June 11, 2014
Greiner Industries, Mount Joy, Pa., has been able to expand over the years because its owner senses opportunities that other shops want no part of. As a result, the company has emerged as an atypical fabricator with incredible fabricating capabilities.
Can a shop that machines a box beam that weighs 125,000 lbs., rolls plate up to 4.75 in. thick, and cuts plate up to 10 in. thick be considered a typical job shop? It’s a job shop, but there are big differences when comparing it to other shops.
Greiner Industries Inc., Mount Joy, Pa., has emerged as a metal fabricator that can take on large and complex jobs that other shops might not want or, frankly, might have messed up. That business approach is a recipe for differentiation among metal fabricators that might specialize in more routine work.
“You have to keep looking because it’s so competitive today,” said Frank Greiner, founder of the company that bears his name. “You have to keep looking for opportunities or areas to explore. That will never stop. That’s just part of growing.”
That exploration over the years has helped the company to develop a reputation of being able to take on very large and complex projects. Greiner quotes work by the hour, not the weight as structural steel shops might. In fact, when asked what aspects of a structural project the shop might quote, Greiner replied that it might be interested in only the 10 percent that possibly requires detailed work, such as high-tolerance hole placement, circle interpolation, or contour beveling—all capabilities other shops simply can’t deliver.
Like so many other job shops, Greiner Industries got started in a garage. Now, it wasn’t fabricating huge specialty components like railroad girders back then. It was doing basic welding work back in 1976.
“Well, I really wanted to get into heavy fabrication way back in the 1970s, but it took me this long to get where we are today because it’s a huge investment,” Greiner said. “Machines that we buy cost in the millions.
“But the other driving force was competition because there were more and more shops that were getting into routine fabrications. We had to change and get into other niches to stay ahead of our other competitors,” he added.
Bruce Sine, manager for the company’s rolling and forming division and a Greiner employee since the early 1980s, was a little more frank about Frank: “I have never really seen him turn down too many opportunities to try something new.”
As an example of the evolution of the business, Sine pointed to all the heat exchanger and pressure vessel work the company did several years ago. This was no small endeavor as the shop was building huge weldments, some weighing as much as 270,000 lbs.
It was a very good business until other fabricators saw the opportunities. What had been specialty work soon became common work. Some shops focused heavily on either the heat exchanger or vessel work and arranged their shops around those products. They basically set up production lines, and at that point, a job shop unwilling to set up specialized cells or lines really couldn’t compete.
Today Greiner might bid on a highly specialized, one-of-a-kind heat exchanger or pressure vessel job, but it’s just one of many large jobs that it routinely brings into its shop.
The foundation has been poured, and it’s ready for the new CNC vertical turning lathe. The new equipment will allow Greiner Industries to machine parts up to 16 ft. in diameter and 157 in. under rail.
“Now we are getting into turning because we get calls saying that they can’t find shops with large enough equipment,” Greiner said.
That’s what led to the CNC horizontal boring mill, which has a 12- by 30-ft. working envelope. It’s also what led to the company’s purchase of a large lathe with a 20-ft.-long bed.
So the equipment investment might come just after a simple phone call from one potential customer? Not exactly. But Greiner admits that there is a little bit of a leap of faith because large manufacturers rarely commit to outsourcing any fabricating activity—even when a shop says it plans to invest in equipment.
“When you are talking to the real big players that use this type of equipment and you go to them to ask if they will have work for you a year or two years from now, they’ll just look at you and laugh,” Greiner said. “What they will say is, ‘You get the equipment and you hire the people that can run it. Then give me a call.’ That’s the way it works.”
Greiner pointed to a recent railroad girder job (see Figure 1) as an example of where the skilled employee-best equipment combination makes all the difference in the world. The girders need bolt holes precisely placed every 4 to 6 in. across the 80-ft. span. If one hole is off by just a hair, it affects the placement of the other holes.
A CNC drilling machine helps with the high tolerances needed for this type of project (see Figure 2). The machine can place the holes where they need to be from one end to the other.
Greiner said that while building cranes for a steel company in the 1980s, his company had to use an alternative method to place bolt holes. They had to drill holes manually on one piece and then lay that template on top of other plate material. From the top, the fabricator had to drill straight down through that top hole so that the lower holes would match up. The problem was that if the drill angled a bit, the bottom holes might not line up.
“We have the highest-quality equipment in the world, and this is one job that shows that it works,” Greiner said.
About 12 years ago Greiner Industries had some plate rolling capability, but it was underutilized. The machines ran for perhaps half a day, but that was about it.
Sine said as the company made a more conscious effort to pursue more business for its rolling and forming equipment, the jobs began to increase. That led Greiner to build a separate building seven years ago for what would become the company’s rolling and forming division. It has added onto the building two times since then, almost doubling the building’s original size.
Just as on the machining side, the business trend appears to be bigger and bolder.
“They keep asking for heavier and larger structural sections and plate,” Greiner said.
Of course, that leads to large investments in equipment, such as a three-roll plate roller capable of bending carbon steel up to 4.75 in. thick and 12 ft. wide (see Figure 3); a 2,750-ton press brake with a 40-ft. bed; and a sectional rolling machine that can roll a 44-in.-wide, 211-lb. beam the hard way (along the X-X axis).
“The skill of our employees makes the difference on these rolling and forming machines,” Sine said.
“You just can’t put in a plate and tell the machine what you want it to do. You have to manually operate the machine to get it to do what you want it to do,” he added.
With technical trade schools barely producing enough young welders and machinists for the industry, they certainly aren’t producing technicians skilled in heavy steel forming and rolling. That’s where internal training really makes a difference for Greiner Industries.
Sine referenced an employee who came from a small shop that worked with thin-gauge metal. He was the rare new hire that actually had rolling experience, forming silos and smaller cones. Sine said he was able to show him how to do a couple of rolls with thick plate, and he was soon working independently, asking questions whenever he ran into a problem. This story, however, is not typical.
“Then we have other people that have never worked with metal, and they are working under people to try and learn how to run the machines,” Greiner said. “It takes some time, even a couple of years, to train some of the people.”
The on-the-job learning can be intimidating, however. Imagine a less experienced operator attempting to roll a cone 15 ft. in diameter out of material 1.25 in. thick. Someone not used to working with material like that can be unnerved easily, especially with the material hanging overhead.
“It’s also a huge responsibility because of the value of the material,” said Jim Gillespie, the company’s business manager. “Some of the plate we use costs $100,000 per plate. Some of it you can’t replace in time even if you would ruin it and if you had the money to replace it.”
To reinforce how much skill is necessary to deliver a high-quality large fabrication, Greiner recalled a recent job involving 3.5-in.-thick, high-tensile steel that had to be rolled for a nuclear application. The fabrication weighed 34,000 lbs.
The rolled form met the required specification and was delivered on time, but Sine got a phone call a few days later, according to Greiner. When welders at the nuclear facility began to attach smaller components to the rolled form, the heat from the welding torches actually bowed the plate on both ends. So the customer brought the plate back to Greiner Industries to have the warped ends corrected. The company was able to straighten the ends within 1⁄16 in. of the original specification.
“If we don’t have good people, we are out of business,” Greiner said.
When it comes to thermal cutting, Greiner has a high-definition plasma cutting system with three gantries on a 17-ft.-wide by 160-ft.-long water table. That’s big, but not unique in the U.S.
The company’s future waterjet, however, is both.
The shop soon will have a large, 5-axis waterjet that will be able to cut at all angles, not just 90 degrees, with a slight bevel. The waterjet will sit in a deep pit, lowering the cutting envelope so that it doesn’t extend 20 ft. into the air. The pit, lined with 3-ft.-thick concrete walls, also will act as a safety precaution when the waterjet head is tilted up for cutting purposes.
Tilted up? That’s right. Greiner said that the waterjet will be used to cut various angles in its already-rolled fabrications. The waterjet will deliver a much higher-tolerance cut than a plasma cutting system.
Safety obviously is a great concern when you talk about tilting a waterjet cutting head up. That’s why several safety steps will be incorporated into the machine before the waterjet can be engaged in that type of cutting.
The equipment acquisitions don’t end there. Greiner Industries has just installed a press brake that is able to form 6-in.-thick plate. It also has plans to add more plate rolling capacity.
Customers keep asking for assistance, and the fabricator keeps looking for ways to meet these increasingly complex requests. Actually, that’s an incentive that helps motivate its 300 or so employees.
“Our people have a lot of talent. They want to be challenged, or they will get bored,” Greiner said. “That’s the other part of the business that we need to focus on—to keep them challenged. We don’t want them to leave. I think we have been pretty successful in regards to that.”
An outside observer can see evidence of that in the variety of heavy-duty and complex work done. It’s also evident in the company’s supplementary blasting and coatings, industrial mechanical and electrical contracting and mobile crane rental services.
What’s next? It depends on what the person on the phone line is asking for.
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