News Column

High-tech on the high plains (It does exist)

February 2, 2014

By James Chilton, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne

Feb. 02--CHEYENNE -- Like many smaller Western cities, Cheyenne has a reputation for being a cowboy town, a remnant of the old frontier days.

But look in the right places and you can find state-of-the-art research, precision robotics and one of the fastest-growing hubs for data centers in the country.

In fact, firms that use high technology are a growing part of the area economy. And while high-profile data centers like those run by Microsoft and Green House Data have been making headlines, there are many other businesses here using high tech in their day-to-day operations.

"Twenty years ago, maybe you needed a lot of manual labor," said Randy Bruns, CEO of Cheyenne LEADS, the area's economic development arm. "Nowadays, most industries you talk to about recruiting take some technology-based workforce and infrastructure to be able to do the job."

One good local example he pointed to was Sierra Trading Post. Originally a purely catalogue-based company, Bruns said the retailer has expanded into the online realm, and that has required highly skilled programmers to come onboard.

"A lot of their employees now, a critical component of their employment, are programmers and systems analysts," Bruns said. "These are people processing and developing software code, and most people would say that's high-tech."

Several local manufacturers also have turned to high technology to get the job done. They use what are called "CNC" n Computer Numeric Controlled n machines that are capable of doing precise work.

Such companies include Puma Steel, which makes structural steel using its own in-house engineering and detailing.

"Everything done at Puma Steel is all computer-controlled," Bruns said. "They go from architectural design and layout right to steel welding without any paper.

"Grobet USA is another; they make precision industrial tools. They have to program these machines, and all the very precise work is done by essentially robotics."

Others, like NDC Power, are in the business of researching and developing new technologies. In NDC's case, that's fuel cells.

"We make large-scale fuel cells that use alcohols as fuels," said NDC's president and CEO, Don Montgomery. "The Army has an interest in both generating electric power and (the fact) there's no carbon dioxide that's produced.

"You also produce lots of extra water, so they have a very green signature, depending on the source of the alcohol."

NDC originally started in Laramie in 2004, but it moved here two years later due to the city's higher workforce base and proximity to Denver.

While it currently only employs a handful of researchers, Montgomery said the firm grows to several dozen whenever it gets a military contract.

"You can put explosives in the fuel and the fuel cells will convert the explosive to inert gases and get rid of all the waste," Montgomery said. "The Army is focused on using our technology at ammunition plants because ammunition plants have a lot of waste explosives (to get rid of)."

Also, NDC's researchers have found that byproducts of their fuel cells may also have practical applications.

"Potassium acetate is a de-icer; it's what people use as a standard de-icer for runways," Montgomery said. "You can put it in a garden sprayer and spray your sidewalk and it melts on contact and keeps it melted, even at very low temperatures."

Montgomery said similar de-icers are already on the market, but NDC's de-icer is also made using a process that creates no carbon dioxide. The company is test marketing the product this year.

"We're also looking at a second chemical that has more local interest," he said. "We found that if we use methanol instead of ethanol (in the fuel cells), we can make potassium formate, which is very commonly used in the fracking industry."

Bruns said such industries show there is a definite market for high tech in Cheyenne.

The only major stumbling block, he said, is maintaining a viable workforce to fill those jobs. That is an issue that applies to both high- and low-skill employers.

"When you have professional engineers here managing a fleet of 23 satellites in geosynchronous orbit, those are technology workers," Bruns said, referring to the EchoStar Broadcasting Corporation.

"When you have four major data centers, you have technology workers. When you have people programming CNC machines, you've got technology workers.

"But the vulnerability of keeping those industries here is labor, the skilled capable labor they need and our vulnerability in attracting more like them to build that edifice one brick at a time."

He said that, at present, Cheyenne has the infrastructure and incentives to continue drawing high-tech manufacturing and data centers to the area.

But the major determiner of whether a company will come here, he said, is how many employees it needs.

"Huge firms that have large employment needs, two or three thousand people, are essentially off the table," he said. "But another firm doing exactly that same thing with 200 people is on the table.

"One of the drawbacks to attracting that young professional workforce is having more than one game in town, more than one company that needs those kinds of skills."

Montgomery agreed with that assessment, adding that, it's a "chicken and egg" scenario when it comes to attracting human capital. Oftentimes professionals in high-tech fields like to keep their options open, and it's hard to convince them to move somewhere where those options are few.

"It's very difficult to retail human capital, especially at a professional level," he said. "It has more to do, not so much with Cheyenne. But if they're in a place where there's only one job (available), it puts them where they perceive there's no other place to go. That's a critical mass issue."

But Dale Steenbergen, president of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, said the groundwork has been laid to draw more tech firms to the area. And as those numbers grow, more tech professionals will be willing to take a chance on Cheyenne.

"As more and more manufacturing becomes tech related, we are going to be prepared to welcome those companies to our community," he said. "(That's) because of the infrastructure we put in, the broadband capability we have and because we've concentrated to build a workforce which is a big issue right now.

"As we create an industry cluster here with technologies, we open the doors for a lot of kinds of industries to locate here.

The interest is, long term, to make sure we concentrate on young professionals and skilled workforce."

Cheyenne's high-tech industries:

What follows is a select list of Cheyenne companies that employ high-tech workers, scientists, researchers and/or computerized machinery in their day-to-day operations:

CTL Thompson: Geotechnical engineering consulting. Includes professionals with backgrounds in geotechnical, civil and structural engineering; industrial hygiene; biology and geology. Located at 1103 Old Town Lane, Suite 201B.

Datacorp: Provides data collection, analysis, management and visualization. Specializes in customized surveys and online systems, online data collection and reporting, health-related quality-of-life research and needs assessments for substance abuse and mental health programs. Located at 200 W. 17th St., Suite 65.

Dyno Nobel: Leading supplier of industrial explosives and blasting services for mining, quarrying, seismic and construction industries. Emphasizes "practical innovations" in explosives technology with an aim at improving safety and control while decreasing overall cost. Located at 8305 Otto Road.

EchoStar Broadcasting Corporation: Operates one of the world's largest and most advanced digital broadcast networks. Locally, EchoStar has a data center for internal supercomputing, data storage and archiving. EchoStar also provides colocation to third-party customers, including DISH Network. Located at 530 EchoStar Drive.

Emerald Foam Control: Manufactures compounds used to control foam buildup in the food production process for things like sweeteners and potato chips. Located at 311 Cleveland Place.

Green House Data: Provides high-availability cloud computer hosting, colocation and managed services. Recently announced a $35 million, 35,000-square foot expansion to its existing data center in Cheyenne, which aims to be online by March. Located at 304 Progress Circle.

Grobet USA: Designs, produces and distributes precision tools for professional technicians and craftsmen. Located at 1912 Whitney Road.

HollyFrontier: Cheyenne's refinery converts crude oil into refined products with a capacity of up to 52,000 barrels a day. Its products are marketed along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountain region including Colorado, eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. Located at 300 Morrie Ave.

Microsoft: The computer giant has invested more than $180 million into its data center in Cheyenne, which will help it continue providing cloud data services to more than 20 million businesses and 1 billion customers all over the globe. Located in the North Range Business Park west of Cheyenne proper.

National Center for Atmospheric Research: NCAR opened its Wyoming Supercomputing Center in October 2012 and since then has allocated millions of hours of research time to researchers from the University of Wyoming and elsewhere, enabling them to do complex atmospheric modeling on the "Yellowstone" supercomputer. Located at 8120 Veta Drive.

NDC Power: Develops alcohol-based fuel cells for the military, which can also be used to eliminate waste ammunition. Other products include a de-icer and a chemical useful in the fracking industry. Located at 7052 Commerce Circle.

Nortrack: Produces heavy steel parts for the railroad industry, including prestressed concrete railroad ties. Located at 1740 Pacific Ave.

Puma Steel: Uses automated computerized equipment to manufacture structural steel. Includes in-house engineering and detailing, design build and design assist services. Located at 1720 Pacific Ave.

Schlumberger: The world's leading supplier of technology, integrated project management and information solutions to customers working in the oil and gas industry. Products include drilling services and systems, bits and tools and drilling fluids systems. Located at 6322 Clear Creek Parkway.

Searing Industries: A manufacturer of welded steel tubing, including high-strength hollow structural tubing. Located at 5310 Clear Creek Parkway.

Sierra Trading Post: An online and catalog retailer that sells seconds, overstocks and closeouts, primarily related to outdoor recreation, footwear and home decor. The transition to an online market has resulted in the hiring of programmers and systems analysts to manage the flow of goods. Located at 5025 Campstool Road.

WEST Inc.: Provides environmental and statistical consulting services and contract research nationally and internationally to industry, government, and private organizations. Offerings include a combination of field ecology and statistics to help solve ongoing and contemporary natural resource problems. Located at 415 W. 17th St., Suite 200.

___

(c)2014 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

Visit Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.) at www.wyomingnews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel



Source: Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, WY)


Story Tools