January 5, 2009 | last updated March 28, 2012 2:08 pm
INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH

Renewable Energy Is Still Just Business | Worcester's Walker Magnetics attracts energy jobs

It's easy, when the renewable energy industry is brought up, to picture young, fresh-faced go-getters at the helm of such companies.

But industry is industry, and even though the finished products of the renewable energy sector are supposed to be kinder and gentler, things like wind turbines are still made of steel and that steel has to be picked up and moved and shaped.

And that job is done by the grizzled veterans of manufacturing at centuries-old Worcester companies like O.S. Walker Magnetics on Rockdale Street.

Legacy Business

On a recent afternoon, the team at O.S. Walker was applying bright yellow paint to massive steel beams the company designed and fabricated on site. The beams will eventually hold magnets, anywhere from six to eight each, also of the company's own design and manufacture.

The complete system will be used by a wind turbine manufacturer to securely hold and maneuver the enormous sheets of steel that eventually become the increasingly familiar turbines.

The project is a testament to the innovation and staying power of a company that occupies the same building in which it was started by Oakley S. Walker in 1896.

Walker is said to have worked for Thomas Edison in New Jersey before being hired by Norton Co. in Worcester to try to electrify the company's grinders.

While working on that job, Walker had the thought, "What's going to hold the pieces to machine while they're in the grinder," said Dick Longo, the company's current president and COO.

With that, Walker invented the first electromagnetic chuck and went on to start Walker Magnetics after leaving Norton. The electromagnetic chuck doesn't look like much. It's just a smooth, flat surface. But it securely holds pieces of metal in place while they're being machined. It's a magnetic table, if you will. The electromagnetic chuck is simple and ingenious, and on that alone, the company grew steadily into the 1950s.

In 1956, John Engelsted, an engineer, prodigious inventor and son of Knud Engelsted, a Danish immigrant who had bought the company from Walker six years before, became the company's president and focused on international growth by acquisition.

Soon, the company wasn't just making chucks, it was making all kinds of magnetic handling equipment for industries from textiles to transformers and fishing boats.

Since then, Walker has been in the Guinness Book of World Records for making the world's largest magnet, which is at work in a copper mine in Chile, and makes magnets for separating metals from other materials in recycling facilities, steel mills and scrap yards.

Certain of the separation magnets preside over conveyor belts in recycling facilities and send aluminum cans flying off the conveyors and into designated piles.

Longo said the company's leadership has been smart, flexible and forward-looking since 1896. And the products at the Worcester factory prove it. They still make electromagnetic chucks, but you can't deny the power of equipment that allows a single worker to lift and move tons of material by simply throwing a switch.

"Last year, we had our biggest backlog in company history," Longo said. And Walker has picked two industries to market itself to: railroads and wind power. In addition to handling the massive pieces of steel used to build a wind tower, Walker's electromagnetic rotary chucks are the industry standard when it comes to grinding the bearings used in wind turbines.

Check out this WBJournal.com exlusive video clip of Walker Magnetics:

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