When Bob Pohlad heard there was a company right in Shoreview that made giant robots, cranes and gigantic welding systems for NASA’s rocketmakers and nuclear cleanup efforts like Japan’s Fukushima, he had to see it.
It was like getting to open his first Tonka toy set, and he thought the possibilities of PaR Systems were endless.
“My reaction was, ‘I love this company.’ I love it because they do big things. They do important things. And they do cool things,” Pohlad said.
PaR is different from other firms owned by the Pohlads. Under the leadership of Bob’s late father, Carl, the family business was originally rooted in a Pepsi bottling factory in the 1960s, and eventually morphed into Twin Cities banking and ownership of the Twins Major League Baseball team.
While the Pohlads ran the Pepsi bottling operation from the 1960s until its sale in 2010, it only skimmed the surface of automation, Bob Pohlad said. PaR simply sits in another stratosphere of technology.
“What we recognized in PaR was its deep automation expertise,” Pohlad said. “You couple that with the industry knowledge that they have in medical and technical devices and aerospace manufacturing, and it’s a completely different world.”
It’s been three months since Pohlad and his two brothers paid an undisclosed sum for PaR, the quiet automated equipment maverick that builds sophisticated manufacturing machinery that is automated to do what humans can’t.
PaR has a range of products, from oversized to nano, that crosses industries and fills a growing niche as manufacturing becomes more automated.
Some PaR robots have moved nuclear fuel casings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. In 2016, another of its remotely operated “nuclear cranes” was installed to help clean up the still-dangerous Chernobyl Unit 4 nuclear reactor that was first damaged in 1986. Other automated PaR equipment has coated the tiniest of catheters, stents and neuro-stimulators and made industrial robotics, automated conveyor and packaging machines and assembly equipment for semiconductors and other technologically complex products.
Making rocket tanks
In December, two new PaR “friction stir welding” machines the size of train tunnels were delivered to United Launch Alliance in Alabama. There the multimillion-dollar beasts will be used to fuse together the liquid fuel tanks for the new Vulcan rocket that is set to take its maiden voyage to the International Space Station in 2020.
PaR’s friction stir welding technology creates joints that are stronger, thinner, lighter and of better quality than was possible with conventional solder welding.
Friction stir welding (FSW) is a growing technology within the massive machining industry. Other players include Holroyd Precision, General Tool Company and Manufacturing Technology Inc.; the technology is helping PaR grow in new ways.
By using PaR’s technology, United Launch officials said they will slash at least two weeks from their rocket production schedule. That is because the new welding is so superior to the old solder method that ULA will no longer have to X-ray rocket seams for pin holes and cracks that then have to be repaired.
The new technology makes a perfect seam the first time because it mixes together two differing metal plates into one solid bond, said Mark Peller, ULA vice president for major development, who is in charge of the Vulcan space rocket.
FSW creates stronger joints with thinner metal. That means ULA can build lighter rocket tanks, which in turn allows the Vulcan to carry heavier payloads to the International Space Station and launch heavier satellites into space for military and commercial customers, Peller said.
“That’s what PaR has enabled us to do,” Peller said. “It has improved our competitiveness in the aerospace market. This is the first time we have gone to PaR with equipment for a job of this magnitude. But they have delivered two really significant pieces of equipment that are allowing us to build this next-generation rocket.”
NASA, Tesla also customers
In addition to ULA, which is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, other PaR customers include Emerson, Toyota, Best Buy, Tesla, NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin and a host of medical device firms. PaR, which was founded in 1961, generates about $130 million in revenue a year.
“This past year we’ve had a little bit more than 10 percent growth,” said PaR President and CEO Mark Wrightsman. “Historically, our organic growth has been 5 to 10 percent a year. But our strategy is to do that [10 percent] again. Our goal is to be much larger than we are today in each of our segments.”
That’s exactly what Pohlad envisions.
“We bought it because of where it can go,” Pohlad said. “We believe that there is significant growth in the things they are doing right now as well as through acquisitions, and that is very important to us.”
On a recent day, a stroll through PaR’s Shoreview headquarters and factory revealed a quarter of the fuselage of a major airplane manufacturer. PaR’s workers were up on lifts building a custom-made FSW system.
At the giant bay across the cavernous plant, other workers carefully disassembled the automated FSW tower they had just built for United Launch System. PaR’s circumferential welding machine boasts a highly precise welding nose. And because of its size and arc, the machine can be made to continuously weld the entire barrel of a rocket fuel tank without taking a break.
The seams have to be strong enough to contain thousands of gallons of oxygen and natural gas. So anything but perfect seams are not an option, said Peller at United Launch Alliance.
“This new rocket will be entirely joined using our friction stir welding equipment,” said Terry Berglin, business development director for PaR. “And that is a first. They have not used it before for the entire ‘first stage’ bottom part of the rocket. And last month, we were literally watching them putting in this new machine that will create part of this Vulcan rocket. It will be tested in the next month.”
Denver-based United Launch Alliance has used PaR’s small robotics assembly capabilities in the past to make pieces of ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets. But when it came to building its next-generation Vulcan space rockets, it turned to PaR for a giant-sized system.
The automated and computerized welding system PaR built in Minnesota and shipped to Alabama looks like half of a Ferris wheel. It can clamp and weld together the entire rotating cylinder of a rocket’s fuel tank without sparks, electrical arcs or the imprecision of traditional welding systems.
PaR is breaking new ground, Peller said.
“We are obviously very excited about the Vulcan and PaR is a key enabler to our success,” he said “This is the largest engagement that PaR has had for ULA, and this certainly bodes well for the future.”