Tangentially, co-founder Bob Barber set a land speed record for a steam-powered vehicle in 1985.) "That provides some stability for our business and allows us to keep pretty fresh and allow us to take the learnings from one market and apply it to another market, and help those markets," he says.
After Barber-Nichols manufactured its first cryogenic pumps for federal labs in the 1970s, that business grew as the company supplied researchers all over the globe. Same goes for aerospace. After supplying turbomachinery for the Space Shuttle, Barber-Nichols moved into rocketry with NASA in the 1990s.
"We work for some customers in [aerospace and defense] who want to do some pretty amazing things, and we love to help them do that," says Thoren. "We bring a little bit of the practicality to it with the design for manufacturability. Ultimately, you end up with something that works the first time you build it, versus designing something you can't build."
Thoren sees battery technology as the next frontier. Barber-Nichols is supplying high-speed compressors and pumps for fuel cell blowers.
The company now operates out of a 52,000-square-foot facility in Arvada. Sales increased from $7 million in 2002 to $40 million in 2018. "We'll do $45 million-plus in 2019," says Thoren. "It's really hard to predict the future, but we see multiple years of 10 percent per year growth."
Challenges: "With growth, you run into all kinds of challenges," says Thoren, reciting a laundry list of issues ranging from outdated systems and processes to human resources. "Right now, it's hard to hire people. It's hard across the board."
The Department of Defense upped cybersecurity requirements for vendors. "The supply chain is having a tough time dealing with that," says Thoren. Smaller companies don't have the resources for a big tech upgrade, he says, and opt to leave the market instead.
Opportunities: "Historically, our growth has come from additional manufacturing," says Thoren. He sees that continuing as Barber-Nichols expands its ability to make not just components, but entire systems for prime aerospace contractors.
"Space is expanding," says Thoren. "You see a lot of the billionaires putting their own money into starting space companies." Another driver: Constellations of small communications satellites change the math for the launch market.
Nonetheless, supplying multiple sectors is a big part of the company's strategy. "They all cycle," he adds. "We try to not get too overexposed to anything."
Needs: More elbow room. "We're packed tight," says Thoren. "We have no more room." Barber-Nichols has acquired land to build a 43,000-square-foot facility adjacent to its current building and consolidate manufacturing under one roof.
Thoren also says the company needs to keep the "human touch" front and center. "It's always going back to relationships," adds Thoren. "It's really about finding the right people who are extremely interested in what they do. It's not a job anymore -- it becomes more of a passion. You see that all through the supply chain, from raw material all the way up to planes that fly in the air. Most successful business is based on great relationships."