By Eric Peterson | May 23, 2022
Colorado Springs, Colorado
"Water's in our roots," says Ben Ashe. He represents the fifth generation of his family in the pump business.
"My great-great-grandfather, Alfred, made his way across the U.S., stopped in Missouri, and sold Dempster hand pumps and windmills," says Ben. "His son, L.B. or Leon, made his way further west after the first was in the '20s. He bought a pump distributorship called Shaw Pump & Supply. Theys sold pumps and irrigation equipment when L.A. was transforming into citrus orchards."
It was a good time to be in the water business. His grandfather expanded the business and Ben's father, CEO Gene Ashe, did the same before founding MDM in Irwindale, California in 1978.
Gene moved to Colorado in 1994, then relocated MDM (and almost all of its employees) to Colorado Springs two years later. "My father had enough of L.A.," says Ben.
MDM got started in pumps for industrial processes like anodizing. Corrosion led to planned obsolescence, leading MDM to engineered plastic pumps and what Ben terms "a problem-centric approach to pumping."
"He [Gene] hated the idea of throwing away an alloy-based pump after three months of operation because it was pumping chemistry and just completely corroding itself," says Ben. "He saw it as a waste of resources and said, 'We've got to do better than that.'"
Gene launched MDM around plastic-based innovative pumps with "a unique mechanical seal design" that he marketed to the metal finishing industry with an eye on total cost of ownership. "You're adding to a business' bottom line by reducing downtime," says Ben. "That is the principle we've designed our entire portfolio off of. It's our guiding mantra."
Leveraging its focus on non-metallic, horizontal centrifugal pumps, MDM expanded from the metal finishing market to "leisure landscape products" after a keeper of a koi pond expressed an interest in similar pumps in the late 1980s. The legacy pumps could leak oil or even short out and shock the fish.
MDM modified the design of its pumps with a less powerful motor. "It fit the bill perfectly for a koi keeper," says Ben. "For anyone who was keeping koi at that time, it just caught like wildfire."
The koi keepers drove growth in the 1990s at MDM. That led to a market in consumer and commercial-scale aquariums and aquaculture.
With flow capacities ranging from 20 to 3,000 gallons a minute, MDM's pumps are now used in everything from food processing to laboratory environments studying zebrafish genetics to wastewater treatment.
"We're big on trying to create disruptive technology," says Ben. "We've been fortunate enough to have minor tweaks to the product where we can get ourselves into another use case and open up a market."
MDM relies on Moldrite Products in Colorado Springs for injection-molded components and assembles the pumps at its 20,000-square-foot facility, outfitted with a machine shop and ultrasonic bonding technology.
"That's the beautiful thing about injection molding and compression molding," says Ben. "You have to have the volume to substantiate owning one of those machines and keeping it running all of the time. But you can own your own tools and your own IP -- injection molders are in every state. We had an easy time finding a good relationship [with Moldrite] here in Colorado Springs."
He adds, "We get the parts and there's really not any secondary machining required. In some cases, we'll have to mill off some flash or do something like that."
MDM will work with Moldrite and other vendors by sharing the cost of stocking specialty materials and subsequently giving them a steady run of purchase orders.
Other components -- like seals, fasteners, motors, and adhesives -- come from a wide-ranging supply chain. Ben estimates that 95 percent of the pump's motors are manufactured domestically.
The company is positioned to grow its catalog and sales, he adds. "We're in a position where we're well-funded to cut tooling, which is a huge thing, and we've just growing our technical abilities. We're taking on computational fluid dynamics analysis tools, really expensive software to fully vet out designs before we cut tooling."
The company then prototypes with 3D-printed models. "You can make a big investment in cutting tooling for this kind of stuff and know beforehand you're going to have a product that performs," says Ben.
Balancing residential and industrial sales, the company has grown slowly and steadily over the decades. "We've never really laid anyone off," says Ben.
The strategy is to double the company's revenue in the next five years. "The past few years have been good to us," says Ben, who is slated to succeed his father as CEO of MDM. "They've fast-tracked our strategic growth goals, and we're well on our way."
Challenges: Ben points to hikes in the prices of resin, motors, copper, aluminum, steel, and shipping. "We're seeing materials just completely disappear out of the supply chain," he adds. "Pretty unique products disappear out of the supply chain with no information about when they'll come back in. That's a challenge. We've had to bring chemists in and plastic formulators in to try and figure out how to solve this one process with this one material that we've normally used -- which is a good thing. If you can respond well to those things, you give yourself a buffer and you're not reliant on any one thing."
Opportunities: Ben points to MDM's Genesys series of energy-efficient industrial pumps. Since old pumps tend to be energy hogs, Europe adopted rigorous efficiency standards for pumps in 2015, and the U.S. followed suit in 2019.
"We wanted to apply our non-metallic type of pumps to bigger process pumps, ANSI pumps," he explains. Used in lieu of thermoplastic, vinyl ester resin "is just a more robust plastic. It's similar to fiberglass, but it requires an exothermic reaction to actually set up -- it's not just heat."
MDM has a trade-secret process for molding parts of vinyl ester resin to work in such applications. "We spent 10 years pioneering how we could mold vinyl ester resin as it goes through that exothermic process, and we figured it out. We now mold these ANSI-style pumps and we cycle them in about 10 minutes and we mold them to net." He says competitors might need 48 hours just to mold the product, then machining is necessary.
Of the industries MDM serves, "Food production seems to be going crazy," Ben adds. "We're seeing fish farms come to North America with a level of investment we've never seen before."
The company is also working with an unnamed partner on a residential pump that would require the company to double its manufacturing footprint if it comes to fruition.
Needs: "It's talent," says Ben, citing needs in both sales and production. "Finding a good pump sales guy is like looking for a unicorn."