August 26, 2008
Ultra Machine & Fabrication, through significant capital outlays, has built an infrastructure ready to complete in the heavy plate market.
That sums up Ultra Machine & Fabrication, a small company just three years ago. Today it employs more than 375, and over the past 24 months, managers sank some serious money into capital equipment: two 6-kW Bystronic laser systems (complementing two existing Mitsubishi lasers); five MG Systems plasma cutting systems; six Durma press brakes from 245 tons to 1,100 tons; six OTC Daihen robotic welding systems; numerous welding machines with powers up to 600 amps; a 2,000-ton, 40-foot LVD Strippit automated press brake; and a 200-ft.-long by 13-ft.-wide, dual-gantry, 6-kW Tanaka laser (seeFigures 1-4).
To say the company has some capacity is an understatement. According to company managers, that capacity has become the company's biggest selling point. Managers don't wait for work and then buy the equipment needed for the job. At Ultra, it's the other way around. The manufacturer has built up a massive heavy-plate-fabrication infrastructure, and managers are now selling that infrastructure to grow the business.
Wendell Fannin, Ultra's vice president of business development, told a story that summed up this strategy. Ultra President Frank Stewart regularly invites potential customers behind the existing headquarters building to the company's new, 101,000-sq.-ft. facility. There they can see a 2,000-ton brake and that dual-head laser system with a table spanning 200 ft., almost half the length of the floor. Heavy plate can be offloaded anywhere along the table and flowed directly to downstream fabrication cells.
As Fannin explained, "He shows [potential customers] this great expanse of new space and says, 'This is yours.'"
Fannin and Stewart have known each other for years. The two go to the same church; their families are close. So when Stewart offered Fannin a job in January 2007 to help manage the business, Fannin knew what he was getting into. "I remember, before I started working at Ultra, Frank would run a big idea by me, and I'd say, 'Don't do it!' But he'd go do it anyway. He has strong faith, and he sees things coming. He doesn't bat an eye. He goes forward, and doesn't look back."
It makes sense that the man who runs Ultra has that kind of risk-taking personality. But that doesn't mean he's reckless. Before 2003 the company stayed small, growing by a few predictable percentage points a year. Only after Stewart got the company into the armor plate business, a sector driven by dire world events, did it grow so dramatically in so short a time.
In the 1980s Stewart worked at C.A. Foy Machine Co., a chip-making shop in Kings Mountain, N.C., before branching off on his own to launch Ultra in 1989. The company milled and turned precision machined parts until 1998, when Stewart purchased his first Amada press brake and laser.
Fannin shook his head, remembering. "Of course, he didn't have the work for that."
Even then Stewart worked extremely quickly, as if he were shooting first, then aiming. But according to Fannin, and judging by the company's financial success in recent years, Stewart does aim carefully before shooting; he just aims extremely quickly.
"Sure enough," Fannin said, recalling Ultra's first major fabrication equipment purchases, "it took a little while, but the jobs came in. The company steadily grew. And then he met the folks at Force Protection."
In 2003 the Ladson, S.C., company, near Charleston, was looking for a shop to fabricate the critical underbellies for mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles that protect troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and elsewhere. At the time both Force Protection and Ultra were small companies, but that was about to change.
"Frank would literally take parts down to [Force Protection] three times a week," Fannin said. "Whatever Force Protection needed, he provided."
The companies grew together. Ultra moved into a 50,000-sq.-ft. space in Kings Mountain, N.C., then expanded into its current Shelby headquarters campus in 2007 (see Figure 5). The opening of an additional 101,000-sq.-ft. building earlier this year expanded Ultra's Shelby campus even further. Today all of Ultra's facilities combined add up to 400,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing and painting space. Force Protection grew as well, rising out of relative obscurity to become one of the Southeast's fastest-growing companies last year, employing 2,000. This year Force Protection plans to ship more than 1,100 vehicles, up from 285 just three years ago.
Meanwhile Ultra got very good at cutting, bending, and welding armor plate, and the news spread. Now Ultra still serves Force Protection (which produces MRAPs through a partnership with General Dynamics), as well as other established defense contractors, including BAE Systems.
To gain this reputation required a big leap of faith in some massive capital outlays, but the company wouldn't be where it is without them. Most of the company's armor plate, dubbed high-hard armor steel, conforms to the MIL-A-46100 standard and has unique forming characteristics. To put it mildly, it's not easy to fabricate.
"When this [armor plate] market skyrocketed several years ago, other companies tried to get into it," Fannin said, "and they spent a lot of dollars trying. But they weren't successful."
A bad weld can be an armor vehicle's Achilles' heel, and soldiers' lives are at stake. So Ultra welders—all 200 of them—are trained extensively on the behavior of armor plate under the welding gun (seeFigure 6). The company employs four certified welding inspectors and another two certified associate welding inspectors. Welds go through nondestructive examination, including magnetic-particle and die-penetrant testing.
"The material is very weldable," said Gary Farmer, Ultra's vice president of operations, "but you have to be skilled and use specific weld procedures."
The same is true for forming the parts. Bending presents the most significant challenges. The material springs back tremendously. Forming under a brake requires an 8-to-1 tonnage-to-thickness ratio, and even then the springback can be a bear. "Your standard springback on mild steel might be half a degree or a degree," Farmer said. "But on armor plate it can far exceed anything you've ever experienced in mild steel."
Ultra can handle up to 500 truck kits, which include the V-shaped hull, cab sides, and related components that together make up about 70 percent of an MRAP's body. Raw material starts at the company's Kings Mountain facility, where the two 6-kW lasers (which hold ±0.005-in. tolerance) and five tables with high-definition plasma torches cut plate. First articles are checked with a Virtek laser scanner. The parts are then bent with a bank of high-tonnage press brakes to ±0.5 degree, checked in-process with external laser sensing. From there the hulls travel to the Shelby campus for welding and final inspections with Faro laser tracking arms.
At the Shelby location, the hulls and associated parts travel to 18 different cells for welding. The large parts are transported via custom-designed electric pallet jacks, developed by Ultra's in-house research and development team. According to Fannin, the cells represent part of the company's lean manufacturing effort that, along with significant strides in 5S, has streamlined things significantly, reducing manufacturing time up to 40 percent for some products.
By June the Defense Department was closing up its final MRAP orders, although the program for MRAP IIs, vehicles with even heavier armor, is just ramping up. Though that's good news for the managers at Ultra, they have their sights set beyond defense work as well. While it's financially rewarding, the business climate can change quickly. Defense is a cutthroat business.
Fannin explained: "In the beginning, Frank's thought process went like this: 'If I can get to a certain point and the market changes, I want to be so solid financially that nothing can hurt the company.' And he did it.
"His goal was to have the equipment necessary to put us in a competitive advantage. If we can continue in military, great. If we can't, that's OK too."
Major defense contractors currently make up more than 90 percent of Ultra's customer base. It got the business by selling its capabilities as being able to fabricate thick plate with the precision of thin-gauge material—very quickly. The 2,000-ton brake, for instance, can bend an MRAP hull of high-hard armor steel plate in less than 10 minutes.
Fannin predicted that military work will remain the company's core business; the nature of warfare and terrorism won't likely curb demand anytime soon. As terrorists build better bombs, the U.S. has an obligation to build better armor, a fact neither political party in Washington can deny.
But Ultra managers are now dreaming up what they can do for other industries too. They plan to leverage their heavy-plate-fabrication competency for myriad products, from heavy machinery to light poles. "We have built an infrastructure always beyond what is needed," Fannin concluded. "We need the infrastructure in place to get us to the next level. Once we get the equipment, we can get the business that's going to take us to that next level.
"I know that sounds simple," he added, "but it works."
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