In business 55 years, one company restructures to challenge the competition
May 2012 - Tried-and-true grit and determination coupled with carefully considered strategy help establish longevity in a competitive industry. With companies either building alliances or closing down, organizations are rethinking methods to retain reputations and stand strong.
In 2008, Japan’s largest steel tube producer, Osaka-based Maruichi Steel Tube Ltd., acquired and refocused Chicago-based Leavitt Tube Co. LLC’s long-term direction as a high-quality steel tube manufacturer in North America. Maruichi’s first strategic investment was the installation of state-of-the-art quick-change forming and sizing technology on Leavitt’s large W80 structural mill in January 2011. The company also added a seam orientation unit and upgraded its milling saw cut-off. In 2012, Leavitt purchased new tooling, allowing for the production of additional sizes, such as 10.75-inch and 12.75-inch rounds.
Leavitt Tube recently commissioned two additional mills. The tube mills, operational in early 2012, include one midsize W50 structural tube mill and a No. 8 mechanical tube mill. Leavitt Tube operates its mills in the company’s 800,000-square-foot facility on Chicago’s South Side. The company provides non-stock lengths for customers as short as 36 inches to as long as 80 feet from a rolling with numerous length tolerances.
Pat Knutson, director of sales, says the company still is uncovering the new mill’s capabilities. “Just like anything else, there’s a learning curve with new equipment. Our operators were up to the task, though,” he says. “They put in overtime and weekends to learn all the nuances of the new equipment.”
According to Knutson, the speed of the W50 midsize structural mill has exceeded Leavitt Tube’s previous capabilities. “In some cases, it’s almost twice as fast. When it’s running at its rated speeds, the efficiency is outstanding,” he says. “There is less downtime and more productive hours during each shift. On top of all that, the quality of the tubing is consistently better.”
Leavitt Tube’s W50 structural mill, commissioned in January 2012, replaces two existing structural mills the company will phase out by the end of the year. The state-of-the-art quick-change forming and sizing sections of the mill are built by Nakata Mfg., Osaka, Japan. Italy-based companies Oto Mills provided the entry end, accumulator and saw, and Mair Research manufactured the exit table and packaging equipment. The new mill produces sizes ranging from 1.5-inch square to 4-inch square with equivalent rectangles and rounds from 1.66 inches to 5 inches and gauges from 0.083 inch through 0.313 inch.
Operators input specifications for whichever size is needed, producing consistent, high-quality parts from cycle to cycle. Instead of having misunderstandings or disconnects among operators changing shifts, machine technology allows one operator to pick up where the previous one left off.
“It’s just a push of a button that sets it up exactly as it did the first time. Being new equipment, everything is tighter,” Knutson says. When using the older equipment, tube-making became more of an art than a science, and while the talents of its operators were substantial, the new equipment allows for a more accurate approach. “The technology is making the cycles much more efficient and the tubing more consistent with tighter dimensional tolerances,” he says.
Leavitt also uses a calibration program on all quality-testing equipment, according to the company’s website. In addition to on-the-mill inspection, the company inspects and tests a sample from each heat in one of its three quality-assurance labs. In-house testing includes tensile, yield and elongation testing, wall-to-wall flattening, flare testing, Rockwell hardness testing and micro analysis. The company also works with independent laboratories to conduct Charpy impact testing, drop weight tear testing and other industry tests.
Leavitt Tube’s use of electronic data interchange allows customers to send and receive purchase orders, acknowledgements, forecasts, inventory information, advance shipping notices, bills of lading, test reports and invoices electronically.
Vendor-managed inventory programs provide Leavitt Tube with the ability to schedule and produce tubing based on customer input information, such as forecasts and open orders. These programs provide customers with more inventory turns, reduced costs and customized stock-management programs.
The improved cycle times and additional sizes have created business opportunities for Leavitt. “Shortened cycle times are one of the benefits from new mill operations,” says Mike Conces, regional sales manager. “As cycle times have decreased, we’ve experienced additional opportunities to do business in other markets that require shorter cycle times.”
According to Conces, Leavitt Tube’s upgraded mills can produce tighter tolerances and some new sizes, opening up capabilities to compete in industries the company could not previously while using its old facilities. For example, Leavitt Tube now can produce 2.525-inch square tube, commonly used as a receiver tube on trailer hitch assemblies.
“That’s a market we’ve not been able to penetrate previously,” Conces adds. Another realm of the market Leavitt Tube now can participate in is producing inside weld flash options, which are particularly useful for applications where products require telescoping. Inside flash removal is available on most sizes ranging from 1.5-inch squares to 4-inch squares and from 1.66-inch rounds to 5-inch rounds.
Leavitt Tube’s No. 8 mechanical tube mill was designed by Maruichi and commissioned in February. Eager to enter the automotive-grade mechanical tubing market, Leavitt Tube is working closely with its parent company to strategize for future endeavors and new customers.
The new mill primarily will produce hot-rolled pickled and oiled and cold-rolled A513 round tubing from 0.625 inch to 2.75 inches and squares and rectangles from 0.75 inch to 2 inches with gauges from 0.049 inch to 0.12 inch.
All of the mechanical mill’s sizes have inside flash removal capability. Leavitt Tube also installed a specialized cutting machine in March to handle automotive end-cut requirements.
“Our new mechanical mill is a more specialized mill capable of tighter tolerances, and although it’s specified for the automotive industry, we’re looking to expand our service center and end user customer base with this new mill, too,” Knutson says. “We’re tapping Maruichi’s expertise to help us become a valued tubing supplier to the U.S. automotive market. It’s a new market for us, but we think there’s a lot of potential for a high-quality, service-oriented tube manufacturer like Leavitt.” MM