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Diversify, diversify, diversify

Eileen Joyce
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

A Grass Valley company’s products help measure wind speed, guide missiles, fly aircraft, and even moved the limbs of robotic dinosaurs in the movie “Jurassic Park.”

JDK Controls Inc., a Crown Point Circle company that employs 80 people, makes potentiometers, rotating mechanical devices that vary electrical resistance.



In a wind vane, for example, if the wind changes the vane’s angle, the potentiometer adjusts the electrical signal sent to a computer to calculate which direction the wind is blowing.




Since its early focus on military aerospace in the 1980s, JDK has sought to expand its markets to uses such as weather instruments.

That effort could pay off if it shelters JDK from the stormy economic climate that blew in after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center buildings – a storm that could slow demand in one of the company’s main markets, commercial aircraft.

“Overall, in the market place right now, there’s more uncertainty… today than there was certainly six months or a year ago, and a lot of it’s due to 9/11,” said Reece Kendall, vice president of marketing for JDK Controls and co-founder of the company in 1983.

Some of the company’s markets include military missiles and aircraft, commercial jetliners, weather instruments, race cars, medical electronics, robotics, process controls and spacecraft.

In one application, a Bay Area company uses JDK’s potentiometers for a surgical robot.

“The doctor is sitting on one side of the room, the patient is over here, and he’s got his hands on a little harness, moving his fingers, watching a 3-D screen, and the patient’s being operated on through robotics,” Kendall said.

“We have about 40 potentiometers in that robotic system, that surgical robot, and that’s really catching on. There was a surgery earlier this year; the patient was in Europe and the doctors were in New York, so we’re at that age now, that kind of stuff.

“We don’t consider potentiometers themselves to be high-tech products – they’re kind of a mid-tech I guess – but there are some very interesting high-tech-type systems, and it can range through the different products, the industries we serve.”

While the plastic potentiometers are not high-tech, they use a proprietary process that makes the circuitry flush with the plastic base. That extends product life and provides excellent performance in all environments, according to the company.

The company’s range of industries also helped it earn the Economic Resource Council’s Quarterly Community Appreciation Award. The company will get the award Tuesday at a breakfast at the Holbrooke Hotel.

The privately held company is likely to see a slight downturn in revenues this year due to the slowdown in commercial aircraft, Kendall said. Revenues have grown over five years from $4 million in 1997 to $7 million in 2001.

“We are very thankful that we are as diversified as we are,” said Kendall. “We can take a hit from even a major market like commercial aircraft and still keep on going.”

Increased military sales might balance the post-Sept. 11 decline, but it is unclear when that would happen. Military applications, where the business got its start, now provide 35 percent of the company’s market, while commercial applications account for 65 percent.

The military uses JDK Control potentiometers in missiles and so-called “smart bombs,” including ones used in Afghanistan.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Kendall said. “I think we’ll see some of that (extra) activity in 2002. It’s just hard to forecast when that will happen.”

The markets for medical equipment and process controls – the control of valves – are still strong, another boost during the economic slowdown.

The company’s potentiometers are being designed in some short-hop commercial aircraft prototypes that are expected to enter service in the next three to four years, Kendall said. The aircraft are designed for private use and taxi service, uses which might pick up and provide more business for JDK Controls if people fly out of smaller airports.

“There’s some exciting things coming along from that standpoint,” Kendall said. “While this type of product is a mature product, it’s been around awhile. There’s still a lot of gas left in the tank.”

The company was picked for the Community Appreciation Award for a couple of reasons, said Larry Burkhardt, the ERC’s president and chief executive officer.

JDK Controls is a very solid company with 80 employees, Burkhardt said. And it has a product line used around the world by a number of industries.

One interesting facet of the company, Burkhardt said, is its move from Southern California to Grass Valley when it brought 40 employees along. The company bought a large truck and moved the employees in 1993, along with the company’s fixtures and equipment.

That shows employer loyalty, Burkhardt said, and he suspects it works both ways.

Kendall said the company will likely go ahead with plans to expand its building this year from 16,000 to 20,000 square feet, despite the economic slowdown.

“We’re not here to sit still,” he said. “We’re here to grow the business.”


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