Bemidji engineer invents cabling system that earns Nortech Systems its first patent
No matter how the patent is explained, it’s a big deal for Nortech Systems and for its Bemidji plant.
BEMIDJI — Explaining the invention that led to Nortech Systems’ first U.S. patent is not simple. Principal engineer Scott Blanc, working out of the company’s Bemidji plant, spent more than three years creating it.
Here’s how the company described the invention in a press release:
“The Flex Faraday Xtreme, a flexible printed circuit for transmitting high-frequency signals while precisely controlling both crosstalk and impedance, minimizing electromagnetic interference, improving parallel transmission alignment and increasing data density.”
That’s a mouthful.
Here’s how Blanc describes it:
“It’s a flexible cabling system you can tune. It takes a stream of data you couldn’t put on a single copper wire and puts it across four, eight, 16 of them and pumps it down in almost the same space with equal performance.”
No matter how the FFX is explained, it’s a big deal for Nortech and for the Bemidji plant.
“We embarked on a plan to develop proprietary intellectual property just a couple years ago,” said Jay Miller, Nortech’s chief executive officer. “It’s a sign of more to come. The Bemidji plant is a world-class complex cable assembly plant. I would put that plant toe to toe with any plant in the world.”
Cody Erickson, director of operations at the Bemidji facility, echoed those sentiments.
“Scott’s patent represents a culture change,” said Erickson, who heads up 150 employees at the plant north of U.S. Highway 2 near the Bemidji Regional Airport. “This is ours; it’s proprietary. We own the patent on it. We don’t want to follow, we want to lead. We see a big demand for both FFX flexible cabling and fiber optic cabling in the future. It just makes sense.”
Blanc spread credit for the invention to Bemidji’s team of engineers and technicians. He was asked if he considers the patent a crowning glory in a lengthy career in engineering and education.
“I believe Nortech’s cutting-edge fiber optic designs are equally crowning,” Blanc said. As for the FFX, he added, “I can’t build it. I can picture what we need to solve niche market problems. I can document it. I can do a lot of work with the technology and our suppliers and customers. But it takes a certain fearlessness to build a fragile assembly, and you have to basically fail enough to build confidence. That’s where our technicians and engineers come in.”
Engineer and teacher
Blanc grew up in Bismarck, N.D., and studied electrical engineering at the University of North Dakota, where he met his wife, Kathleen. Scott worked for Basin Electric in Bismarck, first in a cooperative program while at the University of North Dakota and later as a full-time employee.
The couple moved to Bemidji in the late 1970s. “We wanted to garden, fish, harvest wild rice and basically live in the woods,” Scott said.
Looking for work, he visited the Magnetic Peripherals Inc. factory at the site of what is now Nortech Systems. MPI was a subsidiary of Control Data.
“I walked in the front door and said, ‘I’m an electrical engineer looking for a job.’ The assistant HR person said, ‘We don’t hire engineers here.’ So I decided to keep looking.”
The next day MPI’s human relations director called Blanc and said, “We just never expected a degreed engineer to walk in off the street here in Bemidji. We’d love to interview you.”
MPI had a hiring freeze for engineers at the time, but they brought Blanc on as a technician. He worked there for a few years, then moved to Bemidji State University in the industrial tech department and taught for six years.
After that, Blanc was hired in the Custom Training Department at Northwest Technical College and worked with companies like Potlatch and Marvin Windows.
Meanwhile, the Magnetic Peripherals factory was sold to Digigraphics Systems Corp. after Control Data moved production overseas. In 1990, DSC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganized later as Nortech Systems.
Blanc worked with Nortech as an independent contractor, then was hired back at Nortech in 1999.
Advances in technology and Nortech’s strategy of developing proprietary products keep the veteran engineer energized, and receiving the patent was quite satisfying.
“The patent took longer than I expected,” Blanc said. “When I’m inventing, I don’t really know if someone else on the planet may be inventing something similar. It makes sense to you that it should exist, and you go out and look and you can’t find it. Time is always of the essence because the world of technology is evolving so rapidly.”