HARLAN, Iowa — By car, the stretch from downtown Sao Paulo to the airport some 20 miles away can take up to five hours because of jammed traffic, and frequent travelers to the Brazilian city, such as Omahan Keith Forman, have learned to prepare for the worst.
“It's a very, very congested city,” he said.
That's why, in preparation for the World Cup in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016, Sao Paulo is expanding its monorail transit system. And an Omaha company — the one Forman works for — is playing a role in the project.
Conductix-Wampfler is supplying aluminum and stainless steel transit conductor rails for Sao Paulo's expanded monorail system.
“There's lots of little things that enable this small company in the Midwest to participate in a global project,” said Forman, global director of the company's transit division. “It starts with the people.”
The company designs and manufactures energy and data transmission systems and calls Omaha its headquarters for North and South America regions and the company's global transit group. Its projects include supplying power rail for an automated people mover system project at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the Vancouver Skytrain and monorails in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.
The Sao Paulo power rails, a $20 million contract, were designed, developed and tested at the company's Omaha location near 102nd and F Streets. About 15 percent of the components are being made between Omaha and here at the compan'ys Harlan plant. The company's Brazil location is coordinating the project in person and capable of supplying about 880 yards, or a half-mile, of the aluminum and stainless steel conductor rail per day.
The Sao Paulo monorail update has three parts. Conductix-Wampfler is working on line 15, the larger and higher-volume line, and line 17, which will primarily connect other parts of the metro system to the airport. A third line has not yet been bid.
When finished next year, line 15 will be the largest and highest capacity monorail system in the world, moving 48,000 people per hour per direction and reducing current travel time from two hours to less than an hour. In all, the project expected to handle up to 500,000 riders daily.
The system is in demand for the already congested city of 20 million people and the anticipated millions more to arrive for the global sporting events.
Monorail systems are known for their ability to move lots of people and differ from metro systems in that they're suspended from or straddle a narrow track above ground. They generally work by moving along a single rail, or sole support beam, and are powered by electric motor. Monorails don't carry as many people as a rail metro, but they can be built over a roadway without tunneling and so are quicker to build, said Rod Griffith, director of marketing at the company.
The company started in Omaha as Industrial Electric Reels, was purchased by Delachaux S.A. in 1975 and began operating as Conductix-Wampfler in 2008 after Delachaux bought Wampfler AG, a German company making similar products. It began talks about the Sao Paulo project in 2011 and a year later was awarded the contract.
To prove it was up for the job, the company went through about an 18-month period of convincing Sao Paulo officials they were capable, Griffith said.
Officials visited Omaha to tour operations. The company built a test wheel to simulate the conditions of their rail product. They presented a case on why the more expensive aluminum design, which differs from the steel industry norm, would be a better near- and long-term option because installation would be significantly cheaper.
Helping Conductix-Wampfler was the company that won the contract to supply the monorail vehicles: Bombardier's Innovia 300 system.
“We knew Bombardier's vehicles,” Forman said, noting the company had experience with Bombardier from a previous project in Saudia Arabia and is one of the train and plane manufacturer's major suppliers.
The 110,000-square-foot Harlan plant is set to ship its next batch of rails in November. Taking about six weeks for delivery, the rails are moved in custom wooden boxes made in-house at Harlan. Conductix-Wampfler goes through about $30,000 in wood each month to make the boxes, Harlan operations manager Larry Miller said.
The conductor rail-making process starts with 30-foot-long aluminum extrusions from a vendor. The aluminum is deoxidized and moved along a line into an automated machine that can weld 30 feet of capped rail in less than 10 minutes. The machine welds the stainless steel cap, or wear surface, so that it is permanently affixed to the aluminum.
Workers involved include those who run automated equipment, plus certified welders, engineers, drafters and machinists.
And at any given time, about 15 percent of the company's 262 employees between Omaha and Harlan are directly involved with the Sao Paulo project. About 15 people in Sao Paulo are working on it, too.
Forman said there is more than $100 million of potential in the transit business in the next five to six years, including projects in Brazil and Argentina, as well as other metro systems in the Americas.
Already, the $20 million contract has provided a boost and represents a significant piece of the company's work, which annually is about $100 million.
“We're just kind of riding that nice wave,” he said.