Opening the gate to efficiency

Farm equipment-maker combines new, custom machines to boost productivity

The FABRICATOR August 2006
August 8, 2006
By: Stephanie Vaughan

Since 1945 family-owned and -operated Tarter Gate has grown in staff and sales as it has changed the design of its products. To keep up with sales, continue growing the company, and absorb as many rising costs as possible — particularly in steel and fuel prices — the company uses custom machines and new technologies to its advantage.

Dotting the rolling landscape on U.S. 127 in Kentucky, just south of Danville, are a half-dozen small gate manufacturers.

As is typical in many rural areas throughout the nation, most of these shops are small operations where people have learned how to use their skills to contribute to their communities—and, of course, put food on the table.

But then you get to Dunnville, Ky., a village of about 200 people that even many Kentuckians haven't heard of—and you hit the gate jackpot.

From Wood to Welding

Tarter Gate LLC was once itself a small, family-owned gate-maker. When it first opened, founder C.V. Tarter made wooden gates by hand and peddled them to local farmers.

Since its start in 1945, the company has changed in many ways, except for its family ownership and management. Today gates and fences are made from steel, but even their design has changed. At first they were slat style: roll-formed and resistance spot-welded. Today products also are made using steel tube.

Its work force also has evolved from its original dozen employees to about 750 and growing, with a new manufacturing facility opening in Box Elder County, Utah, this summer.

Known as the largest manufacturer of animal management and farm equipment, the company markets itself as one of the most financially strong in the agribusiness manufacturing sector.

According to Tarter Tube Plant Manager Todd Harne, this success can be attributed to the one thing that keeps orders coming in: the company's 100 percent order fill rate, which guarantees that customers will receive their products in 10 days or less.

A lot goes into this guarantee, from productivity to marketing—and especially capital investments, according to Harne.

"We couldn't have continued to grow in the end product if they hadn't made investments," he said.

Necessary Upgrades

Even though Tarter Gate's tubular designs generally are more popular than its slat-style counterparts, the company still manufactures both fence and gate styles.

In its slat-style manufacturing facility, Tarter Gate uses a Yoder roll forming mill and a resistance spot welding machine that employs Entron resistance welding controls and a 4-foot Milco resistance spot welding gun.

But its tubular operations, which consist of tube production as well as assembly, have undergone major updates in the last several years to help the company keep pace with its growing sales for the more popular style of animal management equipment.

The company first started making significant capital equipment changes and investments in the '70s with its first tube mill. When Harne started working at Tarter Gate in 2000, the company had been a two-tube-mill operation since 1993, using American Electric Fusion and Yoder tube mills. Two vacuum tube welders—a 100-kW machine and a 150-kW model—were used to make the metal tubes. In 2003 the company installed a T&H Lemont tube mill; the company remains a three-tube-mill operation today.

In 1994 the company decided it was time to upgrade its tube mills. Although the tube mills were still doing their jobs, it sometimes took special finesse with the relays to keep them running.

For its tube and pipe production, Tarter Gate has upgraded from vacuum tube welding machines to high-frequency, solid-state welding machines.

Vacuum tube welding machines, which generally occupy a significant amount of space, are high-voltage machines that use an oscillator tube to convert DC to a switched high-frequency AC. Tarter Gate learned that to maintain its vacuum tube welding machines, a sizable spare parts inventory was necessary. After considering its options for new tube mill welding machines and the various vendors the company could work with, Harne said the company decided to work with Thermatool, largely based on the type of relationship and support it offered.

"The people Tarter Gate will work with will be the people who service like we will. We're only as good as the people who'll service us," Harne said.

When Thermatool representatives first visited Tarter Gate, it was evident that the company was running well—but to continue growing its sales, more was needed on the equipment side.

"When we walked in there originally, we could tell that it was an efficiently run plant and the equipment was well-maintained, but there was some vintage equipment in there," said Pete Meglin, director of North American sales for Thermatool Corp.

Meglin said in situations like this, often companies don't realize the money they're wasting on spare parts, water, and electricity, especially in light of newer technologies that can run parts more efficiently and reliably.

"Thermatool vacuum tube welders served our industry well for many years," Meglin said, "but the solid-state features and benefits far exceed that of the vacuum tube design and offer significant advantages that make good common sense when taking a tube mill into the future.

"In the first year of operation, they [customers who switch from vacuum tube to solid-state tube welding machines] see immediate improvements in weld quality and reliability, with significant cost savings associated with water and electrical usage," he said.

Tarter Gate agreed that this was the best type of welding machine to purchase as well. Today its three tube mills all use Thermatool high-frequency, solid-state welding machines. In addition, mainly because of Tarter Gate's success with Thermatool's welding machines, it upgraded one of its tube mill cutoff machines to a Thermatool model.

This new cutoff machine offers faster speeds and a cut consistency of five hairs' thickness, Harne said. Although it works the same way the previous cutter did, the new machine works faster—so fast, that it's actually not used to full speed because the operators likely wouldn't be able to keep up with it, Harne said.

An operator removes steel tubes from one of Tarter Gate's tube mill cutoff machines.

Growing Pains

Although its investments have paid off, Tarter Gate still has the same challenges that other metal fabricators and manufacturers have, especially when it comes to steel.

In all of the company's facilities, you'll see nothing but steel used. While the company still owns and operates a saw mill, everything else it processes comes from steel mills.

According to Harne, the price of steel has tripled and even quadrupled for the company. Sometimes the company will get less than it ordered, only to be told that the rest of the order wasn't available—but if they want to pay a higher price for it, they can get the rest of their original shipment.

With steel and energy costs continuously on the rise, the company tries to improve its operations and work more efficiently, so it passes on as little increased cost as possible to its customers. This is where more efficient capital equipment comes in.

For example, a dozen employees used to run anywhere from five to 10 mechanical presses to form parts that must be welded to other parts during assembly. Today two custom-made machines do more than stamp parts—they also bend and form them—and run automatically once programmed. Only one operator is needed to oversee these two machines, which produce loop legs (which hold the corral part of a gate up off the ground) and various hay feeder parts.

"These machines paid for themselves in about a year," Harne said.

Capital investments and smarter machines aren't the only ways to boost productivity, though. Harne said self-efficiency also has been and continues to be important.

"We can do anything ourselves," Harne said, "installing tube mills, electrical, machining." He feels this is the key to surviving the ups and downs in manufacturing.

"You need to be able to not depend on anybody," he said.

Today Harne sees Tarter Gate as being in a growing-pains phase, with expansion plans in the works and room to grow in Kentucky. As the company continues to market its products, Harne said he looks forward to more investments and continued growth as the company keeps a pulse on the needs of its customers throughout America's farmland.

Stephanie Vaughan

Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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