Ask and you shall receive

Job shop tackles inexperience to offer finishing services

THE FABRICATOR® NOVEMBER 2005

November 8, 2005

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Miller Welding & Machine isn't a typical job shop for a lot of reasons. This family-owned and -operated company, in business since 1963, employs almost everybody in the Miller family -- and tackled its complete inexperience in finishing by investing in a full powder coating and wet paint line in a new facility to serve its customers, who started demanding finishing services five years ago.

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A conveyor carrier takes a part into the dryoff oven.

It's not every day that a small or medium-sized job shop invests in an entire line of new equipment. And buys 65 acres to build a new facility to house and operate it—especially if the company's knowledge and experience with the technology are nil.

This was the situation Miller Welding & Machine Co., Brookville, Pa., decided to get itself into five years ago.

Finishing Demands

In business since 1963, Miller Welding & Machine is a family business to its core. Brad Miller, vice president, works there with his two brothers, two of his sisters (his third sister broke the mold to become a pediatric surgeon), his mom and dad, and several nieces and nephews. With a staff of about 300, the company prides itself on being an integrated, single-source contract manufacturer that specializes in fabrication and machining services.

Until 2000 Miller's services satisfied a core of 25 companies. The company initially repaired farm and mining equipment, but today its core of customers is mostly construction and aerial lift equipment manufacturers. That year a new trend emerged among its customers: the need for finishing services.

"We had never done any finishing, and our customers were encouraging us to do it because they wanted us to," Brad Miller said, adding that although customers weren't requiring the company to add finishing services, they said that they would find other service suppliers who could. Miller said that finishing was especially critical for the customers as they moved more and more toward just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing.

Although offering new services may sound fairly straightforward—and very much like a smart idea when a company wants to grow—establishing a finishing line was complicated for Miller Welding & Machine.

They didn't know anything about powder coating or painting the parts they've always fabricated and machined.

Painting the Big Picture

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Parts exit the cure oven.

Adding finishing as a service capability wasn't as simple as buying some powder coating equipment and starting it up. For one, the company needed room to grow. This didn't mean simply adding on to its existing facility —it required a new plot of land and a whole new building. Eventually the company found a 65-acre plot on the other side of town from its original facility.

Next came the uncharted territory: choosing the finishing equipment that would best complement the company's fabrication services and provide a good return.

"We did some homework," Miller said. This included consulting with the company's largest customers on the types of equipment they should look at. The company also investigated several shops that were using booths similar to what Miller generally was considering. One piece of information that helped the company was that it knew what size parts it usually would need to paint.

Through this research, the company decided to work with Wagner Systems and Herr Industrial. Wagner manufactures products and systems for coating and decorating with paints and powder, while Herr Industrial is a full-service industrial contractor that specializes in finishing systems.

"We interviewed them and had the suppliers come in and talk to us, and we ended up with Wagner and Herr because it seemed to fit," Miller said. "We needed a quick-change system. We're doing a minimum of six colors a day, up to a dozen, so quick change was important."

Miller approached Herr Industrial with its two main objectives in finishing: flexibility and a state-of-the-art system, said Tim Herr, CEO of Herr Industrial. Herr said that the company understood that it may pay more up-front for the type of system it wanted, but that its longevity would make the investment worth it in the long run. Wagner's self-cleaning paint booth, for example, represented the type of up-to-date equipment the company was interested in using.

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Operators powder-coat scissor lift arms.

"Flexibility is important because they're a contract manufacturer, not a production shop. They can change the process fairly quickly and change [to accommodate] parts that are very small to parts that are very large," said Chris Herr, sales engineer for Herr Industrial. "Process and part flexibility is very important to them to adapt to a changing customer base."

Flexibility also is one of the trends Jeff Palmer, spokesman for The Powder Coating Institute, has seen among many who are using powder coating.

"[I'm seeing] companies getting into quick color changing and powder coating large parts," he said.

While some companies serve a niche that doesn't require flexibility in its powder coating equipment, others can benefit from the flexibility that some systems offer, Palmer said.

In knowing what types and sizes of parts it would need to finish, Miller Welding & Machine basically designed the setup to fit its specifications. Although the company's inexperience with finishing was challenging, it also proved beneficial, according to Miller.

"You're starting with a clean slate. You don't have any preconceived notions of what you could do," he said.

Another challenge was training. Because the company is located in a rural area, the company had to provide expertise to its own internal work force, which took time and coordination. Equipment suppliers helped facilitate hands-on training.

Although it took time and effort, the company was able to get its finishing services up and running in less than a year.

"We broke ground in February and were finishing parts by October of the same year," Miller said. "We were all motivated to make it happen."

Tim Herr said he feels that Miller's family-oriented business atmosphere had a lot to do with its success in starting its own finishing line. Most small job shops, he said, wouldn't invest in as large a finishing system.

"The father's philosophy and the family attitude—you could see it every day," Tim Herr said, adding that Miller is one of Herr's smaller customers; Herr typically serves Fortune 500 companies that have in-house technical expertise.

"They're a very tight, family-oriented company, and they're hard workers," he said. "They want to do it right."

Investment Pays Off

Miller Welding & Machine Co.'s Finishing Facility Features
Powder Coating Line
Part size capacity is 5 ft. wide, 6 ft. high, and 12 ft. long with a weight capacity of 5,000 pounds.
Conveyor traverse speed is 35 FPM.
Conveyor process speed is 4-1/2 FPM.
Paint coating speed is variable up to 12 FPM.
Power and free conveyor line is equipped with 35 carriers.
Line uses a microprocessor controller for speed and timing of switches, conveyor speeds, path of carrier, oven cure temperatures, and time in the ovens.
BCP eight-wheel blast machine throws 8,000 lbs. of shot blast media per minute and recycles the media continuously.
Herr Industrial stainless steel five-stage washer
Herr Industrial dryoff oven
Environmental room (actual powder coating room) has a Wagner ABC booth with 12 automatic guns and two manual guns; one of two automatic booth cleaning systems by Wagner in the U.S.
Herr Industrial cure oven
Wet Paint Line
All wet paint line spray booths are connected to a computerized Graco Precision Mix™ pipeline system to facilitate rapid color changes and consistent colors.
Computerized mixing system reports VOCs.
Paint kitchen has a blowout wall for safety.
CO2 extinguisher system accomplishes fire suppression in the paint spray booths and the environmental room.
BCP manual blast booth
JBI wash booth
JBI primer booth
JBI finish coat booth
Herr Industrial cure oven

In the five years since Miller Welding & Machine started painting and powder coating operations, the company's motivation has not slowed down. On the contrary, the company has enjoyed doubling its business by adding finishing capabilities.

"It's a big complement to what we do now," Miller said.

Today the company finishes most of the fabrications it makes. In addition, Miller said, the company most likely retained most of the core jobs it did before just because of the finishing capability.

Miller's finishing facility is divided: Half of it is for finishing and half is for fabrication. Major machining jobs are done at the company's original location, and then those parts are trucked over to the finishing facility. Otherwise, many parts are fabricated and finished at the same facility.

With the next nearest finishing facility at least 60 miles away, the company also has had the opportunity to increase its volume of work.

While many companies are trying to outsource, Miller explained, it's difficult to do so when you need complete assemblies. Most of Miller Welding & Machine's customers are in this situation, so the company is helping its customers with finishing as well as some final assembly work.

Miller said he sees more automation in the company's future.

"We had CNC, flame, and plasma; now we have laser, and we're installing our third robot welding cell," Miller said. "We've automated some of our fabricating, especially the robot welding. We want to keep on modernizing and keeping up with technology."

Miller said the key to the company's success is automation. He believes that investing in automation says a lot about your company.

"It's the biggest step we've ever taken," Miller said. "By automating, investing in finishing, that's a good message to send to customers that you're going to be around."

Miller Welding & Machine Co., P.O. Box G, Brookville, PA 15825, 814-849-3061, fax 814-849-7508, www.millerwelding.com

Herr Industrial Inc., P.O. Box 5249, Lancaster, PA 17606-5249, 717-569-6619, fax 717-569-3540, www.herrindustrial.com

Powder Coating Institute, 2121 Eisenhower Ave., Suite 401, Alexandria, VA 22314, 703-684-1770, fax 703-684-1771, pci-info @powdercoating.org,www.powdercoating.org

USF Surface Preparation Group, 1219 Corporate Drive, Burlington, ON L7L 5V5, 905-319-7930, fax 800-571-5637, www.surfacepreparation.com

Wagner Systems Inc., 175 Della Court, Carol Stream, IL 60188, 630-784-8900, fax 630-784-8970, www.wagner-group.com



Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer

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