Every day, the relays, which typically cost $50 to $400, switch electrical currents in everything from railway signals to industrial machinery and household appliances.
Many times, however, those relays wind up being the glitch in an electrical system.
Henke and his partner in Arc Suppression Technologies, Bob Thorbus, over the last five years developed, patented and commercialized a solution called the NOsparc, which suppresses arcing by 99 percent and extends the life of relays by at least 10 times.
“Minimum 10 times,” said Thorbus, who is the company’s chief executive. “You save the cost of at least nine relays.”
Thorbus said Arc Suppression — which is a finalist in the Midwest Cleantech technology competition — has lined up 100 initial customers and that revenue should be in the “millions” next year.
The NOsparc, made by a Minnesota contract manufacturer, costs $30 to $50 per unit depending on order size. Customers include Oshkosh Corp., Australian Rail Track Corp., Computrols of New Orleans and Chanhassen-based Roberts Automatic.
In an interview last week, Thorbus said there are major customer-order announcements coming and that the firm expects to raise up to $1.5 million from private investors by the end of this year to finance what he projects will be breakout sales volume in the next two years.
“The market is $5 billion [annually] in just electromechanical relays,” Thorbus said. “And there are other types of switches. “According to our patent attorney … there are no competitors. We are in ‘IP’ [intellectual property] white space.”
If Thorbus is right, the company, based in Bloomington, has made a product that will be a boon to industrial firms, building controls makers and grocers, which use multiple relays to control refrigeration equipment.
The NOsparc also should increase equipment safety, the company says.
Australian Rail Track Corp. incorporated the NOsparc as an inexpensive solution to a dangerous problem. The company, which operates about 5,000 miles of track, must constantly inspect and maintain liftgate mechanisms at railway crossings due to the damaging effects of arcing that occur each time the gates are raised or lowered to facilitate vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Improper maintenance can lead to broken gates and potential catastrophes.
Closer to home, Tony Lake, a manufacturing supervisor at precision-machining operator Roberts Automatic, said in the past the operation was routinely hampered by unpredictable relay failure. That’s a problem with 50 machines in operation.
“It seemed that I was always getting calls from frustrated operators telling me that a machine was down,” he said. “And more often than not, the shutdown was caused by a failed relay. Many of our relays would be used to stop and start the coolant pumps … every 30 seconds or so. [Their] failure points were completely unpredictable.”
Lake found Arc Suppression on the Internet and was surprised to find the fledgling company firm just up the road in Bloomington.
Lake and Arc Suppression zeroed in on a NOsparc arc suppressor that fit the amperage of the machines at Roberts Automatic. He installed and tested the devices in 2013 on several machines. So far, no failed relays.
“You avoid the cost of the replacement,” Lake said. “Also you avoid the cost of replacing a $600 motor, many hours of maintenance about $60 per hour and the real cost of shutting down an entire parts production run for an hour or two, or possibly days waiting for repair parts.”