CANTON While Canton-based Radial Engine Innovations may not actually be reinventing the wheel, its embrace of century-old technology has allowed the reimagining of the internal combustion engine for the 21st Century.
Along the way, and with any luck, companies like REI may also re-awaken the sleeping beast of a manufacturing economy in Northeast Ohio.
"I always had a fascination with the internal combustion engine," said Mitch Boulton, the North Carolina-born, Iowa-bred founder of REI. "When I was a child I got to ride in a bi-plane that had a radial engine. My two sisters got sick, I didn’t."
Though he pursued a career in architectural design, Boulton said he "always wanted to do something with the radial engine."
History of the engine
The history of the radial engine - so named primarily because of its circular design, with one main journal, as opposed to standard in-line engines with a linear, bent crank shaft - the radial design has been in existence since the mid-1800s.
REI Director of Development Bryan Dauterman explained that the design is inherently more efficient, reducing friction and thereby increasing efficiency.
"Everyone just thinks of an air-cooled radial engine on an airplane," he said. "But there have been radial engines on motorcycles, generators, and the Sherman tank, which was built in Cleveland."
The radial design of REI’s RA-92 radial engine, Boulton added, also allows for it to be retrofitted into a number of applications. It’s patented "true gear transmission" allows the RA-92 to take advantage of a "direct gear drive system" eliminating friction prone pulleys, improving efficiency, and radically simplifying the conventional CVT, allowing the engine to remain at its most efficient RPM level at all times without the use of belts and chains.
Owner of a staggering 21 new patents on the radial engine, Boulton founded REI three years ago after developing the company’s RA-92 engine "off and on" for more than a decade. In terms of vision, however, the company’s goals go much further than the garage.
In its mission statement, REI states that its success "depends on the ability to provide the world safer energy solutions for transportation and power generation as a socially responsible company that values not just our product's performance, but also our people, our community, and our environment. Uniquely positioned to be the world's most efficient internal combustion engine, the RA-92, 9 cylinder radial engine, will prove to meet the increased demand for mechanical efficiency and C02 emission reductions, offering break-through, innovative, clean energy solutions."
More immediately, Boulton said he hopes to "franchise" out the company and expects up to 200 high-paying research and development jobs in this area during the next five years. That being the case, the company is seeking a larger facility and has explored a number of sites, most notably in Green.
"We can’t guarantee the number of jobs but we will be expanding R and D, and it will remain here," company Vice President, Sean Brookes, said.
Wild bikes and super trucks
Already, automotive enthusiasts are showing a great deal of interest in the new nine nine-cylinder RA-92, developed to meet U.S. rules and regulations which call for significantly lower and cleaner CO2 emissions from motorcycles, cars, and trucks in the near future.
The RA-92 will also increase fuel economy by a very conservative estimate of 20 to 30 percent, the company states, and can be adapted to operate with a variety of different alternative fuels.
The RA-92’s engine block is milled from a solid chunk of 6061 aircraft aluminum making it ultra- lightweight, strong, and compact, while delivering up to 2,000 horsepower and has a patented Continuously Variable Transmission internally built into the engine.
While the company is considering a number of different markets, its wildly imaginative prototype hubless, forkless motorcycle design is already turning heads.
"A lot of biker guys are blown away when the see it," Brookes laughed. "They all say, ‘I want one, get me on that list.’ The bike started as just a show piece for the engine and transmission. It shows really well; there aren’t too many user groups for generators."
REI has also partnered with Mentor-based machine shop Fredon Corp. to produce nine specifically redesigned radial engines to operate the custom hand-crafted motorcycles; three engines that will operate multifunctional generators to be used for residential, commercial, military/defense, and off-grid applications; and three to be used in the "Super Truck" program – a federal effort to reduce carbon emissions in long-haul tractor trailers.
Getting on board with the future
According to Dauterman, his company’s founder is simply one of the most passionate advocates for carbon emissions reduction he has ever met. Given that REI’s radial engine advancements are, at their root, simply improvements on technology with proven efficiency, Dauterman said the company is poised to make a substantial dent in the market, in spite of its niche marketing approach.
"There has been a big push from world governments to reduce carbon emissions in all forms and in all industries," he said, accepting that such efforts are disruptive to large sectors of the market. "A lot has changed since the early days of Al Gore. In Paris, 140 nations got together and legislation was approved to reduce emissions."
In other words, the manufacturing industry – in Northeast Ohio in particular – may be on the cusp of a comeback, even if it does come in a somewhat unrecognizable package.
In a gathering of business leaders in October in Green, Daryl Revoldt, executive director, workforce & economic development, Stark State University described companies like SGS Tool in Akron and Twinsburg-based SSP Fittings that the school is partnering with as the high-tech factories and machine shops of the future, with "machines linked by computer, every work station (with) a microscope and a laptop, and each piece being manufactured worth $11,800."
Boulton pointed out that while technology exploded in some industries – think cellular and social media – improvements to the internal combustion engine have remained relatively stagnant in the past 100 years since the liquid-cooled in-line and V engine styles became the industry standard.
"The internal combustion engine is here to stay," Boulton said. "So the more ways you can make improvements to it are steps in the right direction."