Thinking outside the gearbox
Gearbox Express credits rapid growth to customer service, unique approach

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

March 25, 2015

 Bruce Neumiller describes the success of Gearbox Express. 
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

MUKWONAGO - Representatives from an Oregon company received hands-on instruction inside Gearbox Express’s Mukwonago facility Tuesday - something that was unheard of a short time ago in the wind energy industry.

CEO Bruce Neumiller said up until he and fellow founding members Brian Halverson, chief operations officer, and Brian Hastings, chief financial officer, launched Gearbox Express in 2011, the industry was highly secretive, and largely remains that way.

The executives at Gearbox Express aimed to change that mentality by creating the GBX School, which trains people on gearbox repair and maintenance. The instruction helps the company representatives learn why a gearbox may fail, how to keep it properly lubricated and even how it works.

The school is offered quarterly for two days and has a maximum enrollment of 14 people. The benefits for Gearbox Express are that it increased the awareness of the company in the industry as well as created rapport with clients.

“It really helped us to build our brand as the technical experts,” Neumiller said.
 

Growth

In less than four years, Gearbox Express has outgrown its 43,000-square-foot facility on Perkins Drive and is building a 75,000-square-foot facility in a new industrial park on the south side of the village in a tax incremental financing district. The building will be expandable to 105,000 square feet, Neumiller said, and is expected to be move-in ready by early December.

The company was founded in 2011 and had its first shipment in August 2012. Since then the company has continued to grow by doing what no other company in North America is doing: buying broken wind turbine gearboxes for pennies on the dollar, repairing and upgrading them with better parts and technology, and then reselling them.

 The large gearbox testing rig, unique to Gearbox Express. 
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

When the company buys the repaired gearbox, Gearbox Express gets its broken one, resulting in the company always having 50 gearbox cores on hand.

“In some cases we meet the needs they didn’t even know they had,” Neumiller said.
 

The idea

Neumiller explained that most wind farms are owned by investment firms who then sign a power purchase agreement with a utility. The investment firms can take the financial risk required in creating a wind farm, which a utility cannot, Neumiller said. When a gearbox breaks, Neumiller and the other founding members figured that some of the companies would not want to deal with the original equipment manager in Europe.

“It turns out a majority of them didn’t want to,” Neumiller said.

The gearbox, he said, is “arguably the most problematic” component of a wind turbine. Often, they are made with parts that break within a few years and the machine is affected by severe weather conditions, Neumiller said.

 Students in a Gearbox Express class study a gearbox in the shop for remanufacturing. 
Charles Auer/Freeman Staff

As the only down-tower, wind gearbox remanufacturing services, Gearbox Express has tapped into a growing and stable market. Neumiller said with the more than 50,000 large wind turbines located in North America, his company will have enough work to keep busy for the next 25 years, so he isn’t too concerned if the wind energy market is growing, although he said it is.

When a gearbox breaks, it’s costly for a company to repair, Neumiller said. On average it costs about $150,000 to hire the crane and pay for the labor to fix the equipment.

The value of the repaired and improved equipment Gearbox Express sells appeals to the client, Neumiller said. His company also offers a five-year warranty.

Gearbox Express has 22 employees, with about 30 people anticipated being employed by the time the company moves into its new facility, which will allow for more and taller cranes to be acquired.

“We found Mukwonago a decent place to do business. It works well for our employees,” Neumiller said.

www.gearboxexpress.com

Email: kmichalets@conleynet.com