Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

The company's decorative solar lights offer a festive touch for the yard.

Manufacturing veteran Roger Blakesley started Yard Engineered Products, also known as YEP Lights, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 2010 when he had an idea for a decorative solar-powered lawn light. You’ve probably seen a type of solar-powered lawn light that is pushed down to the top of the grass, often placed alongside a cement walkway to guide visitors to the front door of a house.

But Blakesley wanted to make a decorative version that would stand out above the ground.

He developed the product out of steel tubing to protrude approximately 16 inches above the ground. The lights have decorative patterns laser-cut into the tubing, so the illumination not only shines through the top of the tube but also through the side-cut decorative designs.

“I didn’t want the product to compete with the foreign-made products out there that you can buy for $5 a unit that you have to change every couple of months,” said Blakesley. “I wanted a product that is going to last people a long time. I wanted something unique, something different and something that would stand out.”

Blakesley has worked at O’Neal Manufacturing Services in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for the past 28 years. He currently is the company’s materials manager, or purchasing agent, so he knew he didn’t have to search far and wide to source the tubing for his Yard Engineered Lights. Blakesley has had a long relationship with O’Neal which allowed him to contract the company to provide the laser cuts and weld the tubing.

A Design For Every Occasion 

“My daughter, Rylee, has always been quite an artist and I thought I would really be fun to come up with a product that would incorporate her artwork and my ability for manufacturing,” said Blakesley. “I told her what I was looking for and she put together some drawings and I brought them in and had them programmed and laser cut out of the steel tubing.

“I included the stakes at the bottom, so you can just take this tube out of the box and shove it in the ground. It stays where you put it. They are powder-coated inside and out so it is really durable for the weather.”

Daughter Rylee’s designs have many different themes, appropriate for any time of year.

“We do have an angel and one with a dove and the word ‘Peace’ on it,” he said. “It kind of crosses seasonal lines but is ideal for the Christmas holidays. Those came up as memorials. A lot of customers will pick up certain lights for memorials, but they actually work for any occasion - anniversaries, holidays, birthday or whatever theme you are searching for including sports.”

A popular YEP Lights series is a sports decorative line that includes the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Blakesley is in the process of expanding his licensing deals with other major colleges around the country in hopes of capturing a nationwide sports audience.

YEP lights are constructed with 16-gauge electric tube and come equipped with three spikes on the bottom that are 2 ½ to 3 inches long that provide a solid fit into the ground.

After the tubing is laser cut at O’Neal Manufacturing, Blakesley loads the products on a truck and transports them to the company that does the powder coating.

“I developed a masking process where our tubes are powder coated white on the inside and the outside of the tubes will be a different color,” he said. “It will be a black, yellow or silver vein but the white on the inside is a key component to the light and how bright it is. They are very bright and really stand out.

“The brightness was a problem I had early on, but I came up with a two-coat process and it really helps in making them durable for the weather. We have several that have literally been outside since 2010 and they have held up extremely well.”

After the tubing is prepared with the laser cutting and powder coating, the LED solar-powered light cap that comes with the tube is placed in the opening at the top of the tube. The bright, long-lasting solar light cannot only be viewed at the top of the tube but also through the laser-cut cut patterns along the side.

“The one sourcing thing we have been struggling with is the light,” said Blakesley. “Right now, there is no company that I am aware of that produces any solar powered panels or lighting right here in the United States that fits what I am doing. I have scoured the internet.

“There are companies that buy panels outside the United States for street lighting and very commercial uses, but they don’t do anything as far as what I am looking for. I would truly love to have a company here in the U.S. that made solar-powered lights that we could go to and say, ‘I need you to make this for me.’

Why Made in America Matters

“American-made is very important to me. That’s kind of the way I was raised. I was brought up in a union family. My dad was a plumber/pipefitter and worked for Local 384 and he was actually president of the local for a few years

“So, U.S.-made steel, and such, was a common conversation around our household because he worked on a lot of construction sites and he saw a lot of the garbage stuff that was coming in and he had to deal with that stuff. My dedication is to have a Made in America product that I can be proud of. My dad passed, my mom passed but it’s still important for me to have a Made in America product.”

Business at Yard Engineered Products has slowly grown over the years with sales increasing each year since they’ve been in business. The Yep Lights are sold in both select retail stores and online. Sales through the company website have slowly helped expand the decorative lighting into a nationwide product.

“I have a guy that stops by every year to pick up lights to give as Christmas presents and he’s been doing that for the last seven years,” said Blakesley. “We have other customers that, when any new design comes out, they have to get it.

“It is so cool, you know, Christmas morning I am at home with my family and I will stop for a minute and I think all across America right now there are different families opening up one of our lights. It’s something I’m really proud of. We have a kickass product and people love them.”

YEP Lights is a 2018 Made in America Holiday Gift Guide Reader Pick. If you’re looking for more great Made in America products to stuff your stockings this year, our gift guide features selections from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.