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Grand Forks company's product protects aircraft engine parts

Tagnite.JPG
An employee checks the coating of an engine component coated with Tagnite. (By Adam Kurtz /Grand Forks Herald)
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Technology Applications Group, through its unique process of anodic coating for magnesium alloys is making an impact in the aviation world for both commercial and military companies -- from Rolls Royce engine parts to Apache helicopter parts, with all of it being done in Grand Forks.

From failed experiments that began in a rented “walk-in closet” at the UND Aerospace Foundation, Tagnite was born. A product now recognized to be one of the best in the industry, and in use on a variety of different aircraft engines from fighter jets to cargo planes.

“Commonly in the industry we would be considered the hardest, most abrasion resistant, most corrosion resistant coating available for magnesium,” said Bill Elmquist, president of Technology Applications Group. “Certainly in all of the United States, and I don’t think it would be a stretch if we were considered the best coating for magnesium worldwide.”

Tagnite is a proprietary system of coating magnesium alloys. Since magnesium is lighter than aluminum, it is used in the manufacture of aircraft engines. These parts are susceptible to rust, which Tagnite protects against.

The company mostly works on coating engine components, such as gear boxes for jet engines and helicopters, but they also work with optical equipment for cameras mounted on the bottom of drones or helicopters, or even cameras mounted to a soldier’s helmet or firearm.

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Now owned by Axel Whitney, purchased from his grandmother about four years ago, the company relocated to the industrial park in Grand Forks, at 810 48th St. S., in 1989.

The company began at the UND Aerospace Foundation working on experiments on metal finishing technology for aluminum; experiments that didn’t pan out, which ultimately ended up being a happy accident for the company.

“After a lot of effort and a lot of money spent, that was ultimately abandoned. However a great deal was learned, and what was learned was applied to magnesium,” said Elmquist. “The way it worked on magnesium ended up being a far better product than it ever would have been on aluminum.”

With an effective and useful product, the market became a problem, as well as finding customers.

“The unfortunate thing is the aluminum market is massive, many, many times larger than the magnesium market,” said Elmquist. “We ended up with a great product in a smaller market.”

It took a gutsy move from major aerospace manufacturing company McDonnell Douglas, now merged with Boeing, to take a risk on a small and inexperienced company located far from its manufacturing base of aircraft engine parts.

“It took someone to take a gamble on us,” said Elmquist, talking about McDonnell Douglas. “They were taking a bit of a gamble in that they would be the first aerospace company to use Tagnite.”

That facility still exists in Mesa, Ari. making Apache helicopter components, which are still being coated with Tagnite.

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“We have super fond feelings for those people that took that chance on us,” Elmquist said.

Since then, the company has grown steadily, making additions to its facility in 2014 and again this year as well. Technology Applications Group employs about 30 people with plans to hire four or five more employees throughout the year.

The future of the company is promising, as it looks to license its technology overseas, with one licensee already working in the Netherlands. Another area for growth is encouraging more manufacturing with magnesium instead of heavier aluminum, now that there is a way to protect it with Tagnite.

According to Elmquist, one of the reasons for the company’s success is its employees.

“What’s allowed the company to grow steadily over time and be successful in a very challenging industry, is our employees,” he said. “We’re very grateful for the people that we have working for us. Grand Forks has provided us with a number of very talented people that perform a challenging task well, getting the parts processed through our shop with anodizing and paintwork, really to perfection.”

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

Desk: 701-780-1110
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