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Tube & Pipe
Friday | 31 May, 2013 | 9:33 am

Brute strength

By Stephanie Andrews

Above: Michigan Seamless Tube & Pipe’s 320,000-square-foot facility gives the company large mill capacity with small mill flexibility.

High-quality Olympic barbells need specialized steel

May 2013 - The human body is capable of anything. From Daniel Browning Smith, dubbed “Rubber Boy” for his ability to turn his torso 180 degrees, to headlines touting someone’s ability to lift cars and airplanes to save the life of another, the body’s abilities seem endless. Even athletes, like weightlifting champions and competitive gymnasts, test physical boundaries. But in the wake of these powerful humans lies something equally as powerful—specialty steel used for weightlifting equipment, and it can be found at Michigan Seamless Tube & Pipe. 

The South Lyon, Mich.-based company, which supplies and manufactures cold-drawn seamless steel tubing and pipe, started in 1927 redrawing used tubing. “We would take tubing out of old boilers and redraw it into new tubing for boilers, refrigeration and bicycles,” says Ted Fairley, vice president of sales/marketing at MST. “Then in 1929, we put in the first hot mill and started piercing our own bar into tube.” 

Optima Specialty Steel Inc., Miami, Fla., is the parent company of 86-year veteran MST and Niagara LaSalle, Hammond, Ind., which recently celebrated its 101-year anniversary. MST specializes in cold-drawn tube and pipe, and Niagara LaSalle specializes in cold-finished steel bar. 

When MuscleDriver USA, Fort Mill, S.C., a producer of strength training and conditioning equipment, decided to bring fabrication in-house, the company needed a supplier that could keep up with growing orders and provide high-quality products. 

“It came to the point where we invested a million dollars into the first phase of machining to bring everything in-house because we needed total control over the quality,” says Brad Hess, president of MuscleDriver. “We needed to be able to make as many bars as we needed because we sell so many barbells that machine companies couldn’t keep up with us.”

With MuscleDriver already in its second year, Hess decided to purchase a competing business, Pendlay Barbells, to start producing American-made bar. He turned to Niagara LaSalle for steel. “We get our shaft material for barbells from Niagara LaSalle,” says Hess. “It’s a highly modified cold-rolled steel.” So when MuscleDriver needed tubing for its barbell collars, it was Tom Doherty, regional sales manager at MST and Niagara LaSalle, who introduced Hess to MST’s offerings. “Tom came in and said, ‘Optima owns MST. You might want to try our tubing out,’” says Hess. Because MuscleDriver already had been working with Niagara LaSalle, the partnership seemed like the perfect fit. 

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Tighter tolerances

A barbell consists of a central bar or shaft, disc weights and collars, which secure the weights in place. MuscleDriver uses MST’s seamless tube to make its collars. “We needed a steel mill to produce the best material at the tightest tolerances,” says Hess. “We didn’t want to have the seams that other tubing has running down the interior because it has the possibility to interfere with the collars’ spin on the bar’s shaft. We use a 11⁄4 ID on it and it’s a 3.0625 inch OD.”

MuscleDriver’s collar machining process is one of a kind. “What we actually do is something that nobody else does with the machining of our collars,” says Hess. MuscleDriver takes a cold-rolled steel tube that weighs approximately 33 pounds and machines the entire tube through a two-machine process. Producing the part only takes seven minutes between the two machines. “We actually reduce the material. I think it’s about 60 percent that we have to take off to form this collar as one single piece,” says Hess. “Most companies use a two-piece design to make their collars, but there is nothing stronger. It’s more expensive this way but by far the best way to do it.” 

“The OD tolerances are held within one and a half thousands of an inch, so MuscleDriver doesn’t have to then go and machine off any of the material,” says Fairley. “They can use the bar as we produce it rather than having to do a whole lot of extra machining.” 

Better tolerances mean less work for MuscleDriver. “The material holds far better tolerances, which makes it much easier to machine to achieve our stringent tolerances,” says Hess. “Honestly, you don’t have to worry about it. It’s the best cold-rolled tubing out there.” Hess says they received samples from other steel mills but nothing came close to MST’s steel. “We compared it when we first brought [our machining] in-house a couple months ago,” he says. “There’s no comparison; it’s just a much better steel all around.”

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On time, every time

MST assures its customers of on-time orders—a promise the company takes seriously. “Every order is completed on time, every time,” says Mike Perlman, marketing manager at MST. “Our on-time shipping performance is usually 97 percent or greater. Our operations team does a great job of controlling when the order’s ready and producing it on time to be ready to be on the truck. When we promise an order, we are 100 percent committed that it will be there on time.” 

“Michigan Seamless Tube’s delivery has been great,” says Hess. “They are right on time with what we need, and we don’t have to worry that we are going to run out of material. We know that the date they give us, they will fall right where we need them to fall for our delivery.” 

MST also has MuscleDriver’s future orders scheduled so timing is never a concern. “I have orders now through September of this year,” says Doherty. “They’re able to go ahead and place orders and line them up throughout the year so we can make sure all material is going to get to them on time.” 

With strategies in place to alleviate bottlenecks, MST guarantees customers will get their orders when they need them. “We are truly committed to meeting that,” says Fairley. “If that means working overtime to do that, we do that. If it means pushing our vendors to get something that we need, that’s what we do because we are committed to meeting our customers’ needs.” 

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Dependable and flexible

MST prides itself on large mill capacity and small mill flexibility, says Perlman. “We are certainly big enough to take care of the big customers’ needs, but we’re small enough and flexible enough to turn on a dime and take care of the smaller guy, too,” says Fairley. 

This flexibility allows MST to provide material for an array of industries from construction and transportation to energy and power generation. “We do a lot of work in the solar fields,” says Fairley. “Roughly speaking, energy is about 40 percent of our business, [and] power generation is about 20 percent.” Fairley attributes the significant growth within the energy market to the Marcellus shale and Bakken formation. “A lot of our customers are involved in those markets where they are actually drilling and putting the tools down into the hole that are extracting the gas and the oil. There’s been a big boost in that market,” he says. 

For larger companies that ship all over the world, like MuscleDriver, having a steel mill it can depend on is essential for growth. Hess says MST has made his company more efficient and productive “because we don’t have to worry about timelines. If we do projections with them on the seamless tube we know that within four to five weeks we’re going to get a shipment. They’re not going to be eight weeks; they’re not going to be 10 weeks. We don’t have to worry.” 

Ultimately, it’s MST’s dedicated customer service that keeps MuscleDriver satisfied. “Tom is very reliable, and he comes in and checks on us once a month,” says Hess. “It all starts with your rep. If your rep is great and you can rely on them, then it helps us. Tom can be here within a day or two. He knows exactly what’s going on with our machines, and he’s very familiar with our operations,” he continues. “He made it a point to understand everything. He knows what we want, and he’s going to give us what we want every single time. I think that’s so critical. MM

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