By: Eric Edman
By: Eric Edman-BR+A
Some of you may recall in past newsletters, we had a great suggestion from one of the general members to do an article on the history of a product that was developed right here in Massachusetts. We believed this was a great suggestion!
Your historical committee set to work immediately to interview the product inventor in person, and write about this for your reading pleasure.
We hope you enjoy this special feature as much as we enjoyed writing about it. There are some interesting twists, and turns, in the process of developing a product, and, creating a world class company.
If any of you have creative thoughts, or suggestions on historical related items, please share these with us.
We always look forward to seeing you at our monthly meetings.
History of Phoenix Controls Company, and the Phoenix Venturi Air Valve
As it is with most products and inventions, things never start off - or turn out as intended. The journey towards an invention and its development can sometimes lead to some very interesting discoveries. As a young engineer, I was always intrigued in just how does a product go from an idea into a product that works in the HVAC marketplace. The story of one such device follows;
The founder graduated from MIT with a BSEE and MSEE and an interest in power electronics. At the time, in the early 1980's the variable frequency drive (VFD) or motor speed controller as we know it today was in its infancy. Mr. Sharp had started the IMEC company which had developed an early version of a VFD, he named this the Phoenix drive. It was a unique VFD- in that it could "catch" a motor still in rotation after a short power outage while other VFD's would shut down or “trip” after one of these commonly occurring short power outages. This ability to always “catch the rotating motor” after a power glitch was why it was called the Phoenix VFD -like the mythical bird that would be reborn and arise out of its ashes. However, the Phoenix drive was limited in motor size to only 1.5 horsepower. This made it challenging to find a useful market for a VFD this small of motor size. Sales were needed to keep the IMEC company going.
Being from MIT, Mr. Sharp decided to talk with some of the facilities people there to do some market research. He asked if there was an application for something like his small IMEC/Phoenix VFD. To his surprise, they indicated that on campus they had a chemistry building with lots of laboratory fume hoods connected to small single exhaust fans with VFD’s controlling them. All aspects of motor size and application suited the IMEC/Phoenix VFD perfectly to make a great beta site, and potential useful market application. To help usher product development along, MIT was having problems with the existing VFD systems going off line after power loss/ system failure. The IMEC/Phoenix VFD product might just correct a whole host of problems. (For a time, this problem was so severe that facilities staff were stationed on the roof 24/7 to reset any VFD’s that shutdown due to power outages/system failures) Well, they tried a prototype, and it worked fairly well.
Continuing to work with MIT Environment Health and Safety staff over the next year, the team refined the IMEC VFD application by experimenting and developing a way to maintain a constant fume hood face air velocity by first tracking the fume hood sash position with a “sash sensor”. The exhaust fan motor’s speed and fume hood exhaust air flow was then quickly, and linearly, varied to both save energy- yet maintain hood safety and capture efficiency.
Along came the mid 80's, newer HVAC designs for laboratories were moving towards a manifolded fume hood exhaust system using a larger fan system connected to many fume hoods and general room exhausts. For these systems, a single small horsepower drive (the IMEC limit was 1.5 hp) was not appropriate to control each fume hood or lab room’s airflow, instead, some sort of a linear controlled damper or air flow control device was needed. At this point, the IMEC VFD was losing market to other VFD's. A new product was needed to control critical lab air flows. One of the early IMEC reps from Iowa had suggested looking into a product that was more than a damper - it was the MITCO venturi valve made in here in Massachusetts. The early concept new product started to take shape. A pressure independent, non-linear air flow control device with faster speed of response was born. One could even figure out position and with it linearize the flow to the input flow command. All the other product components were starting to come together. There was also the need to start up a new company as IMEC was being sold to another investor who was not interested in the lab airflow controls business. Looking to somehow utilize the only tradename he owned (the Phoenix drive), the "Phoenix Controls Company" was born in late 1985. IMEC was sold shortly afterwards.
Remember how we mentioned at the start of this article with a statement that inventions had courses and directions which were altered. Well, the IMEC/Phoenix VFD -the original namesake of the company, ended up taking a back seat and was eventually rendered obsolete. Other companies had developed new VFD's with equal, or better capabilities, while the Phoenix Controls Company (newly born) pursued buying MITCO venturi valves and rebuilding them with components to work in fume hood exhaust and lab supply air applications. Teflon coated parts, electronic controls and other components were added to make a more robust, and reliable- Phoenix Controls Company product. One day in the late 1980's, unannounced, the MITCO company suddenly went out of business. It was a defining event that finally moved (pushed) Phoenix Controls into being a true airflow controls valve supplier that made or controlled the manufacturing of all of its components. This ultimately led to a much-improved overall product. The Phoenix Controls Company has continued to do well and has continued with product enhancement with further developments thru the 1990's and 2000's. It was acquired by the Honeywell Corporation, and has relocated out of Newton, MA to Acton, MA.
Today the brand is known the world over as one of the foremost lab airflow controls companies.
During those early days in the 1980's it was perseverance, hard work, and some luck mixing together to create a company that really changed the marketplace for lab airflow control systems. Thru all of these eventful beginnings, the company has taken challenges to make opportunities. The market has had huge benefits in lab safety, device speed of response, energy savings and reliability.
Good people almost always succeed. This is one such success story.
About the Phoenix Controls founder:
Gordon Sharp was born and raised in Rochester, NY. He obtained his undergraduate degree at MIT and worked at Draper Labs in Cambridge, MA, while getting his graduate degree from MIT. He worked on fast responding servo controls for induction motors much like you see in today's electric cars (He drives a Tesla). He lives in Newton, MA with his wife, and has 4 children all residing in New England.
Data gathered for this article is from an interview. The product was developed in Massachusetts.
Past Presidents - pictured from left to right: Eric Edman, Jim Magarian. Enrique De Los Reyes, Steve Tafone, Teri Shannon, Darcy Carbone, Bob Persechini, Bud Anderson