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Granite Falls manufacturer's products at work in faraway places

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GRANITE FALLS -- Luis Rojas can joke that his is a high-pressure job, but the stress is real enough.

He is the head of a 55-person crew responsible for keeping the rail cars rolling for C.V.G. Ferrorminera Orinoco, C.A., at its massive iron ore mining operation near Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela. The operation relies on 1,784 railcars to move some 30 million tons of unprocessed iron ore each year, according to the company's Web site.

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At one time or another, every one of those cars will roll into Rojas' shop, where his crew will use a large hydraulic machine to pop the wheels from their axles and press new ones in their place.

Ever since 1962, the all-important wheel changing operation has been relying on a hydraulic wheel press built for it by Rodger's Hydraulics of Minnesota.

"It's time for a new one,'' said Rojas through an interpreter, Esmeralda Morales of Renville, shortly after he took a look at the replacement in Granite Falls last week.

Rojas said the 48-year-old press at the shop in Venezuela is wearing out, but it has proven itself to be an "excellent product.'' That track record meant everything: When the decision was made to replace the expensive machine, Rojas took one look at the "Rodger's Hydraulics'' name stamped on the machine and went right to the Internet.

His e-mail inquiring about a replacement flashed on Dorian Grove's computer screen in Granite Falls about 1½ years ago. Grove, sales director for the company, was not the least bit surprised.

"A lot of our business comes in that way,'' said Mike Carlson, a co-owner of Granite Falls Fluid Power.

Although Rojas could not have known it, Rodger's Hydraulics of Granite Falls was a classic example of what has happened to so many American manufacturing firms. The Minneapolis-based company was acquired by a succession of ever larger firms. In 2000, the latest owner closed the facility that had opened 40-years earlier in Granite Falls.

The move threw more than 100 people out of work; Grove, Carlson and Dan Enninga were among them.

Convinced that the company's move was a mistake, five of the out-of-work employees joined to start Granite Falls Fluid Power. They purchased the rights to the Rodger's Hydraulics line of products, everything from hydraulic cylinders and pumps to large wheel presses for the railroad industry.

The wheel press that will soon be on its way to northeastern Venezuela is about as big as they get: Each of its two cylinders can exert 1.2 million pounds of pressure, which is equivalent to the thrust of the space shuttle's two rocket engines combined.

Needless to say, much has changed in hydraulics technology and rail car maintenance since the 1962 press was manufactured. Carlson and a team from Granite Falls Fluid Power flew to Venezuela last July to examine the operation and essentially "reverse engineered'' a replacement press to meet the current needs.

Carlson said he left Venezuela confident that the company could build a new press that will live up to the reputation of its predecessor. But he had his worries. He needed a shop floor with more open space than available at the company's present location, and financial assistance for a large, international order with essentially an 18-month order-to-delivery timetable.

He found all the help he needed right at home. Lee Parliament of Par Piping in Granite Falls opened the doors of his facility to provide the space, while the Granite Falls Bank offered the financial help, according to Carlson.

While much has been said about the troubles of America's manufacturing industry, Carlson said this company has managed to grow by focusing on large, specialty products. From an original work force of five in 2000, it now employs 24 full- and part-time workers.

Like the owners, many of the workers are experienced machinists who started their careers with Rodger's Hydraulics. Carlson said one of the biggest challenges facing the company today is finding the next generation of skilled workers to replace the experienced people nearing retirement.

He's confident the company can continue to grow. Much of its business is found overseas, everywhere from Africa to Saudi Arabia. The company manufactures large hydraulic cylinders that are in demand in the world's energy and mining industries. Its cylinders are used on everything from "walking'' oil platforms that can move themselves from site to site to an earthquake simulator used by researchers in Toronto, Canada.

Its largest cylinders are at work for the U.S. military. They are powerful enough to hold and maneuver helicopters for testing while their rotors are spinning at full speed and thrust.

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