12) Growing Product Line

Although Onan’s product line today is varied it would take another book just to describe the different items available nearly everything manufactured by the company falls into the category of energy conversion and control devices. It’s been that way almost from the very beginning. The company was started, of course, as a producer of equipment and parts for motor cars, and there were the early manufacturing and profitable sales of the “Safty Saw”.

Onan designed and produced its own air-cooled engines, becoming the first company to develop opposed two-cylinder engines with the necessary low level of vibration. Four-cylinder engines later were added to the line) and Onan became a leader in the production of gasoline engines in the 5 to 40 horsepower category. The Onan engines were the first with such features as pressure lubrication, aluminum cylinder blocks with cast iron sleeves, and replaceable bearings.

The small Onan gasoline engines were so well designed that other original equipment manufacturers clamored for them, launching the firm into a new market as a supplier of small industrial engines for purposes other than powering generators. Starting in the late 1940s, Onan engines were sold to manufacturers of truck refrigeration units, rotary tillers, pumps, and many other pieces of equipment.

It also was in the late 1940s and early 1950s that Onan entered the diesel engine market, a field that today holds tremendous promise for the future. Onan is now marketing its new L Series family of diesel engines ranging in size from 15 to 125 horsepower. The company, during 1980-1981, invested more than $100 million at its plant in Huntsville, Alabama, where the new diesel engines are manufactured.

Since 1979 Onan has been supplying electronic AC power conditioning and frequency conversion equipment. This new product line was the result of the acquisition of Elgar Corporation in San Diego) California. Elgar is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Onan. The highly sophisticated equipment made by Elgar is designed to eliminate power variations, voltage drops, line noise, to correct other power line problems, and to provide uninterruptible power.

Elgar manufactures high isolation transformers, AC line conditioners for laboratory and instrumentation application, AC power regulators for computers, instrumentation and other high technology loads, and uninterruptible power systems for protection against brownouts, blackouts and other power line disturbances. Elgar is also the leading manufacturer of inverters and uninterruptible power systems for the nuclear power industry.

Although the equipment manufactured by Elgar promises to play an important role in Onan’s future and the diesel engine program at the Huntsville plant represents a major capital expenditure, Onan’s worldwide reputation has been earned through a half century of manufacturing rugged, well designed, dependable generator sets.

In the smaller generator set sizes, Onan makes a wide range of sets for recreational vehicles, special purpose vehicles, military use, construction projects, pleasure and commercial boats, for home use – including standby power, and for portable welding equipment. In the larger sizes, typically up to 750 to 1,000 kilowatts, Onan manufactures standby and continuous, or prime, power generator sets for use in telecommunications facilities, commercial buildings, construction projects, hospitals, banks) computer centers, retail stores, office buildings, schools, prisons, sports stadiums, and nursing homes to name a few applications.

Emergency standby power generator sets, the product line for which Onan has historically been best known, account for approximately 25 to 30 percent of Onan’s business. Governmental bodies and code-making bodies are becoming increasingly aware of the need for emergency standby power that will be available as long as there is a utility outage, and generator sets are the only source of standby power that can meet this need. So standby power should continue to be an important market for Onan generator sets.

Tom Valenty has been especially active in pushing for awareness of the need for dependable standby equipment. One of the reasons for this goes back nearly 30 years. An experience one evening in the mid-1950s left an indelible mark on Valenty. He recently recalled the event: “I took my family to the Ice Follies and we were sitting in the stands at the big arena in Minneapolis waiting for the show to start. There were about 10,000 people in the stands and we experienced a local power failure. All the lights went out. The arena was pitch dark and some frightened person in the audience started to scream. In a short time, less than a minute, hundreds of people were screaming. This went on for what seemed like 10 minutes. The crowd was at the very edge of panic; anything could have happened. Finally, several cars were driven into the arena with their lights on; they gave enough light to show the crowd there was nothing to scream about.” That experience convinced Valenty that Onan was in the right business, and since then, he has spoken out frequently on the need for emergency standby generator sets.

In larger facilities, such as hospitals where adequate standby power is required by law, there may be several Onan emergency standby power generator sets installed. In these multiple-set installations, it is not unusual for the sets, in conjunction with installed Onan-designed and manufactured paralleling gear to have the capability of “sequential paralleling”. This means that in a hospital if a power outage were to occur, all of the, say, three generator sets would start up, virtually simultaneously. The first set to reach rated frequency and voltage could assume the hospitals most critical electrical load. This would include such things as life support equipment and operating room lights and other operating room equipment. The second set to reach rated frequency and voltage would assume the next most critical electrical load, and the third set would assume the least critical load.

Onan’s gas turbine-powered generator sets are used for emergency standby power and they are also used to provide prime power, in which instance the electric utility typically becomes the source of emergency standby power in the event that the turbine generator sets do not run for some reason, such as malfunction or interruption of fuel supply.

Onan’s turbine-powered generator sets are also used in cogeneration installations wherein the large amount of heat generated by the gas turbine is captured and can be used in a variety of ways. The heat can be used in industrial processes that require large amounts of heat, with the electricity that is produced by the generator set being used to provide power for the industrial process, or, in some cases, it can be sold to the local electric utility.

In addition to paralleling gear, Onan also manufactures components such as automatic transfer switches and other switchgear and controls that are installed in standby power applications. Onan also provides separate generators for industrial and military markets.

Onan has been fortunate over the years in having a wide variety of users for its generator sets and engines, because as some markets have become less active, others have become more popular, helping to reduce the peaks and valleys in sales that hamper so many businesses. A good example is the motorhome market, which has been an excellent market for Onan. The first motorhome that required generator sets were first introduced in the early 1960s. Onan was asked to design generator sets for these new recreational vehicles, but the first efforts were disappointing. The early sets were poorly installed, too noisy, vibrated the motorhome, and often could not start the electric air conditioners. Onan engineers worked feverishly to improve the product, and their efforts paid off. By 1967, Onan had a superior generator set designed for motorhomes and the motorhome market itself expanded beyond anyone’s dream.

There were dozens of manufacturers of motorhomes in the country and there was a reliable Onan generator set available for any size vehicle. Onan soon had a major share of the market. As sales of motorhomes mushroomed, Onan brought out new, lower cost products. A major factor in Onan’s success in this market has been the availability of service on the generator sets through the company’s distributor network and distributors’ dealers who sell and service Onan products.

Because of the rapidly growing production of motorhome generators sets in the early 1970s, Onan management decided to construct a plant at Huntsville, Alabama, to provide additional capacity for the manufacture of high volume aluminum engines and the generators powered by these engines. These units were used mostly for the recreational vehicle market.

In October, 1973, the Arab oil embargo was put into effect, causing gasoline shortages and soaring gasoline prices. The motorhome market and Onan’s sales to it were staggered.

Construction at Huntsville has already started when the motorhome market collapsed due to the oil embargo. The decision was made to continue with the construction of the Huntsville facility in the belief that the market for aluminum gasoline engines and generator sets would eventually come back after an adjustment to the Arab oil embargo had been made. This situation did correct itself, and increased sales of products from the Huntsville facility occurred in 1976 and 1978. In about 1977, it was decided to concentrate the manufacture of engines at the Huntsville facility for the new lines of diesel engines, then under development, that would be launched in the early 1980s.

Onan had been producing diesel engines for years, but in the mid-1960s management recognized that its dependable J Series diesel engines would need to be replaced as the machine tools used to produce them wore out and new diesel technology became available. So work was started on what is now Onan’s L Series family of diesel engines.

The L Series, a family of 2, 3, 4 and 6 cylinder, water-cooled diesel engines, covering the power range of from 15 to 120 horsepower, is a modern design using the latest well-proven technology available.

While one of the principal applications of the new engines was in Onan generator sets, they also are suitable for and used in other original equipment in construction, industrial, agricultural, transport refrigeration, and other fields.

One of the secrets to Onan’s success has been its constant introduction of new and improved products. As markets change, so do Onan’s products.

Here are some product milestones, starting with the introduction of the famous Ten-Lite generator:

  • 1926 – The first generator set for sportsmen was designed.
  • 1930 – The first Onan designed and manufactured gasoline engine was built.
  • 1939 – Three families of two-cylinder, air-cooled gasoline engines were introduced. One of these, the OTC, was built at the rate of 10,000 or more a year during World War II.
  • 1941-45 – Onan produced more than half of all the generator sets supplied to the Allied Forces.
  • 1946 – The first small diesel engine was designed.
  • 1950 – The patented Vacu-Flo system for truck compartment cooling was invented.
  • 1963 – Onan again becomes a major supplier of generator sets to the U.S. military.
  • 1964 – The first sound attenuating enclosure for marine diesel-powered generator sets was designed.
  • 1965 – The first marine muffler was designed to permit engine exhaust of generator sets from below the water line.
  • 1969 – The first space-saving, square-designed generator set designed.
  • 1971 – Five-year warranty on standby systems offered.
  • 1976 – Production of two millionth power unit by Onan.
  • 1976 – Shipment of first gas turbine-powered electric generator set made.
  • 1979 – Elgar power conditioning and uninterruptible power systems business acquired.
  • 1981 – First L Series diesel engine produced at Huntsville.

The above is an impressive list of new product achievements, sustained over approximately five decades. Will Onan’s future program for developing new products keep face with the company’s past history of activity in this important area The answer is yes, as you will see in the next and final chapter of this history of Onan Corporation. Onan’s five-year plan commits the company to a high level of new product activity.

Posted in Company History.