EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles about small local companies that embody qualities for which American manufacturing has a global reputation: entrepreneurship and innovation. Let us know about small manufacturing companies in the region that reflect these hallmarks; email firstname.lastname@example.org with your information.
AMESBURY — Conditions favor this Massachusetts company’s continued growth in a competitive, hungry and warming world.
The manufacturer, PP Systems, located in a Haverhill Road technology park, makes scientific instruments including those that monitor carbon dioxide levels in plants.
Co-owners Michael Doyle, the president, and Andrew Lintz, the vice president, recently sat in an office lush with plant life at their PP Systems suite to talk about their company.
A big-leafed potted plant stood in a corner by a small, space-agey-looking garden — a desk-top tray of soil-less basil plants.
Lintz, who has an affinity — even affection — for plant life, harvests the basil and sprinkles it on mozzarella and tomatoes.
The co-owners said 70 percent of their sales come outside the U.S. They sell to botanists, soil scientists and other researchers interested in plant physiology.
Many of these are governmental or academic researchers who are especially interested in how to manage crop production in changing climate conditions.
This is a prime driver of scientific research, how higher carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures will affect crop production, said Lintz, who leads research and development at PP Systems.
That might include rice in China, which is PP Systems’ No. 1 export.
PP Systems’ instruments can simulate environmental conditions such as carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity and light levels. This allows scientists to gather information on how particular varieties of, for example, corn or barley, or cotton or apples respond under different conditions.
The instruments can simulate these expected environmental changes and measure how plants will respond, Doyle said.
Doyle studied marketing at Merrimack College in North Andover, and has been in the scientific instrument business for 30 years. In 1993, he founded the U.S. operations of PP Systems out of his Bradford bedroom.
The changing climate
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has measured a steady rise in atmospheric CO2 at its Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1960, increasing from about 300 parts per million in 1960 to more than 400 parts per million in 2015.
Global CO2 levels are rising primarily due to burning of fossil fuels, Lintz said. Excess CO2 gas in the atmosphere acts like a closed greenhouse roof to prevent heat that would normally escape into space from leaving the Earth’s surface, he said.
As a result, the climate is changing, and this is influencing plant growth, Lintz said.
NOAA has a PP Systems CO2 monitor atop the Space Needle in Seattle, Wash. Lintz helped install it in 2008, and the device has been continuously reporting CO2 data on the NOAA website, pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/Space+Needle.
Co-owner Lintz, an engineer who previously did defense-related research, is glad to be working in an endeavor related to the environment and healthy living.
The Amesbury company is one of a handful in the world that make photosynthesis monitoring products, including three in the U.S. and one each in England and Germany.
Photosynthesis-measuring instruments detect the tiny amount of CO2 gas that is being converted into sugar molecules by the chlorophyll inside a single leaf, Lintz said.
“By simultaneously monitoring the sunlight hitting the leaf, the instruments also measure the leaf’s efficiency and overall health,” he said.
PP Systems customers, workforce
PP Systems sells hundreds of instruments each year, ranging in price from a few thousand dollars to $50,000, according to the owners.
They have sold their five major products and accessories to customers in more than 100 countries.
When people hear about the company’s strong sales outside the U.S., they’re typically surprised, Doyle said.
The standard mantra is that U.S. companies cannot compete, but that is just not the case, said Linda Edelman, a management professor at Bentley University in Waltham.
“Sure they can,” Edelman said.
Small U.S. manufacturers that find a niche market and respond to their customers’ needs do extremely well in the global market, she said.
Furthermore, small manufacturers are important engines for the economy. They tend to be innovative, creating some 13 times the number of patents as larger manufacturers and can respond swiftly to their customers’ needs.
Not only that, but they are a major driver of new job creation.
PP Systems has 14 employees, including engineers and sales, production and service workers.
All of the company’s sales, service, marketing, production and research and development take place out of its Amesbury location.
The company also relies on local suppliers, including area machine shops, for its products.
Meanwhile, the PP Systems positions require skilled, trained individuals.
The company is well situated for this, said Steven Tello, a UMass Lowell business professor who specializes in innovation and entrepreneurship studies.
Tello said Massachusetts is a worldwide center for education and finance with a highly trained workforce.
“We are the largest life science cluster in the world,” he said. He was referring to the collection of companies and research facilities focused on product design, biotechnology and medical instruments.
PP Systems makes instruments including those that measure photosynthesis, soil respiration and chlorophyll fluorescence and reflectance, but its No. 1 product is the CIRAS-3 Portable Photosynthesis System.
It has a reputation as a rugged instrument, valued for its in reliability in field work.
“This is the one that feeds the company,” Doyle said of the CIRAS-3.
Looking to the future, and whatever climate changes it may bring, PP Systems is well positioned here in the U.S., here in Massachusetts. Its focus is squarely on improving its products and introducing new instruments for the life sciences.