By Patrick Lapinski

Beyond the Base

Northern Engineering Co. Builds on a Long Track Record of Marine Industry Service to Diversify its Client Base

northern_engFrom humble beginnings in the Roaring Twenties, Northern Engineering Inc. has built its business on the back of the Great Lakes shipping industry. Being close to the waterfront has always been integral to this company’s identity.

Broadly speaking, Northern Engineering still focuses on the maritime industry, making repairs and refurbishments to all things mechanical aboard a ship. The company specializes in the repair and renewal of mechanical equipment, industrial gear drives, conveying and propulsion systems, engine heads and valves, shaft and bearing replacement and analytical assessment and testing, as well as maritime engineering capability.

However, for the first time in its history, the business is also looking to develop and expand a non-maritime customer base.

At Northern, they’re focused on the here and now as well as the future; they don’t dwell a lot on the past. But the fact that they’ve quietly gone about their business for nearly a century is a remarkable achievement. And their past has resulted in quite a story to tell.

The History

The company started out with a simple pact between two machinists looking to strike out on their own during a time when the shipbuilding of “lakers” (bulk freighters) in Superior was in decline. At roughly the age of 30, Eigil Knudsen was a wise and ambitious Danish immigrant. Knudsen worked hard at an early age, taking odd jobs to help out at home. Neither he nor his brother, Henry, stayed in school much beyond the sixth grade. His life at home was tumultuous and he developed into an ambitious, headstrong boy.

The agreement forged a bond between the brothers that would stay strong for the rest of their lives.

As a teenager, Knudsen returned (some say he was “sent”) to his native Copenhagen, where he attended the Polytechnic Institute to study marine engineering. During his time in Denmark, he served for five years at the Burmeister & Wain Shipyards as a machinist’s apprentice.

Knudsen returned to Superior in 1910, where he gained employment as a machinist at the Superior Shipbuilding Co. In 1916, “Ike” (as he was known) briefly left the shipyard to work as a machine shop foreman for the American Smelting & Refining Co. in Omaha, Nebr. But a short nine months later, he returned to the shipyard. Knudsen remained employed as a master mechanic for the Superior Shipbuilding Co. throughout World War I and for several years afterward.

In 1921, as business was slowing to a standstill at Superior Shipbuilding, he formed a partnership with John Lawson, a former shipyard employee, to start a machining business called the Northern Engineering Co. The two men leased space at 100 Ogden Ave. near the remains of Superior’s old flour milling district to set up their new shop.

Lawson had worked for nearly 20 years as a machinist at Superior Shipbuilding Co. During his tenure there, he was employed as a master machinist and later as the department superintendent for the machinists. Lawson and Knudsen aimed to rely upon their combined knowledge and experience in the marine industry to build their business.

The business prospects for Northern Engineering were growing and Knudsen became adamant about having his brother join them, though Henry Knudsen was living in Philadelphia and reluctant to leave the East Coast. During the Great War, he worked as a machinist on submarines at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. But Knudsen took every opportunity he could to persuade his brother to partner in the venture until Henry finally relented and agreed to join them in Superior.

The agreement forged a bond between the brothers that would stay strong for the rest of their lives. But that bond strained the relationship between Eigil Knudsen and John Lawson, and the men soon parted ways. In 1923, Lawson left Northern Engineering.

The Knudsens worked hard to grow and sustain the business at Northern Engineering. It took perseverance, particularly during the Depression years. Carl Stolpe, a longtime resident of Superior’s North End, recalled an anecdote about delivering newspapers to the Knudsens: “It must be in the mid-’30s [and] I was pedaling the Duluth Herald. That was an afternoon paper; that was the paper that the Knudsen brothers – Northern Engineering – used for the marine news.” Stolpe, a retired electrician, recalled how agitated they could sometimes be, waiting for him to appear down the street. “They used that paper for their information, so when I pedaled papers down there, they always wanted their paper first – so I’d make my effort to get down there,” he said.

Longtime Clients

The most important and long-lasting clients in the early years were the vessel owners and fleet engineers who returned yearly with repeat business. And today, Northern Engineering still maintains a strong working relationship with several long-standing fleets on the Great Lakes, servicing carriers owned by companies including American Steamship Co. (the John J. Boland vessel), Great Lakes Fleet/Key Lakes (the Edgar B. Speer and John G. Munson) and Interlake Steamship Co. (the Paul R. Tregurtha and James R. Barker).

The company’s major client list includes everything from
government entities … to facilities in the Twin Ports area.

The company’s major client list includes everything from government entities (such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and Geological Survey) to facilities located in the Twin Ports area, including Calumet Superior Refining, Superior Midwest Energy Terminal, Central Harvest States, Hansen Mueller Co. Ever-Green Energy and more. Northern Engineering also serves customers from large (such as Rolls Royce Naval Marine) to small (the Madeline Island Ferry Line, which provides transportation between the Wisconsin communities of Bayfield and LaPointe at the gateway to the Apostle Islands).

Northern Engineering has a staff of about 20 working out of its headquarters and machine shop, which is still located at 100 Ogden Ave. The company’s technical expertise, engineering capabilities and core competencies encompass a broad array of services – everything from analytical assessment capacity, hydrostatic testing, bearing assessment and replacement and boring to cylinder repair, engine head and valve repair, metal stitching, power train adjustment and vibration analysis, among many others.

James Farkas, who is senior vice president of operations at Northern Engineering and at Fraser Shipyards, has seen some big changes at the facility in his tenure with Northern. “We’ve added a significant amount of tooling – what I call the mobile, on-site tooling – and your more traditional mill and lathe work,” Farkas explained, also noting a 6,000- square-foot expansion to house some of the newest equipment additions, such as a water jet cutting table.

The introduction of water jet cutting is part of Northern Engineering’s focus on staying current with customer needs while laying the groundwork for the future. Water jet technology uses concentrated high-pressure water, often combined with an abrasive, to cut materials. “You can cut through steel, granite, glass, plastic,” said Sales Manager Jim Petruga. He likes tools and technology that make his life as a salesman easier. “What’s nice about a water jet cut is [that] it’s a very clean cut,” he noted.

A new CNC (computer numerical control) lathe will be used by Northern Engineering’s machinists to work on mechanical components like drive shafts up to 24 inches in diameter and 80 inches long. The shafts are used in mechanical drive equipment, Petruga explained: “It’s connecting shafts, drive shafts – things that are connecting a gear box to something that it needs to drive.” The machinists recently worked on a new rudder and post installation on the Ken Boothe Sr. tugboat for the American Steamship Co., as well as tail shaft work on the USCG Alder in October.

The utilitarian sense of purpose and built-to-last design of some of the older equipment in the shop is impressive. Some of it is stamped by the War Manpower Commission (a World War II agency of the U.S. government) and several wartime production plaques from the era are still proudly displayed above the shop floor – a reminder of a long and industrious heritage.

“You can cut through steel, granite, glass, plastic.”
– Sales Manager Jim Petruga

“We’ve got 75-year-old lathes and we’ve got 2015 lathes,” noted Machinist Foreman Mike Ossanna, the company’s production leader, about the somewhat eclectic tools at the staff’s disposal. Ossanna, who grew up in nearby West Duluth, has been making the trip across the bridge to Superior for the past 28 years. He’s confident about Northern Engineering’s machining capabilities and pleased about the recent arrival of the new machines and some computerized balancing equipment. “We’re fully capable of any fabrication – steel, welding, burning,” he said.

A unique aspect of being employed at Northern Engineering is an implied flexibility for working hours. “It’s kind of like you have an artisan, and also one who is quite flexible,” Farkas explained. “If you’re looking for a machine shop job from 9 to 5 or from 7 to 3:30, it doesn’t really work that way here. It does a lot – but we also have jobs where we work 20 hours at a time. There are a lot of jobs like ‘Make one of these.’ Well, what is it?” he laughed.

Most repair work follows the schedules of customers that operate around the clock during the shipping season. Because Northern Engineering workers are available 24/7, both in the shop or on-site, sooner or later everyone catches a long shift. When a ship is in port, mechanics know the clock is ticking to get a repair done.

It’s not uncommon for the Northern Engineering crew to ride with a ship down to the Soo Locks or to the next port, which could be as far away as Burns Harbor, Ind. So if you’ve ever hankered to experience a journey on a really big vessel, there’s your answer: go to work for Northern Engineering. Foreman Ossanna says it comes with the territory – and if the ship’s cook is decent and time allows, you may get a good meal out of it.

Depending on the equipment and age of the vessel, parts that must be repaired may be extremely rare. Many of the companies that built these pieces originally have been out of business for years. Northern Engineering staff members like Ossanna benefit from a legacy of crackerjack machinists who had figured out how to machine the needed parts – and who kept very good notes for the next time.

“We reverse engineer,” Ossanna said. “But mainly, we just kept good records over the years, the last hundred years so. Most of the parts that we make are the same, but they’re for a different ship. We’ve made them somewhere along the line, so that’s why it pays to keep such good records – and our customers appreciate that.”

“The other big change we’ve made is focused beyond maritime work.”
– Senior Vice President of Operations James Farkas

Remote repair capabilities have long been a staple of Northern Engineering Co.’s business. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Knudsen brothers owned several small steel workboats that made up the Northern Engineering Co. fleet. The largest vessel in terms of horsepower was the 30.7-foot steel hulled scow Neco. Built in 1934, the Neco was equipped with a steel boom for lifting and moving freight and materials and powered by a 170-horse gas engine with a single screw. Second in engine size was a gas-powered steel pusher boat named Gypsy, built in Kansas City in 1934. Other vessels in the Northern Engineering fleet were the 38-foot Ralph A, built in 1935, and a 45-foot wooden workboat, Jeanne, named after Henry Knudsen’s daughter.

Client List Diversifies

For nearly a century, Northern Engineering Co. has machined parts, rebuilding over the years enough moving parts to outfit its own fleet. But there was one thing the company’s management had never done, and it had nothing to do with any particular piece of machinery.

“The other big change we’ve made is focused beyond maritime work,” Farkas said. He’s excited about Northern Engineering’s new, growing and diversifying customer base. It has created a lot of excitement in the heavy industry community – and it’s had a totally unexpected result of reintroducing Northern Engineering Co. to Superior.

“This is a lot of fun,” said Petruga, who was brought in last March as the company’s head of sales. There’s no disguising his enthusiasm when he talks about building upon the company’s customer base. For example, one area in which Northern Engineering can bring a lot of expertise is the material handling systems market. These conveyor systems, (designed to move ore, taconite, limestone, coal – any number of bulk materials) are basically identical, whether on a ship or on shore. And they’re a perfect fit for this company’s skill set.

The prospect of being able to serve clients with similar mechanical needs, in addition to current clients, is exciting for the team at Northern Engineering. And Petruga believes the company is gaining momentum. “The fact that we’re another option for them – people are very open to hearing from us,” he said. “It’s funny; they ask ‘Why now?’ And all I can tell them is that we’ve never done it before.”

Kevin Traster, assistant manager at Duluth Energy Systems, is very glad to have Northern Engineering as a new option for the steam generating plant located in Duluth’s Canal Park district.

“We were formerly Duluth Steam and we just changed our name here to Duluth Energy Systems. We provide steam to heat the downtown and hot water to heat Canal Park businesses and the DECC [Duluth Entertainment Convention Center],” Traster explained.

Northern Engineering’s expertise has totally impressed Traster. Because of the age of some of the equipment at the steam plant, the work has been a challenging – but rewarding – experience for everyone.

“They’re taking a lot of our old equipment here … and making new parts for it from scratch. It’s pretty impressive.”
– Assistant Manager Kevin Traster – Duluth Energy Systems

“They took what’s called a rotating assembly out of a pump – of course you couldn’t find parts for it anymore; they call them impellers and it’s just too obsolete,” Traster said in describing one challenging job. “They took one of our old ones and repaired it – and from scratch, actually made a new assembly, a rotating assembly. That’s the impellers of the pump, the bearings, the shafts.”

Repairing the piece meant a considerable savings versus the cost of purchasing a new pump, which makes Traster very happy. “They’re taking a lot of our old equipment here that we cannot find parts for, and is very expensive to replace, and making new parts for it from scratch,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive.”

Where does this company find such excellent machinists? It’s no surprise that it’s hiring them right here in our own backyard through schools including Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) in Superior and Lake Superior College in Duluth. In fact, Northern Engineering has made a noticeable impact in the community by sponsoring several scholarships at WITC for the machine tool technician program.

“I ask if the instructors would like to come through the facility,” Farkas said, “and they come to [tour] the facility, normally in the wintertime. We go on a vessel. So there’s this ongoing relationship with WITC. We have folks coming out of WITC who are interested in working for us, both machinists and mechanics.”

The trade school programs provide the education required to be qualified to work in the field, noted Ossanna. However, even with some experience it still takes a year of job-floor training to acquire the skills needed to perform at a high level. Getting that on-the-job experience is tough. But if you follow the ebb and flow of the shipping season, you know that when the ships are down for the winter, the repair work is in full swing. And that might be the best time to get your foot in the door.

“We hire a lot of people in the winter, you know, because all the boats are laid up, so they’re all needing something. And our regular full-time workforce is just not big enough to take care of all that extra work,” Ossanna explained. “We’re bringing people up all the time. We’re a firm believer in on-the-job training.”

“We’re bringing people up all the time. We’re a firm believer in on-the-job training.”
– Production Leader Mike Ossanna

The Future

Given Northern Engineering’s longevity, expertise and around-the-clock service delivery, the company’s plan to diversify its industrial client list makes perfect sense.

“The whole thing that we’re trying to do is have this business operating model where we’re easy to do business with – no surprises – we’re timely and we communicate well,” Petruga said. “Whatever the client needs is always the driving force behind any response from Northern Engineering.”

“I think we’ve established credibility in the market in a couple of ways,” Farkas concluded. “One is that we have a focus on turning things around relatively quickly. So if they do have a piece of equipment out of service, it’s not out of service long.”

Since minimizing downtime is important to customers, that focus on the quick turnaround will clearly serve Northern Engineering Co. well as it grows to serve more industries.  P.S. 

Patrick Lapinski is a freelance writer and a native of Superior.

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