Colorado’s largest company was a finalist as were other signature manufacturing and supply-chain brands, but middle-market companies flashing process and product innovation stole the show at the inaugural Colorado Manufacturing Awards April 6 at Denver’s brilliant ART Hotel.

The awards were organized and presented by CompanyWeek and Manufacturer’s Edge with help from CACI, the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, and the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance (CAMA). I had a blast moderating the selection committee deliberations prior to the event and can share the ‘insider’ notes today.

Nine industry categories plus the supply chain were contested, and the upset theme materialized early in the evening when Boulder’s electronics upstart Modular Robotics won Aerospace & Electronics over Colorado’s high-profile satellite maker Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Space Systems and global storage powerhouse Seagate. Selection committee members cited Modular Robotics’ groundbreaking efforts to establish a domestic manufacturing workforce from a new generation of ‘alpha geeks and robot nerds’ — a STEM-connected smart workforce of the future.

Voormi was a surprise winner in the Lifestyle & Consumer category over accessory giant Otter Products and snowsports powerhouse Never Summer, arguably the state’s quietest if influential lifestyle brand. Voormi’s product innovations are noteworthy — technical garments featuring new fiber technology sourced from Rocky Mountain wool — but the company’s mission to develop a world-class domestic garment manufacturing outpost, coping with an underdeveloped apparel supply chain, also scored high.

Process innovation relating to workforce development also separated Boulder’s uber-focused medical device manufacturer Mountainside Medical. The company’s European-style recruitment, training, and mentoring workforce model continues to provide competitive advantage in a contested space. Centennial’s Allosource was a highly regarded runner-up in Bioscience & Medical.

Colorado’s most high-profile national manufacturing sector may be Food and Beverage, and co-packers like category winner Fresca Foods have been catalysts of a food revolution that arguably began along the Front Range. The company’s impact on a generation of food entrepreneurs lifted the Louisville-based firm over one of Colorado’s fast-growth companies, Noosa Yoghurt, and beverage innovator Infinite Monkey Theorem Urban Winery.

But innovation in Colorado food and beverage manufacturing is also defined by its powerhouse craft beer sector. One of the first and still the largest in southwest Colorado is Durango’s Ska Brewing Company, winner of the Beer & Brewing category over Avery Brewing Company and Wild Goose Canning. Ska’s’s growing popularity and consumer footprint was only half the appeal to the awards panel. In a recurring theme, the selection committee favored the company’s wider influence on the beverage manufacturing ecosystem, citing spin-offs Ska Fabricating (de-palletizers and canning equipment) and Peach Street Distillers.

The brewing supply chain was brought into sharp focus by the popular choice of Colorado Malting Company as winner of the Supply Chain awards category. Josh Cody, whose family-owned farming operation fuels Colorado’s craft sector more than any supplier, traveled from Alamosa only to win the award and graciously deflect credit to the craft entrepreneurs who’ve put Colorado on the national beverage map and positioned the San Luis Valley as an epicenter for ingredients that sustain the industry. In a category also featuring Arrow, Colorado’s $25 billion ‘quiet giant,’ Colorado Malting’s choice again spoke to the selection committee’s preference for companies influencing local, sector-wide growth.

If food and beverage has become Colorado’s national manufacturing calling card, its Contract Manufacturing sector, today boasting world-class advanced fabricators in technology sectors like aerospace and bioscience, may be it’s future. In this most difficult category to judge, metal 3D printing innovator Faustson Tool and its blue chip roster of clientele emerged in a close vote. Primus Aerospace and NFT/Paradigm, the other finalists, are the tip of a tech-fueled spear that’s coming to define the local manufacturing economy.

Energy & Environment winner Vestas can make the case it’s still the most influential fabricator in the state, though, and with good reason. Today Vestas Towers in Pueblo is the world’s leading manufacturer of wind towers at a time when alternative sources are ‘crushing’ the energy scene.

Vice President Tony Knopp’s pro-Colorado remarks were music to the ears of the large crowd, but the company’s growing impact on the regional manufacturing economy appealed to committee members, with 300 or so welders on the company payroll and a recruitment and training ecosystem to envy.

The same is true for Fort Collins-based stalwart Woodward, winner of the Industrial category. Contract manufacturer to some of the world’s great industrial brands like Boeing and Caterpillar, Woodward seems intent on maintaining its global standing in part by attracting and retaining a new generation of technology-enabled manufacturing employees. Its new facility in Fort Collins updates the image of modern manufacturing with open, wired, and collaborative spaces. Woodward’s a legacy manufacturer, casting and manufacturing products around the globe, with another foot squarely in the future.

Construction firms and builders share an important space in the economy with manufacturers, and winner of the Built Environment category, RK, is an omnipresent brand in construction sites throughout the region. RK is a true hybrid manufacturer/constructor with an eye to the future with prefabricated structures even as it continues to provide critical infrastructure and building services. But again, RK’s success in overcoming workforce challenges — recruitment, training, and retention, process innovations all — scored very high with the selection committee.

Innovation occurs in many different ways. Winners of the inaugural Colorado Manufacturing Awards manifest most all of them.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at