Cleaner, greener buses for Michigan thanks to technology made in the U.P.

The death of the internal combustion engine has been greatly exaggerated. For now, the green automotive revolution will be retrofitted by companies like Engineered Machined Products of Escanaba, which is cleaning up transportation one bus fleet at a time in municipalities across Michigan--and the country.

The innovation is called a mini-hybrid thermal conversion kit and is saving money for bus fleets by giving them better economy, preventing them from overheating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And they run quieter, too. In Michigan, bus fleets in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Bay City and Saginaw all have them installed. It's a way that municipalities, hard-up for cash to replace buses, is choosing to improve the quality and safety of their existing fleets.

And, with the success of the mini-hybrid system in Michigan's test communities, the company is looking to have them installed in buses in Detroit and on Michigan transit buses in a full-scale refurbishment program. The result, the company says, would be a savings of almost $100 million, a 7 percent improvement in fuel economy and reduced carbon footprint. Paul Harvey, director of new business development at EMP, says Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Sen. Debbie Stabenow have both offered encouraging words on the proposal.

The idea is to use available money to help improve transit rather than putting all resources into rail and new hybrid buses.

"We can get you the same result with this mini-hybrid retrofit at substantially less cost," Harvey says.

The mini-hybrid system involves removing all the hydraulics in the back of the bus. It's that area that can overheat and cause too-common bus fires. EMP has a team that goes out and installs directly at local municipal garages. The 470-employee company has sent folks out from Escanaba to municipal bus fleets in Baltimore and New York City.

So, why would EMP be located in such a geographically isolated, albeit scenic, area of the country?

Although EMP has customers around the globe, Escanaba is the place for a precision machining and engineering company to be because they are within 50 miles of two world-renowned foundries--Grede Foundries in Iron Mountain and ThyssenKrupp Waupaca in Marinette, Wis. That's two of North America's leading foundries right in its backyard.

"So, we don't have to pay shipping. We don't have to have a transit contract or a fleet of semi tractor-trailers on the road 24/7," Harvey says.

The other factor that makes EMP not as isolated as you would think is its pipeline to Michigan Technological University and its renowned mechanical engineering school. The bulk of EMP's engineers come from Michigan Tech and the company relies on Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie for electrical engineers.

Harvey, 53, was born and raised in Escanaba, but moved off to St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia at various times in his career before coming back home.

"A real competitive advantage to doing business in the U.P. is the people, the pride that the people have in hard work and making things happen. The work ethic is second to none," he says.

EMP has sales executives scattered throughout the country, and 75 employees at an Indianapolis branch, but the bulk of the workers are in Escanaba. If contracts come through with the Detroit Department of Transportation, that would represent a significant increase in business and employees, Harvey says.

Craig Allen, director of maintenance at Capital Area Transportation Authority in Lansing, confirmed that EMP's mini-hybrid engine is performing as well as advertised.

"The fuel saving experienced has been between 5 and 20 percent depending on the engine configuration," Allen says. "The installation of the EMP system reduces engine compartment heat, exterior cooling fan noise and a reduction in weight. We were able to remove over 500 pounds out of our engine compartments through the removal of hydraulic system tanks, plumbing and pump."

Allen also praised the mini-hybrid thermal system for reducing noise pollution.

"When operating in the urban environment, ambient exterior noise is something we have always been aware of," he says. "We do everything we can to reduce overall bus noise and when you combine the EMP system with our hybrid buses, the levels are significantly reduced even further."

Harvey credits Jacqueline Shinn, former MDOT chief deputy director, for helping to steer municipalities into the program, including Bay City, Grand Rapids and Saginaw. When EMP met with Shinn in 2009 and discovered that one of MDOT's top priorities was to retrofit its existing bus fleet because they could not afford new buses, the company stepped in with a solution.

"Her eyes lit up and she said, 'We need to work with these people'," Harvey says.

Harvey sees EMP's continued success as a step forward for the state, too, in coming up with solutions in a pinch.

"And we're a great community partner, so we're close with all of our government representatives because we want to help push Michigan forward," Harvey says.

Howard Lovy is a Traverse City based freelance writer who specializes in technology and innovation. He can be reached via email.
Signup for Email Alerts