David Grant on Track with Fast Company 
from The APEGGA 
Journal of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta
October 1997
by Bill Corbett

An Alberta trained engineer, David Grant, is turning Omni-Lite Industries into a heavyweight in the production of lightweight composites.

When Michael Johnson ran to stunning victories in the 200 and 400 metres at the 1996 AtlantaOlympics, David Grant, P.Eng., was among millions watching the blur of the American runner's famous gold shoes. But unlike other enthralled viewers, the Calgary engineer's focus was on the bottom of those featherweight shoes.

Mr. Grant's Calgary-based company, Omni-Lite Industries Inc., manufactured the spikes moulded into the shoes' soles, perhaps helping Mr. Johnson shave fractions of a second en route to his decisive world record in the 200 metres and to other victories, such as in the 400 metres at the World Track an Field Championships this summer in Greece. (Marion Jones, winner of the women's 100 metres in Athens also wore Omni-Lite spikes.) That's because these are no ordinary spikes. They are made from a space-age ceramic material that compresses the track rather than bite into it, thus transferring energy back to the runner. As well, they are one-third the weight, yet are just as strong as traditional steel spikes.

Many Other UsesToo
Needless to say, Omni-Lite's spikes are worth their weight in gold. In fact, they helped athletes win 20 gold medals at the Atlanta Games. But these accomplishments are just the glitter for a fledgling company that makes 65 products-- made of lightweight carbon fibre and metal matrix composites-- sold around the world and used in everything from Chysler cars to the space shuttle. Omni-Lite, which recently became listed on the Alberta Stock Exchange, should generate revenues of $1 million this year.

"For an engineer, to build something that is used in the space shuttle and the Olympics is the piece de resistance," says the 44-year-old Mr. Grant who, as Omni-Lite's chief executive officer, divides his time between the Calgary head office and the company's California plant. "A lot of engineers just design things and don't get to talk to the people that are using them. Here, we see the whole cycle. We design, patent, test and manufacture a spike, review its performance with athletes and then see it used in the Olympics. The Olympics changed a lot for us. It gave us very significant technical credibility and allowed us to grow very quickly."

It's not just elite sprinters that use Omni-Lite spikes. The company sells some eight million spikes a year to sporting footwear giants Nike, Reebok and Adidas, and it manufactures a composite golf spike, designed to last four times as long as traditional golf spikes. It is now creating in-line skate products, such as axle bolts, and is testing a composite bicycle wheel rim that retains much of its braking power when wet. "For us, this is the year of the in-line skate, and next year should be the year of the bike," says Mr. Grant.

Sports Quick Off the Mark
Omni-Lite made its mark first in sports and recreation because that industry was much faster to tap than automotives or aerospace, where the approval time for new parts can take years. But things are beginning to change. Omni-Lite now manufactures millions of precision boron steel parts, used in the transmission of every Chrysler car. It is also pursuing further automotive applications such as lightweight fasteners that could replace bolts and cut the weight of a car by perhaps 50 kilograms. As well, the derivative of an Omni-Lite composite part is being used in an inspection section of the space shuttle.

Varied Experience
This manufacturing success is the culmination of a long, expensive route for Mr. Grant. An APEGGA gold-medal-winning civil engineering student at The University of Calgary in the mid-1070s, he went on to graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, with an eye to gaining expertise in building offshore drilling platforms. A year into his master's studies, he took time off to work in Amoco's research centre in Oklahoma, which then led to a brief stint studying iceberg drift at the Centre for Cold Ocean Resources Engineering in Newfoundland. Upon completing the course requirements for his master's degree, he was hired by Petro-Canada's research group to help develop computer simulations to predict how oil tankers would fare in the harsh environment of the High Arctic.

To further diversify his already impressive portfolio in the late 1970s, Mr. Grant worked briefly as a marine and arctic consultant, ran a small manufacturing company, joined a real estate company as a vice-president and became a partner in a new Calgary restaurant. He was later hired by Intera Information Technologies and, for seven years, helped the Calgary company land dozens of radar mapping and other contracts throughout Asia. In the process, he met and married his wife, Catherine, a Singaporean, and became conversant in Indonesian and Malaysian.

"I believe you should just live your life for the first 35 years," he says. "But you get to the point where you have to focus the information you've gained and choose the path you're going to follow."

Lightweight Attraction
That coalescing began during his Intera stint, when he became interested in the lightweight materials in the airplanes used for radar mapping. With support from the National Research Council, he was able to pursue the preliminary research into lightweight composites that led to the formation of Omni-Lite in 1992. Nearly $1 million in research and development later, the company was ready to produce its first composite product, a golf spike.

"I'd had my own manufacturing company before and I'd been in the restaurant, consulting, real estate and high-tech engineering businesses," says Mr. Grant. "Of all those things, I liked manufacturing best. For one thing, when you patent something, you own it for 17 years. And if you want to double your output, it's easier to buy another machine than assemble a team of super scientists."

Automation a Key
Indeed, Omni-Lite has invested heavily in automation. Between its Calgary and California operations, it has just six employees, three of them engineers, compared with 12 computerized machines. Each of these highly-trained operators can produce some 100,000 parts a day and still meet the exacting specifications demanded by the automotive, sporting goods and space industries. Mr. Grant says these motivated employees often work 14-hour days, six days a week. And because the company is small and flexible, it is able to meet, say, with Adidas officials and, within days, design, manufacture and begin testing prototypes of a new spike.

"I believe the formula for success in the 21st century," says Mr. Grant, "is to have an insight into the marketplace, a competitive advantage, the ability to prototype quickly for your customers and a tenacious workforce."

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