ONAN'S GROWING PRODUCT LINE
Although Onan's product line today is varied — it
would take another book just to describe the different items available — nearly
everything manufactured by the company falls into the category of energy
conversion and control devices. It's been that way almost from the very
beginning. The company was started, of
course, as a producer of equipment and parts for motor cars, and there were the
early manufacturing and profitable sales of the "Safty Saw".
Onan designed and produced its own air-cooled
engines, becoming the first company to develop opposed two-cylinder engines
with the necessary low level of vibration.
Four-cylinder engines later were added to the line) and Onan became a
leader in the production of gasoline engines in the 5 to 40 horsepower
category. The Onan engines were the
first with such features as pressure lubrication, aluminum cylinder blocks with
cast iron sleeves, and replaceable bearings.
The small Onan gasoline engines were so well
designed that other original equipment manufacturers clamored for them,
launching the firm into a new market as a supplier of small industrial engines
for purposes other than powering generators.
Starting in the late 1940s, Onan engines were sold to manufacturers of
truck refrigeration units, rotary tillers, pumps, and many other pieces of
It also was in the late 1940s and early 1950s that
Onan entered the diesel engine market, a field that today holds tremendous
promise for the future. Onan is now
marketing its new L Series family of diesel engines ranging in size from 15 to
125 horsepower. The company, during
1980-1981, invested more than $100 million at its plant in Huntsville, Alabama,
where the new diesel engines are manufactured.
Since 1979 Onan has been supplying electronic AC
power conditioning and frequency conversion equipment. This new product line was the result of the
acquisition of Elgar Corporation in San Diego) California. Elgar is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of
Onan. The highly sophisticated equipment
made by Elgar is designed to eliminate power variations, voltage drops, line
noise, to correct other power line problems, and to provide uninterruptible
Elgar manufactures high isolation transformers, AC
line conditioners for laboratory and instrumentation application, AC power
regulators for computers, instrumentation and other high technology loads, and
uninterruptible power systems for protection against brownouts, blackouts and
other power line disturbances. Elgar is
also the leading manufacturer of inverters and uninterruptible power systems
for the nuclear power industry.
Although the equipment manufactured by Elgar
promises to play an important role in Onan's future and the diesel engine
program at the Huntsville plant represents a major capital expenditure, Onan's
worldwide reputation has been earned through a half century of manufacturing
rugged, well designed, dependable generator sets.
In the smaller generator set sizes, Onan makes a
wide range of sets for recreational vehicles, special purpose vehicles,
military use, construction projects, pleasure and commercial boats, for home
use - including standby power, and for portable welding equipment. In the larger sizes, typically up to 750 to
1,000 kilowatts, Onan manufactures standby and continuous, or prime, power generator
sets for use in telecommunications facilities, commercial buildings,
construction projects, hospitals, banks) computer centers, retail stores,
office buildings, schools, prisons, sports stadiums, and nursing homes to name
a few applications.
Emergency standby power generator sets, the product
line for which Onan has historically been best known, account for approximately
25 to 30 percent of Onan's business.
Governmental bodies and code-making bodies are becoming increasingly
aware of the need for emergency standby power that will be available as long as
there is a utility outage, and generator sets are the only source of standby
power that can meet this need. So
standby power should continue to be an important market for Onan generator
Tom Valenty has been especially active in pushing
for awareness of the need for dependable standby equipment. One of the reasons for this goes back nearly
30 years. An experience one evening in
the mid-1950s left an indelible mark on Valenty. He recently recalled the event: "I took my family to the Ice Follies and
we were sitting in the stands at the big arena in Minneapolis waiting for the
show to start. There were about 10,000
people in the stands and we experienced a local power failure. All the lights went out. The arena was pitch dark and some frightened
person in the audience started to scream. In a short time, less than a minute,
hundreds of people were screaming. This
went on for what seemed like 10 minutes.
The crowd was at the very edge of panic; anything could have
happened. Finally, several cars were
driven into the arena with their lights on; they gave enough light to show the
crowd there was nothing to scream about." That experience convinced
Valenty that Onan was in the right business, and since then, he has spoken out frequently
on the need for emergency standby generator sets.
In larger facilities, such as hospitals where
adequate standby power is required by law, there may be several Onan emergency
standby power generator sets installed.
In these multiple-set installations, it is not unusual for the sets, in
conjunction with installed Onan-designed and manufactured paralleling gear to
have the capability of "sequential paralleling". This means that in a hospital, if a power
outage were to occur, all of the, say, three
generator sets would start up, virtually simultaneously. The first set to reach rated frequency and
voltage could assume the hospitals most critical electrical load. This would include such things as life
support equipment and operating room lights and other operating room
equipment. The second set to reach rated
frequency and voltage would assume the next most critical electrical load, and
the third set would assume the least critical load.
Onan's gas turbine-powered generator sets are used
for emergency standby power and they are also used to provide prime power, in
which instance the electric utility typically becomes the source of emergency
standby power in the event that the turbine generator sets do not run for some
reason, such as malfunction or interruption of fuel supply.
Onan's turbine-powered generator sets are also used
in cogeneration installations wherein the large amount of heat generated by the
gas turbine is captured and can be used in a variety of ways. The heat can be
used in industrial processes that require large amounts of heat, with the electricity
that is produced by the generator set being used to provide power for the
industrial process, or, in some cases, it can be sold to the local electric
In addition to paralleling gear, Onan also
manufactures components such as automatic transfer switches and other
switchgear and controls that are installed in standby power applications. Onan also provides separate generators for
industrial and military markets.
Onan has been fortunate over the years in having a
wide variety of users for its generator sets and engines, because as some
markets have become less active, others have become more popular, helping to
reduce the peaks and valleys in sales that hamper so many businesses. A good
example is the motorhome market, which has been an excellent market for
Onan. The first motorhome that required
generator sets were first introduced in the early 1960s. Onan was asked to design generator sets for
these new recreational vehicles, but the first efforts were disappointing. The early sets were poorly installed, too
noisy, vibrated the motorhome, and often could not start the electric air
conditioners. Onan engineers worked
feverishly to improve the product, and their efforts paid off. By 1967, Onan had a superior generator set
designed for motorhomes and the motorhome market itself expanded beyond
There were dozens of manufacturers of motorhomes in
the country and there was a reliable Onan generator set available for any size
vehicle. Onan soon had a major share of
the market. As sales of motorhomes
mushroomed, Onan brought out new, lower cost products. A major factor in Onan's success in this
market has been the availability of service on the generator sets through the
company's distributor network and distributors' dealers who sell and service
Because of the rapidly growing production of
motorhome generators sets in the early 1970s, Onan management decided to
construct a plant at Huntsville, Alabama, to provide additional capacity for
the manufacture of high volume aluminum engines and the generators powered by
these engines. These units were used mostly for the recreational vehicle
In October, 1973, the Arab oil embargo was put into
effect, causing gasoline shortages and soaring gasoline prices. The motorhome market and Onan's sales to it
Construction at Huntsville has already started when
the motorhome market collapsed due to the oil embargo. The decision was made to continue with the
construction of the Huntsville facility in the belief that the market for
aluminum gasoline engines and generator sets would eventually come back after
an adjustment to the Arab oil embargo had been made. This situation did correct itself, and
increased sales of products from the Huntsville facility occurred in 1976 and
1978. In about 1977, it was decided to
concentrate the manufacture of engines at the Huntsville facility for the new
lines of diesel engines, then under development, that would be launched in the
Onan had been producing diesel engines for years,
but in the mid-1960s management recognized that its dependable J Series diesel
engines would need to be replaced as the machine tools used to produce them
wore out and new diesel technology became available. So work was started on what is now Onan's L
Series family of diesel engines.
The L Series, a family of 2, 3, 4 and 6 cylinder,
water-cooled diesel engines, covering the power range of from 15 to 120
horsepower, is a modern design using the latest well-proven technology available.
While one of the principal applications of the new
engines was in Onan generator sets, they also are suitable for and used in
other original equipment in construction, industrial, agricultural, transport
refrigeration, and other fields.
One of the secrets to Onan's success has been its
constant introduction of new and improved products. As markets change, so do Onan's products.
Here are some product milestones, starting with the
introduction of the famous Ten-Lite generator:
- 1926 - The first generator set for sportsmen was
- 1930 - The first Onan designed and manufactured
gasoline engine was built.
- 1939 - Three families of two-cylinder, air-cooled
gasoline engines were introduced. One of
these, the OTC, was built at the rate of 10,000 or more a year during World War
- 1941-45 - Onan produced more than half of all the
generator sets supplied to the Allied Forces.
- 1946 - The first small diesel engine was designed.
- 1950 - The patented Vacu-Flo system for truck
compartment cooling was invented.
- 1963 - Onan again becomes a major supplier of
generator sets to the U.S. military.
- 1964 - The first sound attenuating enclosure for
marine diesel-powered generator sets was designed.
- 1965 - The first marine muffler was designed to
permit engine exhaust of generator sets from below the water line.
- 1969 - The first space-saving, square-designed
generator set designed.
- 1971 - Five-year warranty on standby systems
- 1976 - Production of two millionth power unit by
- 1976 - Shipment of first gas turbine-powered
electric generator set made.
- 1979 - Elgar power conditioning and uninterruptible
power systems business acquired.
- 1981 - First L Series diesel engine produced at
The above is an impressive
list of new product achievements, sustained over approximately five
decades. Will Onan's future program for
developing new products keep face with the company's past history of activity
in this important area? The answer is yes, as you will see in the next and
final chapter of this history of Onan Corporation. Onan's five-year plan commits the company to
a high level of new product activity.