No Spill Zone

Bob Benson, founder and owner of US Mfg. & Design, White Bear Lake, MN, has been crafting fluid dispensing and fluid transfer solutions for the aviation industry even before starting the business in 1994.

“Our technology is a blend of simplicity with high-tech ingenuity,” he says of his disabled-vet-owned business. “We know our products take a beating out on the flight line and need to work at all times.”

Benson knows a thing or two about the flight line since he developed his original fluid transfer product while working as a senior engineer in advanced engineering for Northwest Airlines for six years.

“My job was to make the line more efficient,” he says. One way Benson dreamed up was a better way to provide oil to aircraft. Typically, the maintenance crew reaches for one-quart cans. That tradition has its practical benefits: the cans are easy to store, last forever and mechanics always know the amount to add and record.

Benson, however, zeroed in a major drawback: contamination.

“The opening of the can is where problems can begin,” he explains. “From simply opening up cans improperly, your entire system can be contaminated and this can lead to component failure.”

Then there’s the potential for spills and the cost associated with waste handling. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the EPA clamped down on spills and waste handling.

As a result, there could be the following expenses once the can is opened:

  • The possible contamination of the aircraft components due to metal fragmentation from opening the can with either a proper can opener or a screw driver.
  • The potential of the maintenance person becoming injured opening the can.
  • The contamination of aircraft components due to exposing the oil to the atmosphere.
  • The contamination of the interior of the component exposed to atmospheric conditions due to the open fill cap on the aircraft.
  • The hazard of spilled oil on the cowling interior, which could cause smoke or fire on the aircraft or the flight line.
  • The expense of the maintenance person collecting the used cans and transporting them to a recycling center.
  • The recycling personnel having to prepare the cans for draining.
  • The expense of the cart to drain the used oil.
  • The HazMat expense.

“Despite seeming like a huge nuisance,” Benson adds, “it is actually an important problem because of the environmental impact and the potential fines which can bring tremendous expense to the airline industry.”

While at Northwest, Benson sketched out a closed-loop system that could store larger quantities of oil in a contaminant-free plastic container that featured a quick disconnect coupler on the fill port to avoid particulate and chemical intrusion, and offered a better pumping system that could deliver the fluid.

“The quart can cannot go away,” he says. “What I wanted to address is the mass dispensing of oil that requires multiple aircraft servicing in one session with a large volume of oil — an application that would require a large number of oil cans. There are other cost-effective and environmentally sound options available today, such as using a closed-containment system to transfer fluids from a bulk fluid container to an aircraft.”

But by this time, Benson figured Northwest was in the business of moving people and not manufacturing new fluid transfer systems so he left the airline with its blessing and set out to make the system on his own.

In 1994, Fluid Transfer Systems was created to bring these products to the rest of the airlines and other industries. FTSI was a growing company with sales reaching over $500,000 in 2001. But after 9/11, Benson had to close his doors due to lack of sales.

However, he came back later with US Mfg. & Design in 2007. His sales may have suffered, but his relationship within the aviation industry didn’t.

“Customers bring new needs for USMDI to solve, and that gives us the opportunity for research and development that will create new products that can be marketed to our customers,” Benson says.

While his original products worked with 55-gallon drums, Benson has moved to smaller-sized fluid transfer systems that can store just 1-gallon of oil with a pump rated at 175 psi. Other new lines can hold 2-, 5- and 20-gallon of oil with some of the heaver sizes designed to be towed to the aircraft.

“Currently our goal is to become the leader of fluid handling products in the airlines and other industries that will protect the environment from all of their fluid handling,” Benson adds. “Our products will provide better control of all fluids such as oil, fuel chemicals, etc.

The USMDI strategy is two-fold. One is to provide long-term employment for the people involved in the company. Two is to create many new products for all industries that apply to its systems.

“While having one market in hand, the penetration of new markets is a logical maneuver,” Benson explains. “And spin-offs from this product line will come in often, expanding our market potential.”

USMDI is unique because it is a “virtual” business. This means that USMDI does not have to rent a large building space for offices nor does it have heavy capital equipment expenses. All of the production of major components is outsourced to local companies.

For example, USMDI uses local machines shops and molders for the production of its proprietary parts. The final assembly is handled currently in house until the sales volume increase.

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