Making everything from circuit boards to rocket engines, these six Colorado companies are competing for Technology Manufacturer of the Year and Contract Manufacturer of the Year at the 2023 Colorado Manufacturing Awards.
Rocket engine designer and manufacturer Ursa Major Technologies landed on Fast Company's 10 most innovative space companies for 2023 for increasing the resilience of the U.S.-based manufacturing supply chain and hypersonic testing capacity.
The company, founded by SpaceX and Blue Origin veteran Joe Laurienti, uses 3D printing to make the engines out of advanced copper alloys, which allows it to reduce part counts for the engines.
Ursa Major makes three high-performance, reusable engines. Last May, rocket manufacturer Phantom Space contracted with the company to buy 200 engines for its Daytona rocket, and in August, the U.S. Air Force Research Lab announced plans to use Ursa Major's Hadley engine -- the company's first product to hit the market -- to send satellites into low-Earth orbit.
"At Ursa Major, we enable bolder missions in aerospace by making the world's best propulsion systems here in Colorado," says Laurienti, the company's CEO. "Because we focus solely on propulsion, we're in a unique position to deliver high-performing, flexible and affordable engines for space launch, hypersonics and defense. Our world-class team brings together experts from the top launch companies and engine development programs in the U.S. to help get our customers to flight faster and more cost effectively."
Ursa Major is producing about 30 Hadley engines a year for the Air Force and several commercial customers. It's developing a larger engine -- the Ripley -- that can generate 50,000 pounds of thrust, compared to the Hadley's 5,000 pounds.
After raising more than $100 million in 2021, the company roughly doubled its head count from 125 employees to 250 in 2022.
CompanyWeek profile (Jan. 2023): https://companyweek.sustainment.tech/article/ursa-major-technologies
At the University of Colorado Boulder, Forge Nano founder and CEO Paul Lichty helped develop a new method for nano-coating surfaces that he thought could scale for use in lithium-ion batteries. Lichty bought the rights to the technology for $1 and went into business after the university's Tech Transfer Office declined to try to take it to market.
Last year, about 80 percent of the business was tied to lithium-ion batteries and semiconductors. Forge Nano can make commercial scale quantities of materials in those markets and has the equipment to service them.
Shortly after Forge Nano's merger with ALD NanoSolutions in 2020, the combined companies opened a 40,000-square-foot innovation lab and production facility to support growing customer demand. In 2021, the company developed the world's first space battery enhanced by atomic layer deposition (ALD) that launched aboard a SpaceX rocket. The technology demonstrated substantial improvement over uncoated batteries.
Also in 2021, Forge Nano was awarded a Department Energy grant to optimize catalysts with its Atomic Armor nano-coating technology. By 2022, Atomic Armor-enabled batteries had gained commercial traction in the automotive market, leading to batteries with longer life, increased range and enhanced safety.
"At Forge Nano, we believe that future economic growth will be driven by innovation," CEO Paul Lichty says. "Our organization is set up to help our customers rapidly innovate and scale new products. We believe this approach provides a highly competitive solution that has been instrumental to our success."
CompanyWeek profile (June 2022): https://companyweek.sustainment.tech/article/forge-nano
Blue Line Engineering specializes in high-reliability systems for terrestrial, airborne, or spaceflight applications. The company's customers are a who's who of aerospace and include Ball, Lockheed Martin, NASA, Raytheon, and Blue Origin.
A recipient of Lockheed Martin's Outstanding Small Business Supplier Award for 2022, Blue Line delivered sensors for four major optical components on the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope. "Our lens is being used for the scientific measurements they're getting back," says Greg Ames, the company's founder and president/CEO.
Blue Line's 4,800-square-foot office and laboratory space is just a few blocks from downtown Colorado Springs. About two-thirds of the property is devoted to research and development, and additional benchtop work areas and storage space adjoin the main office building. Blue Line's lab is equipped to handle the complete research and design process for a variety of large hardware development projects, from the earliest concept design phases to final testing.
The company maintains function-specific workspaces including an assembly lab with electrostatic discharge, temperature and humidity control that exceeds requirements for a Class 10,000 clean room; environmental test lab with multiple thermal test chambers, a thermal vacuum chamber and a cryo-vacuum chamber; optical test station with vibration-isolated laser interferometer; tool and prototyping workshop; and secure, conditioned storage for all electronic components.
Ames founded the company in 1994 after serving as program manager for the SDIO/DARPA-funded PAMELA activities in Colorado Springs. He has worked as lead engineer for the design, development, production and integration of sensors, actuators, analog and digital control processing electronics, software development, control system design and analysis on various initiatives.
Intrex Aerospace makes precision-machined aerospace components at its 75,000-square-foot facility in Thornton.
While the company has been in its current form since 2009, Stanley Aviation -- at the time an Aurora-based manufacturer of ejection seats -- spun off a division in the 1970s that became Intrex Aerospace.
The company makes about 200 different parts a month and 30,000 total units a year, largely for customers that supply NASA and prime contractors in defense and aerospace. Using about 35 CNC machines, Intrex specializes in mill-turn parts for fluid conveyance.
In addition to its aerospace machining capabilities, Intrex has a powerful Epicor ERP/MRP system that's capable of managing its customers' complex supply chain requirements. The system is designed to manage demanding long-term agreements and the company offers a program management solution that can provide everything from engineering support and raw material sourcing to part machining, special process management, documentation and shipment.
Intrex President Chad Long attributes the company's success to the relationships its built with both customers and employees. "That has helped us develop a great culture here and is one of the main drivers for how we engage with our customers," Long says. "We provide excellent customer service. We see our customers as more of a partner, and if they aren't successful, we can't be successful. We try to best understand their problems and needs and solve for that."
CompanyWeek profile (Jan. 2022): https://companyweek.sustainment.tech/article/intrex-aerospace
dpiX provides high-resolution imaging solutions to some of the world's most demanding medical, industrial and military markets for digital X-ray imaging.
dpiX was the first North American company to implement a new manufacturing process for X-ray sensors made on flexible foil substrates in 2018. The process follows nearly two decades of best-in-class digital X-ray sensor manufacturing. Now, instead of traditional glass substrate, sensors can be manufactured on lightweight foil.
Founded in 1999 with a $50 million U.S. Department of Defense grant, dpiX has innovated on technology developed at Xerox PARC in 1970 that paved the way for digital images to replace traditional film for X-rays.
The company's 239,000-square-foot plant in Colorado Springs is the largest a-Si on glass and flexible substrate manufacturing facility outside of Asia. All design and production takes place in the U.S.
The company's team and culture drive its success, dpiX CEO Lindsay Pack says. "I believe that we achieve positive impacts through collaboration, innovation and technology by creating an environment where teammates are empowered and supported to do great things greatly," she notes.
CompanyWeek profile (Mar. 2019): https://companyweek.sustainment.tech/article/dpix
Since CEO Jay Dokter took the company's reins in 2019, Vergent Products has diversified from designing and manufacturing printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs) for medical products, instrumentation and industrial controls into aerospace and defense.
The company was able to build on its ISO 13845 certification for medical products to get its AS9100 certification in 2019. Aerospace and defense now account for more than 20 percent of sales.
Vergent works with small to mid-sized clients who sometimes don't know what they don't know, says John Sage, the company's chief sales officer and a partner in the business. "They work on the design and hand it off," Sage says. "When we get ready to build it, they're still making changes and we have to adjust. We're nimble."
"We've made the investment in process controls and a quality management system," he continues. "It's a big investment for a company of our size. We wanted to be the highest-quality manufacturing shop anybody could come to in this area. We're very process driven, we follow procedures and improve our procedures."
CompanyWeek profile (Dec. 2021): https://companyweek.sustainment.tech/article/vergent-products
Join us on the afternoon of Thursday May 11 for the CMA Gala & Winners Reveal to celebrate one of America's most compelling manufacturing outposts.
Photos by Jonathan Castner.