A knight's traditional chain mail and metal visor would dwarf her tiny frame, yet Anu Vissa possesses a crusader's zeal. She quests to recapture manufacturing primacy for her adopted state and country.

"Most of the companies growing now are service companies, but we need to bring manufacturing back to this country. Ultimately, it's where the future lies in higher technology," Vissa maintains.

As chief operating officer of Micropyretics Heaters International Inc., Vissa is fulfilling her mission one high-temperature furnace, heating element and plasma airtorch at a time. The company's goal is to help clients in such industries as ceramics, metals processing and chemicals to increase their productivity tenfold.

"We are the engineering equivalent of what happened to the IT world in the past 10 years," notes Vissa. "We're the engineering hardware component in the high-temp processing area.

"Any manufacturer needs heat processing at some point, whether they're making ceramics or polymers. We design energy-efficient electric products for those industries."

Each MHI piece that leaves the Woodlawn plant is homegrown, from its first computer sketch through research, patenting and manufacture. "We're the only company that develops and makes its own coils," Vissa says. "Most companies buy the heating elements and assemble them. We have more control than a lot of manufacturers."

Like Henry Ford before them, Vissa and her husband, Jai Sekhar, aim to control the means of production as much as possible in a world of increasingly blurry borders. "The (early) sales sustained our growth and we funded the R&D internally, even during the recent environment that has not been terribly friendly to manufacturing and technology," observes Vissa. "We're ready to take off when the economy picks up. We have everything in place with our patents, and we have the continuous desire to innovate."

With four engineering PhDs "” a full 20 percent of its workforce "” MHI has registered at least 25 patents. The firm doubled its capacity by moving to a larger factory in Woodlawn, and already could use more space. Annual sales exceed a million dollars.

From its early reliance on one molydisilicide heating element, MHI now offers more than 100 products, most in direct sales to plants all over the world. "Our plasma airtorch is the only one like it, with temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Celsius," Vissa says. "As we continue to innovate and add products, many of them still have no competitors.

"It's exciting to see this company grow, to bring all the elements together. It's almost like a work of art."