Chinese factories may be gaining sophistication, but some U.S. rivals are keeping their edge. The propellerlike devices Sharpe Mixers makes...

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Chinese factories may be gaining sophistication, but some U.S. rivals are keeping their edge.

The propellerlike devices Sharpe Mixers makes for smokestack scrubbers are difficult for Chinese companies to copy, mainly because they are custom-designed. While China has many fine engineers, Sharpe, founded in 1953, has long experience building reliable mixers to stir large tanks of Campbell’s soup, pharmaceuticals, even sewage. They last for decades.

“We’re an engineering firm that happens to build mixers,” says Chief Executive Jay Dinnison.

Two years ago, Sharpe had e-mails from Chinese companies looking to use its mixers in smokestack scrubbers.

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“We knew there was a lot of potential there,” said Steve Drury, director of applications engineering. He got in touch with the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development and joined a trade mission, led by former Gov. Gary Locke, in 2003. “We just said, ‘What have we got to lose except for the cost of going?’ “

The trip paid off with contacts that quickly turned into orders. Energy and environmental technology is in demand as China tries to cut air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants, which make up about three-quarters of its generating capacity.

Now, the company is finding it difficult getting enough exotic alloy to make the noncorroding devices.

The business in China isn’t as profitable as U.S. sales, in part because Chinese buyers demand a low price. But the company has name recognition — so much that a Hong Kong imitator copied its brand name.

But the engineering, for now, can’t be matched in China. So the sales continue.

“I’m very pleased that we’re able to sell something into China, rather than just buying,” Dinnison said.

Washington’s top exports to China
Includes Boeing jets, agricultural products, machinery and computers. (In millions of dollars)
Description 2003 2004 Percent change
Total all commodities $3,211 $3,094 -3.6%
Aircraft and parts 178 1,439 709.6
Oil seeds and grains 878 835 -5.0
Cereals 1 159 19679.2
Industrial machines and computers 60 76 25.5
Optical, photo, medical and surgical instruments 50 73 46.4
Electric machinery 26 58 121.2
Iron and steel 62 57 -7.3
Wood pulp 46 56 21.1
Fish 41 45 11.5
Fur and artificial fur 11 36 245.1
Source: Washington state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development