Most people haven’t heard of GVL Poly or its specialty farm equipment.

But the tiny Litchfield, Minn., company is quickly making a name for itself, growing its staff, expanding its factory and attracting a whole new crop of customers with recently purchased technology that allows it to turn out customized parts in record time.

“We have come a long way and come up quickly,” said CEO Allan Cronen, a former banker who bought the business in 2002 when it had just four employees.

GVL Poly makes crop-separating attachments for large harvesting machines made by John Deere, Case International, AGCO and others. But last year, the company launched an experiment, plunking down $1 million to install one of the largest 3-D rotational printers ever created by Stratasys in Eden Prairie. The equipment gives GVL a huge edge, as it allows the company to quickly make prototypes and custom parts for farming machines.

Already, GVL has used the new 3-D printer to design, test and build a prototypical attachment for the Iowa-based combine maker DragoTec USA. The project went so well that GVL won a manufacturing contract to make the plastic corn-­separating attachments for Drago’s combines. The machine parts, known affectionately in the industry as corn snouts and corn heads, were a hit because they helped farmers in the field cleanly harvest up to 18 rows of corn at one time without snags or gaps.

The plastic parts also saved farmers fuel and money because they are half the weight of metal components. “If farmers can lighten their weight and save even a gallon an hour, it’s pretty significant ... diesel is nearly $4 a gallon,” Cronen said.

Last year’s custom-manufacturing contract with DragoTec emerged at the same time Georgia-based AGCO also ramped up orders for GVL’s harvesting machine attachments. Now GVL is building a factory next door to AGCO’s combine plant in Kansas. GVL broke ground six weeks ago and construction will wrap up next year.

Cronen credits the company’s gamble on high-tech 3-D printing equipment for GVL’s rapid growth. “Our focus on foreign sales and on the technology pieces of 3-D, or additive manufacturing, has pushed us. We just don’t have competitors out there that have made those capital investments.”

But entering the world of rapid 3-D prototyping meant big changes for GVL and the need for outside help.

Cronen brought in Enterprise Minnesota, a Minneapolis-based outfit that helps small and midsize factories tackle growth and profitability.

“They were only $1 million in sales when we first met. But now they do this 3-D rotational molding, which is a real art. And it has really taken off,” said Enterprise Minnesota CEO Bob Kill.

Annual sales shot from $3 million in fiscal 2012 to $5 million this year.

This month, GVL is finishing its 15,000-square-foot shipping and receiving center in Litchfield. The addition means that GVL can finally stop storing inventory in the rented shipping containers that have littered the grounds for 10 months. Finished products are now stacked high inside the new shipping docks and are headed to customers.

“We are running 24/7,” Cronen said. “It’s been hot and heavy every day.”

In 2005, GVL Poly started experimenting with small 3-D printers. The machines manufactured hollow or complicated plastic parts by adding on thin layers of liquid poly one tiny layer at a time. Over the years, GVL bought larger and more sophisticated printers. And it sold more parts to farm equipment makers such as Claas in Germany and Olimac in Italy, and to parts distributors in Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Brazil, Chile and Mexico. It’s also been quite busy in the United States.

Orders are expected to jump even higher when construction of the Kansas plant next door to AGCO is finished and production begins next year.

When that happens, “AGCO will become our biggest customer,” Cronen said, adding that he plans to add 30 workers to his current crew of 46.

The surge in business doesn’t surprise Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who tracks the Midwest agricultural industry. “Businesses linked to agriculture have done really well until just recently,” Goss said.

Some farm bankers, he said, worry about softening commodity prices this fall and the possibility of the U.S. dollar rising in 2014. If true, that would hurt equipment exports, which have been robust. “But companies that produce replacement parts like [GVL Poly] should continue to do pretty well because farmers still need parts and maintenance for their existing machines,” Goss said.

While looking at the future, GVL Poly officials are delighted to have overcome the past.

“When I purchased the company, the only customer we were manufacturing for was Gearing Hoff,” Cronen said. He set out to win new customers. “But in growing, the hardest thing for us was to find qualified professionals to work in small-town Minnesota,” he said.

Cronen needed salesmen to snag new clients and factory workers and engineers to develop new products. He started hiring workers who knew nothing about plastics or farm equipment. He sent them to the plastics engineering technology school at Penn State University and worked with students from Ridgewater Community College in Willmar, Minn. Still, it was slow going.

Fortune finally struck after Bobcat decided to shift scores of workers from its factory in Litchfield to its North Dakota headquarters. Some Bobcat employees declined to move and went to work for GVL instead. “That Bobcat transition was a blessing for us,” Cronen said. “I don’t want to wonder where we would have been without that.”

 

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725