Co-Line Welding achieves manufacturing success in the middle of an Iowa cornfield
July 16, 2012
Iowa-based Co-Line Welding hasn't let its remote location harm its chances of success. In fact, it has embraced the challenge and has emerged as a growing business, even as it faces challenges such as rural power distribution.
“We are truly out in the middle of nowhere,” said Eric Brand about his family’s metal fabricating business, Co-Line Welding Inc. There is a kernel of truth to that statement. The manufacturing facility sits in the middle of 350 acres of cornfields (see Figure 1). If you are looking for urban living, you’ll need a powerful telescope. The nearest town is Sully, Iowa, home to 800 residents.
Luckily, the “location, location, location” mantra isn’t an absolute in the world of metal fabricating. If you are good at making metal parts, customers will come—no matter how many stalks of corn they have to pass on the road to the shop.
Over the last 33 years, Co-Line has evolved into a well-recognized supplier of metal fabricated parts. The business has grown like corn under the hot July sun, from a 1,000-square-foot building in 1979 to a 180,000-sq.-ft. facility that houses fabricating, stamping, tool and die, and welding functions. Adding 29 full-time people in 2011 alone, the company employs 150 and serves hundreds of customers both large and small in a wide variety of industries.
“Finding enough qualified people is very challenging right now,” Brand said.
The customers keep coming back because Co-Line offers a perspective that other competitors can’t, according to Brand. Co-Line is both a manufacturer of its own products, as well as a provider of fabricating and forming services.
In the early days of the business, Co-Line was involved heavily in building livestock equipment and repairing farm equipment. That immersion into the needs of livestock owners inspired the company to create its Sure-Latch™ products, which allow for easy opening of any type of gate, including those on livestock pens, and keep the gate from sagging. The company came up with the idea in 1988, but had a hard time finding the right partner to supply the metal stampings for the latches. So in 1990 it purchased its first stamping press and took control of its own metal forming destiny.
On the heels of that manufacturing endeavor, Co-Line struck up a relationship with Goalsetter Systems Inc., and the partnership led to the development of one of the first height-adjustable goals, designed for those ground-bound hoopsters who want to dunk like the National Basketball Association superstars. The working relationship worked well for 16 years, but Co-Line decided to take the next step and purchase Goalsetter Systems in 2006. It also has enhanced its ability to manufacture these basketball goals by investing in tube laser cutting technology (see Figure 2).
“We have customers that will come to us not only for our ability to produce components for them, but our ability to truly manufacture a product,” Brand said. “And even if we aren’t manufacturing a product for them, we understand what they are going through as they manufacture their own product.”
Just how does that understanding manifest itself? Co-Line demonstrates it through customer service.
If a customer wants quick delivery, Co-Line knows exactly what’s at stake. When a basketball goal is sold, a work order to build a replacement goal for inventory is issued almost immediately. Tube lasers process the goal components, and they are assembled in a dedicated cell. Only 24 hours after the goal is sold, a replacement is available. The manufacturing setup allows for quick turnaround of orders, but also minimizes stock in inventory.
If a customer is price-sensitive, Co-Line might approach them with some design-for-manufacturability ideas that improve processing efficiency and eliminate costs. In some instances, if the volume is high enough, the fabricator might create a cell for quicker production. In another instance, Co-Line’s part designers might design a more flexible fixture that makes fabricating the part easier. All of these ideas typically are generated from past experience with making its own products.
Successfully serving these customers is directly linked to the company’s workforce, Brand said.
“You pick any machine and you could find other competing organizations that have those worldly sticks and stones of tools,” he said. “We are a collective group of people competing against other groups of people. Now our obligation is to build the best group of people we can and equip them with the best tools we can.”
Brand stressed that staying on technology’s cutting edge can be a risky proposition because a job shop can’t afford to purchase the latest model of every piece of fabrication equipment. It’s just not financially feasible. However, the right investments in technology have to be made at the right time. One of the company’s most recent purchases is a good example of that strategy.
One of Co-Line’s challenges of being in the middle of cornfields in a sparsely populated area of Iowa is that it doesn’t have access to competitive utility rates. Pella Cooperative Electric provides dependable electric service, but the rates are higher than what other companies might pay in metropolitan areas.
Also, the fabricator can be penalized severely when it operates in what the electrical cooperative considers peak electrical consumption times, such as 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the middle of summer or winter. Because Co-Line is one of the top five consumers of electricity within the cooperative’s distribution network, it can have a dramatic impact on power delivery to others.
“They really don’t want us using electricity during those peak times,” Brand said.
When it came time to upgrade its bending capabilities, Brand said they wanted to see what new technology had to offer. Dependability and price, obviously, would influence the decision, but energy efficiency would as well.
The company had purchased a 242-ton Ermak hydraulic press brake about two years previously and was pleased with its performance. It went back to the machine tool distributor, Mac-Tech, and asked about other press brake alternatives. The timing of the question couldn’t have been better.
Ermak was launching its new line of Evolution press brakes. These “hybrid” press brakes—as Emre Varisli, vice president, sales, Ermak USA Inc., called them—have hydraulics like a conventional press brake, but they also have AC servomotors that drive the hydraulic pistons. The presence of the servo technology is important because the hydraulic oil volume and flow are achieved without the need for proportional valves. Because of the design, the press brakes use only about 8 gallons of oil, compared to about 30 to 40 gallons a typical hydraulic press brake uses.
The servo technology ties into energy savings as well, which really interested the Co-Line officials. Because the hydraulic oil circulates only when the foot pedal is depressed to engage the ram for bending, the press brake consumes energy only when bending is taking place. A typical hydraulic press brake circulates oil—and consumes energy—as long as the machine is turned on. The limited oil circulation in the hybrid press brakes also helps to extend the life of the hydraulic fluid; according to the press brake manufacturer, the oil doesn’t need to be changed for five years.
“I won’t deny that we were a little apprehensive because it was pretty new. We understood the technology as it’s pretty straightforward—servomotors and hydraulic pumps. So we had a good baseline knowledge of it,” Brand said.
The energy savings related to the press brake operations, however, “knocked us over center,” Brand added. As a result, Co-Line placed an order for two of them.
About nine months ago, the fabricator installed the 110- and 150-ton Evolution press brakes (see Figure 3). Both have 8-ft. beds, the minimum length available at the time of the order.
The transition to the new machines has been virtually seamless. Because the controls are the same as the control on the 242-ton press brake, operators were able to jump on the machine and hit the ground running (see Figure 4).
“The speed is there and the accuracy was spot-on right from the get-go,” Brand said. “We are just sending parts through there.”
Varisli said that accuracy is to be expected because the hydraulic oil maintains its proper viscosity. In conventional hydraulic press brakes, the hydraulic oil is always being heated when the press brake is on and so loses viscosity much more quickly over a period of time. When the oil’s properties change, bending repeatability is affected, particularly in the summer months. Varisli said the Evolution press brakes are able to maintain a tolerance of ±0.00039 in.
As for energy savings, the new press brakes have delivered. Brand won’t reveal the amount of energy savings, but he did say the results have been “very good.” CIPCO (Central Iowa Power Cooperative), the utility that provides power to the Pella distribution cooperative, thinks so as well; it gave Co-Line a nice rebate for purchasing the energy-saving machine tools (see “Reaching out to the Utility” sidebar).
Brand added that the operators also enjoy the reduced noise level when they work on either of the two new press brakes. Because a large hydraulic pump is not in operation, the noise emanating from the press brake is much less than a conventional device produces. Ermak places the noise level generated by its Evolution press brakes at 63 decibels, slightly higher than the noise level of a typical conversation between two people.
In what may be viewed as somewhat counterintuitive, Co-Line eschewed modern quick-change tooling for its new press brakes. It does use quick-change upper clamps, but it’s still old-school in a big way.
“We still are one of the few that utilize American tooling. I know that surprises some, but we have done several things that led us to do that,” Brand said. “One, we have our own in-house tool and die department. We can build a lot of our own tooling, and American tooling is easier and less expensive to build because of the location and the tang set on them. Two, we also use custom tooling on our press brakes that you aren’t going to buy anywhere. We build some unique small form tools when a project doesn’t quite warrant going to stamping. We also have taken some fundamentals that we have learned from the changeovers of our stamping presses and have applied them to press brakes.
“I would like to say that we can competitively change out American press brake tooling nearly as quick as someone that spent thousands of dollars [on European-style tooling],” he added.
That combination of modern bending technology and tooling ingenuity shouldn’t come as a surprise to many. That’s what happens when you build a business far removed from all of the easy answers. Companies—and the people that they employ—become inventive.
That approach has served Co-Line well. It expects another healthy year in terms of company growth, but it won’t be pursuing any mention in an Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies.
“We work to grow at a pace that is manageable and sustainable year after year,” Brand said.
That’s an attitude that’s not universal. People might be better off visiting nowhere and learning a little bit about business and better bending.
Co-Line Welding Inc. didn’t plan on receiving a rebate when it purchased its more energy-efficient press brakes from Ermak USA Inc., so when it happened, it was great news.
“I would say that was a bonus because historically we had difficulty getting those rebates. The power cooperatives have not always been that cooperative in it,” said Eric Brand, Co-Line’s owner.
When the metal fabricator installed energy-saving T5 lighting in its plant, it hoped to earn a rebate from the electricity providers. However, that didn’t happen.
With the purchase of the two new press brakes, Co-Line took the rebate discussion to Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO), the cooperative from which Pella Cooperative Electric buys its power. The fabricator put together reports detailing the power consumption of its current Ermak press brake and compared it to the factory data for the two new Evolution press brakes.
The effort persuaded CIPCO favorably, and it presented a rebate to Co-Line. Brand didn’t want to reveal how much the rebate was, but said it was a nice “bonus.”
“If we got the rebate, it would have knocked us over center in terms of purchasing the Evos. If we had not gotten the rebate, we would have just looked at the purchase as a nice long-term investment,” he said.