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Going bananas: Thermal Tech expansion doubles production capacity

BLYTHEWOOD, SC—The nation’s largest producer of banana-ripening equipment is going bananas, you might say, with a $1.2 million expansion that has doubled its production space to 28,000 square feet in tiny Blythewood, SC, a town with about 2,000 residents about 16 miles north of Columbia, the state capital.

Thermal Technologies Inc., here, has built patented ripening systems that handle 100 million pounds of bananas a day and in 25 years has cornered about 70 percent of the market for banana ripening systems. It also produces equipment to ripen stone fruit, avocados and pears.

“We’re trying to reduce our delivery time down to about eight weeks,” Jim Lentz, president of Thermal Tech, said in a Sept. 20 interview. “It ranged from eight to 10 weeks before the THERMAL-TECH102912-AWARDJames Lentz, president of Thermal Technologies in Blythewood, SC, holds an Ambassador for Economic Development award he received April 30 from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (left) for his company’s expansion plans. At right is Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s secretary of commerce. The numbers on the backdrop are the longitude and latitude for the state of South Carolina and its slogan, 'State of Business, World of Opportunity.'expansion, and now we are operating not one but two assembly lines, and have a backlog of about 10 orders.” Each job is a customized piece of equipment built to specifications and costs well into seven figures, he noted.

The expansion took about six months to complete and won Mr. Lentz a South Carolina Ambassador for Economic Development Award from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, presented at an April 30 ceremony in Columbia. The saga involved protected wetlands, the Army Corps of Engineers, a 66-page application and, perhaps most impressive, temporary approval in 48 hours from the Corps after a 30-day stalemate. The expansion permit became final Sept. 1.

The reconstruction included adding assembly line space, installing two overhead cranes and making a larger loading dock and doorway. On a late September morning, a crew was effortlessly hoisting a 900-pound, 28-foot-long evaporator unit into place on one of the assembly lines using new giant overhead cranes.

The crane rolled smoothly along iron rails overhead and manipulated the unit into place, gently guided by the work crew. The crane was controlled by one worker holding a foot-long, hand-held keypad at the end of a long line acting as an umbilical-cord hanging down from the crane.

“Before, we used a forklift truck to maneuver the evaporators around,” Mr. Lentz said. “It was quite a hassle in our limited space.” The finished unit would be shipped 2,500 miles by truck to the buyer, Safeway in Calgary, Alberta. Thermal Tech has suppliers that sell components only to it, and its facility in Blythewood is basically an assembly operation.

The expansion led to the hiring of two additional workers thus far, and Mr. Lentz expects to add three or four more as production ramps up. Thermal Tech has about 25 workers and makes three kinds of ripening equipment: Uni-Ripe, a first-generation TarpLess (a registered trademark of Thermal Tech) evaporator; a sidewall model; and the SX Model, a low-profile model with the same capacity as other units.

The word “technologies” is in the company name as well as in its corporate DNA. Its patented TarpLess system blows conditioned air through holes in banana boxes. Three staff engineers work on R&D projects that have resulted in the world’s first three-tier pressurized room, dual-temperature zone control and high-tech energy-efficient fans.

Thermal Tech started in Philadelphia in 1987 as a cold-storage unit manufacturer. In 1993 it moved to Blythewood and picked up on what was then a new Dutch ripening system using pressure fans to circulate ethylene gas around tarpaulin-covered boxes.

Thermal Tech came up with the TarpLess system, which cuts energy costs in half and delivers better-looking fruit to drive banana sales. In fact, bananas are the best-selling items carried by supermarkets, and the most profitable, Mr. Lentz is quick to point out.

A visit to the office park where the Thermal Tech facility is located quickly reveals that banana is king. A jaunty Mr. Peel, a cartoon banana in sunglasses ripening away in a beach lounge chair, is over the building entrance. In a display window sits a 1929 Model A Ford Huckster once used by street fruit peddlers. It boasts a Mr. Peel license plate and a load of cardboard banana boxes.

Mr. Lentz, unsurprisingly, is something of a banana aficionado. He is working on a collection of the old wooden boxes used to ship bananas on the stalk back in the day.

Any further expansion plans? He leaned back in his chair, contemplating a desktop full of knick-knacks, like a giant rubber eraser “for big mistakes.” Thermal Tech doesn’t have any more room on its property here, he explained. “The county owns some property nearby that they want to sell, and we have expressed interest,” he said, smiling.