February/March 2016 Magazine Manufacturing

Manufacturing: How Thinking Small Can Pay Big

February/March 2016 Issue

Springdale-based NanoMech is using nanotechnology to manufacture an array of products impacting a number of industries, including Arkansas trucking.

Photography courtesy of Beth Hall

“We science the heck out of everything we do,” said Jim Phillips, as he leans back in the chair of his conference room, stacks of business cards spread out in front of him.

All around, signs stating “Think Small” are posted throughout the office of Springdale-based NanoMech, where Phillips is chief executive officer. While that’s the tagline for the company, much of what Phillips discusses — from production levels to client base to the impact of the company’s products — is actually pretty big.

“We are a science-based company, science-driven company,” he said. “We are working at the atomic scale. We are reinventing manufacturing; we are reinventing everything that exists basically. At that level, we’re playing on a national, international scale.”

NanoMech manufactures products at “nano-scale,” including a lineup of coatings, lubricants and cutting tools. Products include TuffTek, nGlide, nGuard and ElementX, and are used in many different industries, including automotive, trucking and more. The company counts big names among its clients.

“Tesla [Motors], J.B. Hunt, Penske, Wal-Mart.” These are just a few names Phillips lists as those who use NanoMech products. Exxon Mobil and Chevron are some of their main competitors, he said.

NanoMech’s technology was invented by Ajay Malshe, who serves as the company’s chief technology officer.

“It’s not only the science edge, but the business edge that builds a business like this,” Malshe said. “You can have great science, but it’s equally important to have the business experience.”

Arkansas Proud

While most of the company’s sales and capital has come from outside Arkansas, Phillips and Malshe say they are proud that NanoMech is headquartered in the state.

“We’re one of a very few, if not the only, science company that’s birthed and headquartered in Arkansas,” Phillips said. “We think that Arkansas is a fantastic place to do business, but at the end of the day, most of our business is from out of state. It’s the importation of investment from out of state to grow an Arkansas business.”

NanoMech, which was founded in 2002, also has locations in Houston, Dallas and Detroit, and plans to open another in Silicon Valley, California.

Malshe said what’s significant about NanoMech’s place among Arkansas companies is that its technology was “invented, developed and commercialized in Arkansas,” while providing products on a national and international scale.

NanoMech CEO Jim Phillips and CTO Ajay Malshe (front row) with their team of scientists and innovators.

NanoMech CEO Jim Phillips and CTO Ajay Malshe (front row) with their team of scientists and innovators.

“We’re kind of the best kept secret in Arkansas to the extent that two years ago, we didn’t have any products; we didn’t have a factory with assembly lines,” Phillips said. “Two and a half years later, we have four manufacturing assembly lines with quality control, repeatability and scalability.”

In November 2014, NanoMech opened its 29,000-square-foot expansion at the Springdale Technology Park, where Phillips said the company has room for future growth. In August 2015, the company began leasing 12,000 square feet of additional warehouse and office space near its headquarters.

Phillips declined to provide exact details about NanoMech’s production levels, revenue or number of employees. “Hundreds of thousands of pounds, approaching a million pounds,” he said, explaining that since the company became fully commercial in the first quarter of 2014, it has seen “record growth” quarter after quarter and “multihundred percent” annual growth.

The company also holds a portfolio of “hundreds of patents, claims and continuations,” he explained.

Phillips and Malshe are also proud of their relationship with the University of Arkansas.

Malshe is a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering at the UA College of Engineering, where he teaches manufacturing courses. The company also regularly provides internships to UA students and hires UA graduates.

“We are very pleased to see the success and economic impact of companies like NanoMech that are an outcome of UA research,” said John English, dean of the College of Engineering. “Companies like these provide many high-paying jobs for our graduates.”

Mike Preston, executive director of Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said Arkansas is fortunate to have a company like NanoMech within its borders because of its science and technology focus. 

“They have a very unique technology there, something that’s cutting edge,” he said. “I think they have a huge potential, a lot of upside to do a lot of good. We hope they continue to grow here in Arkansas. Nanotechnology is a cutting-edge technology, something that propels us into the next 10 years of jobs.”

According to AEDC, NanoMech has been approved for nearly $5.9 million in tax credits through the agency and received about $6.6 million in grants and loans, and $500,000 in investments, though none have been issued since 2013.

Transportation and Beyond

When talking products and their application in various industries, Phillips touts a concept he calls “hub and spoke.” This refers to the company’s ability to take its core, patented technology and make adjustments to create an array of other products.

To come up with new products, Malshe and Phillips say they look to the needs that exist in various industries. The pair travels constantly throughout the year, where they meet with company leaders all over the world.

“[Some companies] design a flashlight and then look for darkness,” Malshe said. “From a business point of view, what makes the most sense is for you to find the darkness and then design the flashlight. We spend a lot of time with customers and they give us impossible problems to solve.”

One industry where NanoMech has made inroads is transportation.

In fall 2015, they launched the NanoMech Transport Division focusing on the trucking and railroad industries’ need for “increased sustainability, performance, reliability and efficiency,” a company news release said. Phillips said NanoMech is hiring a senior vice president of transport and a senior vice president of retail, both based at the Springdale office.

NanoMech has a lineup of products for the trucking industry that help combat rust and corrosion.

NanoMech has a lineup of products for the trucking industry that help combat rust and corrosion.

The division incorporates a lineup of products targeting these industries, all of which feature NanoMech’s nGlide technology, which has been trademarked as “The Best Grease in the World.” Products include TriboTuff Ultra Red Truck Grease, TriboTuff Dielectric Grease and the multifunction coating GuardX.

Phillips said some of the country’s largest trucking companies use NanoMech products, including J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., based at nearby Lowell. However, officials at J.B. Hunt declined to comment for this story.

Shannon Newton, president of Arkansas Trucking Association, said the trucking industry and its suppliers are critical to Arkansas’ economy, and the industry has consistently embraced new technologies.

“NanoMech has emerged as a pioneer in nanotechnology, offering innovative products for several industries, including trucking,” she said.

“Our industry has always been high volume, low margin and extremely competitive. We have certainly adapted and embraced new technology in pursuit of that competitive edge — new products surface that can help us be safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. The quality and quantity of trucking companies in Arkansas helps attract and support growing companies such as NanoMech.”

Up until now, NanoMech has largely been a business-to-business company. In 2016, Phillips said the plan is to expand into retail, and they are hoping a new product, called AtomOil, will be the one to take them there. AtomOil is an oil lubrication that uses the company’s nGlide technology, and Phillips said he expects it to “sell off the shelves.”

Phillips said the company is also looking to expand, and thanks to the patented process it used for setting up its factory, scaling up can be done very quickly.

“We applied the patented process, methods and design to working with machines off the shelf,” he said. “When we manufacture these nano-engineered and nano-manufactured products, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can open a factory in any city anywhere in the world overnight, only because we thought ahead.”

Several other products are in development, but company officials say they are not ready to discuss them in detail. Paints and textiles are a couple of areas where NanoMech is turning its attentions next.

“We have products that could be viral,” Phillips said. “Every week we’re having some type of breakthrough.”

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