Full Power–Ultrasonic Power is cleaning up

When you visit Ultrasonic Power Corporation, you find a good sign of the kind of company you’re dealing with as soon as you enter their conference room. Glass bowls sit on the table, filled with Legos for hands to busy themselves with during meetings. That’s an appropriate activity for a company that can credit much of its growth to taking familiar pieces and applying them to new jobs and new forms.

Located on the west bank of the Pecatonica River at the site of Freeport’s former passenger train depot, Ultrasonic Power has been producing a unique cleaning technology since 1973. The company started in Trenton, New Jersey, but was bought and moved to Freeport by local resident Robert Schnoes. Schnoes had retired from his position as CEO of Illinois Central Railroad Industries, and had bought Freeport’s railway station from the company as part of his retirement package. At first UPC operated out of the station, but now their operations are housed in a more modern technology center just south of it. Schnoes now serves as Vice Chairman of the 100% privately held company, and his wife Dolores serves as Chairman.

The company’s main product combines a simple process and gee-whiz engineering to clean virtually any object that can be immersed. Customers place the object to be cleaned in a liquid bath. The bath used is determined by their particular needs and can be a detergent, solvent, or de-ionized water. One or more Vibra-Bar® transducers then generate ultrasonic sound waves above the range of human hearing. The waves travel through the liquid and create microscopic bubbles on the surface of the object being cleaned. When the bubbles can no longer maintain their form and collapse, the liquid rushing in to fill the void strikes the surface of the object being cleaned, and this loosens dirt and contaminants. This “scrubs” the object in every spot that the liquid reaches.

The object in question could be almost anything that needs cleaning, and that leads to some interesting engineering challenges. Ultrasonic Power has produced immersion tanks ranging from 6 to 240 gallons, and their systems clean everything from Venetian blinds to oil refinery equipment to golf clubs, from surgical instruments to band instruments. Two Marine Bands and the band at West Point use Ultrasonic Power’s systems, and Servicemaster uses them to clean smoke-damaged objects. The ultrasonic equipment can also be installed as an integral part of a customer’s plant. In one plant, Ultrasonic Power equipment using 16,000 watts of power is installed astride a monorail that carries parts through the cleaning system. Transducers can be installed in pipes to keep the inner surfaces clean.

In at least one case, they even clean nuclear waste. At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, a robotic crawler is used to clean contaminated tanks. Periodically, the crawler is sent into a cleaning tank where it is decontaminated by Ultrasonic Power’s transducers. The company also manufactures cell disruptors, machines that use ultrasound to break animal and plant samples apart so that their internal chemicals can be more easily analyzed. These disruptors are an important aid in pharmaceutical research.

Ultrasonic Power’s President, Steven Klinger, credits part of their recent upswing in sales to these innovations, citing the company’s reputation for fast custom work and durable products. He says he prefers to be “modest” about the sales figures, saying only “We’ve been busy,” and noting that Ultrasonic Power has benefited from the recent gains in the manufacturing sector. About 30% of their business is from exports, and globalization and Internet marketing are helping the company’s growth. “The world is evolving a global economy, and we’re certainly trying to capitalize on that, to reach economies that are growing quickly,” Klinger says.

Operating with a “lean philosophy” is also crucial, according to Klinger. Being small (with 30 employees) is helpful in itself. “It forces you to be lean,” Klinger says, “because everybody wears multiple hats.” One of the chief responsibilities of their manufacturing manager, Christopher Sperry, is to implement lean manufacturing operations, and the company has eliminated excess inventory and continually refines their production methods. Their competition uses low-cost foreign labor, so keeping costs low is essential if Ultrasonic Power is to compete.

But the most important element is people, according to Klinger. “The secret to our success? Educated, dedicated employees.”

This company profile was published as part of a feature series profiling local companies for the Freeport Ink.