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Norway Firm’s Local Factory Highlights Prop. 3’s PotentialPrint

Clean Energy | September 26, 2012 | By Jim Dulzo

Mark Havens says his Norwegian employer, Dokka, gained a competitive edge when it set up shop in Michigan to manufacture 30-lb. bolts and other parts for wind turbines in Michigan and North America.

Mark Havens finished his U.S. Navy service in 1996 and moved back to Michigan, where he stayed true to his family’s manufacturing roots and returned to making fasteners for the auto industry at a small Waterford factory.

The bad economy took its toll and the plant shut down in 2010, so Mr. Havens moved on to become production supervisor at another of the state’s countless machine shops. But this place was different: It was getting ready to make big, 30-pound bolts for wind turbines.

The bolts represent the kind of manufacturing that many Michigan companies and their workers—with deep, metal-forming experience—can do at a globally competitive price. That was one big reason why his company, Norway-based Dokka Fasteners Inc., set up shop in Auburn Hills 27 months ago.

If Michigan voters approve Proposal 3 on the November ballot, Dokka and several hundred other firms in the state’s renewables manufacturing sector will have good reason to expand their operations. Prop. 3 would more than double Michigan’s current renewable energy mandate, matching it with several of the state’s Midwestern manufacturing competitors, and quickly boosting the local market for turbine and solar panel parts.

When Dokka opened its American shop in June 2010, company officials said they invested in Michigan rather than elsewhere due to the incentive package assembled by the State of Michigan, Oakland County, and the City of Auburn Hills.

But it was the American wind turbine market that first caught the Norwegian firm’s attention; windpower development was taking off across the country, thanks to many states’ newly enacted renewables mandates. In the Midwest, those mandates range from those in Michigan and Wisconsin requiring utilities to provide 10 percent of their power from renewables by 2015, to Minnesota, Illinois, and Ohio’s aggressive ones, requiring 25 percent by 2025.

“With Michigan developing into an epicenter for wind energy technology and manufacturing, and coupled with the exponential growth of wind farms throughout Michigan, Auburn Hills is the ideal location for Dokka Fasteners Inc. to support the North American wind market,” the company said in 2010.  “Leveraging Michigan’s experienced talent base and manufacturing experience further strengthened this decision.”

Dokka is now one of about 120 companies in Michigan—from foreign firms to longtime Michigan companies—manufacturing wind turbine parts, according to a 2011 study by the Chicago-based nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Mr. Havens said his shop employs about 55 people, many with automotive manufacturing backgrounds, and ships more than 90 percent of its bolts to turbine companies operating in the United States. Proposal 3 would likely prompt Dokka to expand its turbine parts manufacturing and hire more machinists.

The 241 companies making turbine or solar panel parts in Michigan would hire more workers, too, according to a recent Michigan State University study. That could add as many as 20,000 new manufacturing jobs in Michigan to keep up with the renewables market in the state and across the country.

In a phone conversation, Mr. Havens said he believes deeply in his new, renewables manufacturing career and expressed confidence in Michigan manufacturing’s ability to keep pace as the world moves toward a new energy economy.

Michigan Land Use Institute: Why do you think Dokka chose Michigan for its first U.S. facility?

Mr. Havens: Because we have manufacturing savvy. Ninety percent of our workers came from the automotive industry.

A lot of that was drying up, so there were a lot of very experienced people who were looking for work ... people who would fit our requirements very easily by understanding the metal-forming process as well as fastener standards, fastener manufacturing, and measuring equipment. Ninety percent of the people here have experience with that—even the sales people, especially with Automation Alley right down the road.

Also, besides our manufacturing, it was the growth of the wind energy market here in Michigan along with the car battery plants going up. With the downsizing of car manufacturing in Michigan, you have to choose something else to make. The number of Michigan companies that are producing parts for wind turbines is increasing rapidly. The manufacturing value in Michigan has really turned the light bulb on for investors and their investments.

MLUI: Did the state Legislature’s passage of renewables requirements for Michigan utilities in 2008 have much to do with Dokka coming here, or with you working in the renewables manufacturing industry today?

Mr. Havens: It was a combination of things, but certainly that was a driver. I was listening when they [Michigan lawmakers] were working on the utility requirements.  One thing I really did consider after my [Waterford] plant closed—as I was an engineman in the military, my civilian classification was as a maintenance mechanic—was to become a maintenance mechanic for wind turbines.

So now you got batteries, electric cars, and—especially with the economy going down—it forces you to rethink what your opportunities are in the new growth markets. With the volatility of the auto industry here in Michigan, changes in the market force you to constantly look toward the future.

Renewables are the future, so you need to start building a foundation and establishing some roots into that market now. It is just the tip of the iceberg. I thought it was going to be very big and was going to grow fast, and I wanted to be part of that developing foundation.

MLUI: Do your workers have much enthusiasm, knowledge or pride about being part of a new, clean energy industry in Michigan?

Mr. Havens: Definitely. Especially when people travel on vacations now, they see wind turbines popping up. I run across the Mackinac Bridge every Memorial Day, and just seeing those wind turbines in the background gives me a good feeling.

I’m glad we are getting to that point. I like change; change means you are growing. If you are not changing, you are not growing. Renewable energy is just beginning and people are just now starting to grasp it. It is fun and exciting.

MLUI: Were many of the people working in your plant laid off from the auto industry? How did you find them?

Mr. Havens: I would say 25 percent of our workers had been looking hard for a job. We recruited some employees from other businesses, too. A lot of the people on the manufacturing side are basically people we had relationships with through our old employers, as well as people that were laid off from other fastener companies due to the economy. We also brought in some younger people who were hungry to be a part of our new production process using the best available technology in robotics and automation. They continue to excel.

With the experience the older guys have, the process improvements they are making, you have a huge jump-start in the business.

MLUI: How come these jobs are not exported to a cheap-labor country?

Mr. Havens: The wind turbine market absolutely insists on the highest quality product available … which is not available in “cheap labor countries.” We are all about high quality and cost effectiveness and that’s what the market desires.

The value of the American dollar has varied against foreign currency, so by manufacturing here you get a real cost savings. When dealing with Michigan companies who have all of the high technical standards and equipment in place, multiple ways to save money or improve the product are available to original equipment manufacturers. Buying from Michigan companies gives them the edge.  Through continual improvement processes, products can always be made better and more cost-effective. That is where true total cost savings occur.

MLUI: Do the people on your plant floor talk about Prop. 3? What do they or you make of opposition to the proposal?

Mr. Havens: We all know this is an election year, and we all are aware of the Production Tax Credit situation as well as a real lack of a renewable energy plan in Michigan.  As Michigan citizens, we are really looking foward to changes that will keep Michigan’s renewable energy growth going.  Those people that oppose Prop. 3 either don’t have a firm understanding of what the proposition is about or have been too easily swayed by other energy-source companies and their lobbyists.

MLUI: Have you been up close to a functioning turbine or solar panel? What’s your reaction to them?

Mr. Havens: My first time was at the Mackinac Bridge. It was just incredible to see how these massive turbines are so effectively converting a free energy source like wind into usable energy sources like electricity. It just gave me a good feeling to know that the product Dokka makes is bringing such valuable service to our country. I know some people say they are noisy or block their view, but that is free energy up there, so why not use it?

When I flew over to Norway to see the Dokka plant there, you could see wind turbines all over Europe. I think we are learning a lot from Europe, but putting our American twist on it. It helps us learn from each other. It is worldwide. I’m glad Michigan is a frontrunner.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.