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Fortville firm's helmet pads protect U.S. troops

January 8, 2007

The main drag through Fortville looks like a procession at an American Legion convention.

Old Glory is omnipresent. So are other signs of Americana--albeit less glorious ones--like the life-size pink elephant, balancing a martini glass, getting sauced outside Wagon Wheel Liquor. Then there's the Broadway Diner, "home of the $3.99 lunch."

Perhaps the biggest tribute to the U-S-of-A, though, resides in a generic industrial building, a little farther up the street.

Behind doors with the warning "Caution: microwaves in use," the 60 workers at Genesis Manufacturing are about to crank out their 1.1-millionth helmet pad for U.S. troops.

Genesis itself has survived battles--those of the industrial kind--by using proprietary radio frequency welding technology to stay alive amid competition from low-cost Asian plastics manufacturers.

And the hot market for Genesis these days is military devices--chiefly helmet pads. Most have wound up in Iraq, where the military has discovered soldiers need something more than Kevlar-lined helmets to survive roadside mines and exploding Toyotas.

Genesis makes the helmet pads for Colorado-based Skydex Technologies, which won a contract this fall with the U.S. Air Force for 120,000 helmet pad kits.
In recent months, Genesis has also been making them in smaller batches for various branches of the military.

Genesis has had an ally in Congress pushing for better helmet liners. Indiana U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, a veteran of the first Gulf War in the 1990s, over the last two years has argued that helmets should be improved. Buyer said body armor, while protecting vital organs in the torso, often deflects a blast into the helmet and into the brain.

"It rings like a bell and literally causes a significant concussion," said Dolph Smith, president of his family-owned Genesis Manufacturing.

In some cases, soldiers suffer permanent brain injuries.

Some soldiers have developed their own fixes of dubious effectiveness-stuffing bubble-wrap and foam rubber into their helmets.

When doctors saw the pads Genesis makes, "They went, like, 'Wow.' The problem was the military was not buying them. I think they just didn't realize it was out there ... Thank heavens they [eventually] did," Smith said.

Brainy idea

While Genesis did not design the pads, its manufacturing technology made it possible for the Fortville firm to cost-effectively join a number of materials together into a high-tech pad.

Despite advances in ballistic protection such as Kevlar, for the shell of the helmet, the part that contacted the head was more or less the basic webbing dating to World War II.

The pads made by Genesis consist of two layers. One is foam. But because foam doesn't have enough rebound itself, it is topped by dozens of cone-like plastic pieces. "It's like having a thousand shock absorbers around the head," Smith said.

Each kit has six pads for the outer rim of a helmet, plus a skullcap. Smith figures his firm shipped more than 150,000 kits in 2006.

The manufacturing process is pretty straightforward: A worker standing at a round table places the pad components into a mold. The table spins until a mold enters an RF welding machine that melts materials together.

So how did an obscure Indiana contract manufacturer get such a red-white-and-blue contract? Its proprietary RF technology was the draw.

Not that radio frequency welding is a new technology. It dates back to the Korean War and traditionally has been used to join materials such as urethane and vinyl. Products like beach balls and notebook binders are commonly welded with radio waves.

RF welding technology became so widespread that manufacturers in Asia used it and, with their lower-cost labor, conquered the market for commodity product manufacturing.

"A lot of the [domestic] competition had exited, gone bankrupt or gone offshore," Smith said.

Smith's father, Robert, founded Genesis in 1989 in Indianapolis, long after Asian competitors had decimated plastics products manufacturers. Robert, a former executive at Batesville-based Hillenbrand Industries, helped pioneer a way to use radio waves to weld more humble and lower-cost polymer materials, such as polyethylene and polypropylene.

Not only are these materials cheaper to use, they also can be more environmentally friendly to dispose of than, say, nylon.

Dolph Smith said while Genesis has licensed this version of RF welding technology to other firms throughout the world, it steadfastly refuses to license it in Asia, for fear the company's trade secrets will be acquired.

He declines to elaborate on his company's client base, although the firm over the years has done work for the likes of General Electric and Hill-Rom, the Hillenbrand hospital bed unit.

New applications

Genesis' technology has been used to RF-weld products including ice packs, ankle and knee braces used by pro-basketball and football teams, calf-sleeves to treat deep-vein thrombosis patients after surgery, and heat blankets used by the military and by paramedics.

One advantage of the welding technology is that it allows for the joining of materials, such as specialty plastics and high-tech fabrics, that ordinarily couldn't be joined in a cost-effective manner.

Smith won't disclose revenue, but said sales have soared more than 95 percent in recent months.

Over the last year alone, the firm has added 25 more employees, he said.

That's significant given that the terrorist attacks of 2001 that dashed the economy nearly brought down Genesis. At one point, it lost nearly all its customers and shrank to three employees. "That was brutal."

With orders soaring and with growing confidence in its technology, Genesis plans to launch its own product line within 18 months, rather than rely on technology licensing revenue or contracts to produce, package and ship products for other companies.

The company's own products are likely to be within medical, military and protective clothing markets.

"We're taking care to find the right product," said Tom Ryder, vice president of sales and marketing. He said Genesis is especially mindful of not going up against commodity products producers in Asia who compete on costs.

Plastics big here

Firms like Genesis that use advanced manufacturing techniques fall within one of the hot sectors being pushed by state economic development leaders.

Plastics firms in Indiana employ 70,000 people and ship more than $13 billion worth of product worldwide, according to data compiled by the Plastics Research & Education Center at Ball State University. In recent years, Indiana ranked seventh among states in plastics employment and the dollar value of shipments.

Lately, Genesis has been a victim of its own success, running out of room at its 15,000-square-foot Fortville facility. It's had to house much of its inventory with logistics firms and is trying to expand its building. Smith said the firm has run into bureaucratic red tape with Hancock County officials to get permits for a 10,000-square-foot addition and is considering moving into Madison County, just up the road.

Meanwhile, more military production could be in Genesis' future. Buyer said all sorts of improvements could be made in helmets as research progresses. For example, he wonders whether helmets could be made with vents to release the kinetic energy of a blast wave while maintaining helmets' protective qualities.

Just as military helmet pads have been good for Genesis, it's rewarding knowing the products are helping protect soldiers, Smith said.

"Some of our former production people are in the [National] Guard who ended up shipping over there. It's nice to know you're making something that potentially saves the lives of others."

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