Longtime Midtown New York Company Shifts Gears to Join Region’s Growing Drone Industry
Cazenovia, NY — A longtime Central New York switch and key fob manufacturer that for decades relied heavily on customers in the automotive industry is expanding into the drone business.
Marquardt Switches joins forces with Airtonomy, of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Airtonomy manufactures software modules that, at the push of a button, allow drones to fly pre-programmed routes to inspect wind turbines and other hard-to-reach infrastructure such as power lines and masts that are often dangerous to inspect for humans.
As part of their partnership, Marquardt will help design and manufacture Airtonomy’s modules, which plug into drones and control their radar, cameras and other sensors and wirelessly transmit data for analysis.
The leap into the drone industry marks a crucial shift for Marquardt, which until recently primarily made parts for the automotive industry.
Now it aims to join the emerging drone industry in central New York, where software makers and smaller manufacturers are gaining a foothold. He wants to take advantage of the region’s drone testing corridor, a unique airway that allows drone manufacturers to easily test their products.
Eventually, Marquardt wants to assemble entire drones in Cazenovia, entering a market dominated by China.
“Central New York has the potential to be the ‘Silicon Valley’ of drone technology,” said Christopher Berry, director of business development at Marquardt.
Over the past four decades, its workers manufacture switches that fit in vehicles. About 85% of its sales are related to the automotive industry. These switches control vehicle windows, door locks, heating and air conditioning controls and a host of other features in modern automobiles. The rest of its sales go to the power tool, agricultural and home appliance markets.
But being so entrenched in the auto market hurt Marquardt when vehicle manufacturing stagnated two years ago. This employed 600 people at Cazenovia until the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020 and caused major supply chain issues for automakers.
Sales plummeted as automakers cut production due to a shortage of computer chips. Marquardt in turn reduced his workforce in the Madison County town to 286 in a series of layoffs.
“We had to adapt to market conditions,” Berry said. “We try to balance market needs with business needs.”
Now Marquardt officials say they are looking to push back.
“We are looking to hire people who are passionate, innovative and want to help shape the future of drone technology and high-tech manufacturing in Central New York City,” said Steve Maloney, Chief Human Resources Officer.
Traci Schaumberg, spokesperson for Marquardt, said the company was in talks with two other potential industry partners and was actively recruiting for several positions, including engineers, production associates and business development roles to support its entry into the drone business.
Marquardt is a German company that employs 10,200 people worldwide. It acquired Marcom Switches Inc. from Cazenovia in 1982. At the time, Marcom handled Marquardt’s distribution sales in the United States.
Marquardt built a 25,000 square foot production facility on Route 20 east of the village of Cazenovia and moved there in 1985. It expanded several times over the next few years as new businesses came on board. acquired and its technology advanced, first in the power tool. industry and then the automotive industry. Its manufacturing facility now spans 115,000 square feet.
Today, Schaumberg said the company sees the drone industry as an ideal partner because of Cazenovia’s proximity to a 50-mile drone test corridor between Syracuse and the Oneida County town of Rome.
The air corridor is overseen by Nuair, the New York Central drone industry alliance. It is one of the few places in the country where unmanned aerial vehicles are allowed to fly beyond visual line of sight in civilian airspace.
Berry said Marquardt was introduced to Airtonomy by the CEO of CenterState, the Syracuse-based planning and economic development organization that operates The Tech Garden business accelerator in downtown Syracuse.
Airtonomy won the $1 million grand prize in the Genius NY business competition at the Tech Garden in 2021. The company employs 35 people, including three full-time employees and five interns in a satellite office of the accelerator.
Airtonomy co-founder Travis Desell said the company’s technology was used to inspect 2,000 wind turbines in the Midwest last year.
In addition to its partnership with Airtonomy, Marquardt plans to enter the drone manufacturing sector, which is dominated by Chinese companies.
In addition to the electronics inside its switches, Marquardt manufactures the plastic enclosures that contain the electronics. So, it will be an easy jump into making drones, which are mostly lightweight plastic.
Central New York officials hope to make the area a hotbed for the drone industry. The Federal Aviation Administration has named a Nuair-operated unmanned aerial test site at Rome’s Griffiss International Airport as one of seven drone test sites across the country.
Now companies can do more than test their drones here. They can also make them here too, Berry said.
Marquardt wants to attract other drone companies in its customer base. The company says it can help with product development, product testing, assembly and test equipment, injection molding, electronics production, assembly production and other support.
The company is also looking to grow its sales of electronic systems that monitor and control the flow of energy in battery systems used in automobiles, including electric vehicles. The company plans to adapt its battery control systems for use in drones and also has discussions with potential customers about manufacturing drone batteries in Cazenovia, Berry said.
“It’s an area that we think is a very high growth area,” he said. “It will be a much smaller battery, but the volumes could be quite high. We believe we can bring a lot of experience and change to the industry right here at this place.
He said the company hopes to reduce its reliance on the auto industry from 85% of its sales to around 50% within five years.
“We believe we have a lot to offer, and we’ve proven that through some recent strategic partnerships,” he said. “And I think it’s also a win for the local business community because we have a lot to offer. It is new for us to open our doors to this type of business.
Rick Moriarty covers economic news and consumer issues. Have a tip, comment or story idea? Contact him at any time: E-mail | Twitter | Facebook | 315-470-3148