Riverdale Mills CEO James Knott, Jr. stands next to his company's wire mesh. Growth in the aquaculture, security and poultry industries have contributed to Riverdale's growth.

Riverdale Mills CEO James Knott, Jr. stands next to his company’s wire mesh. Growth in the aquaculture, security and poultry industries have contributed to Riverdale’s growth.

Down a residential street and just over a set of train tracks in Northbridge, an old mill building sits on the Blackstone River. Inside the former textile and paper mill, welding machines, coils of steel and colorful wire mesh evoke the feel of an old school manufacturing facility with an innovative focus.

The company housed in the 400,000-square-foot building, Riverdale Mills, is a wire mesh producer that manufactures for aquaculture, farming and poultry, construction and land management, and security. In 1980, the company’s founder James Knott Sr. invented Aquamesh®, a light, flexible, corrosion-resistant wire mesh geared towards lobster-trap manufacturers, putting Riverdale Mills and Northbridge on the map as one of the world’s leading wire mesh producers.

About 80 percent of lobster traps in the U.S., and 70 percent of European traps are made using Aquamesh, and wire mesh also supplies several miles of fencing at embassies, military bases and borders.

Growth in the aquaculture and security spaces especially led the company’s current CEO James Knott, Jr., son of James Knott, Sr., to elect to keep the facility up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week as of March of this year. Riverdale Mills employs 150 people and is looking to hire 20 more.

“We’ve made a concerted effort to get as competitive as possible. We have tough competition globally,” said Knott, Jr.

Though many New England foodies are usually in search of a fresh, delicious lobster around this time of year, Riverdale’s presence in several different markets keeps business afloat.

Flexible, high-quality wire

Spools of steel are brought directly to Riverdale through the Providence & Worcester Railroad track that runs through its parking lot, a practice that cuts down trucking costs by 50 percent, Knott said.

Inside the Northbridge plant, wire rod is brought through the entire process. First, the steel – produced with a very specific recipe to ensure flexibility in welding – is mechanically descaled to turn it into wire. It is then drawn to the specified diameter, and then either spooled or coiled – spooled wire is usually used in-house, while coiled wire is usually sold, Knott said. Then, several wires are laid out next to each other and put through a welding machine, creating big sheets of mesh wire.

It is then slit to size and rolled into coils, either galvanized or sold as plain steel, and the galvanized product is finally coated.

The material can be custom-made to the specifications of a customer. Riverdale produces more than 3,500 sizes of wire mesh. It also comes in whatever color you like. Blue, the color of the ocean, is a popular choice.

The keys to Aquamesh is the galvanization process — which happens after welding rather than before — and the PVC-coating process.

Galvanization provides a protective zinc coating that retards rust. If zinc is applied after welding, as it is in the galvanized-after-welding technique, the junctures are sealed and protected, leading to a more durable product. Lobster traps made with galvanized-after-welding wire usually last four to five times as long as wire made when galvanization is done before welding, Knott said. Riverdale’s PVC powder coating is another company specialty.

Aquamesh is in high demand due to the booming global aquaculture market. A 2015 study from Grand View Research, Inc. predicted the global market for aquaculture will reach $202.96 billion by 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 2 percent between 2014 and 2020.

The company saw a 45-percent increase in Aquamesh sales for lobster traps alone between 2014 and 2015. Knott said that is because of the price and demand for lobster around the world — China alone imports 60 million lobsters a year — along with the booming oyster industry.

Craig Pennypacker, former Riverdale marine sales manager, helped build Aquamesh’s market presence, starting in the 1980s.

“We started selling the product all over the place, and raised the volume of it to its present level,” Pennypacker said. “It was just a process of getting somebody out there to visit trap builders and also sell the product to commercial lobstermen.”

Riverdale also exports about 45 percent of what it makes, Knott said. Competition from overseas can be fierce, because China can usually produce an identical-looking product for cheaper, but fishermen who test out Riverdale’s product versus a Chinese one have seen firsthand how much more durable Aquamesh is, Knott said.

The difference between Aquamesh and its competition – which comes largely from abroad, Knott said – is the manufacturing process.

“There are some Asian products on the market that are ok, but not good enough. Even those might be galvanized after welding, but they do a poor job of coating it,” said Pennypacker. “The Knott family really knows how to put plastic on metal.”

Security fencing and poultry

In the late 1980s, the company found success with WireWall, a fence with tiny openings, created through the same galvanization and coating process as Aquamesh. This makes it almost impossible to scale or cut, but its two-dimensional profile makes it easy to see through. Demand for WireWall increased significantly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including a 44-percent sales increase between 2014 and 2015, Knott said.

It takes about 30-45 minutes to cut through WireWall, a lot longer than a chain link fence, which can potentially be cut through in about five minutes. It lines the border of Kuwait and Iraq, the exterior of the U.S. Embassy in Panama and the U.S. Mexico border.

“In a security system, you want whoever is trying to escape to spend time trying to get through the fence so you can catch them on camera,” Knott said.

Two years after developing WireWall, Riverdale developed Soft-Step, which is used by poultry farmers to improve sanitary conditions in breeder and broiler houses. The product has been effective in reducing salmonella among chickens. Before, chickens would walk on the wooden slot floors and get infections from fecal-coated splinters. Fewer chickens with salmonella means fewer antibiotics, which means healthier food.

Cost-cutting measures

As a manufacturer using heavy-duty machinery 24 hours a day, cutting costs wherever possible has to be a priority, Knott said. Using the local railroad line is one way to do that, but another is an onsite dam that produces some hydro-generated power through the Blackstone River. The dam can supply enough energy to power 150 homes continuously for a year, which is about 10 percent of the plant’s electricity needs.

As the company grows, recruiting about 20 qualified workers for positions on the shop floor and in sales and engineering will be a priority over the upcoming year, Knott said. Over the past four years, millions of dollars have been invested in automated equipment, including a $2.5-million computer-controlled welding machine.

Pennypacker left the company after nearly 30 years about two months ago to work for Cape Fisherman’s Supply in Chatham. He left because the travel was getting to be too much, but holds the company in high regard and now helps sell Riverdale products to commercial fishermen through the store.

“I know the product inside and out. I can speak clearly and proficiency about it,” he said.