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Aluminum

Order improvement

Written by By Corinna Petry

Above: Lead times have extended due to increasing order rates for a variety of extruded shapes.

Extruder matches growth in demand with niche custom shapes and profiles

May 2022 - U.S. shipments of transportation equipment during the first two months of 2022 exceeded those of the same two-month period in 2021 by 7.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Durable Goods report. New orders for transportation equipment jumped by 21.6 percent year over year.

A few trends are likely at work here. First, the pandemic threw up enormous obstacles in the supply chain while delivery demand to households skyrocketed. Second, major commercial vehicle manufacturers around the globe are feverishly working to expand their capacity to build electric trucks. Third, the lightweighting of Class 5-8 trucks and trailers has gained incredible momentum.

On March 23, Navistar opened a 1 million-square-foot manufacturing complex in San Antonio. The facility includes a body shop, paint shop, general assembly shop and logistics center equipped to produce Class 6-8 vehicles, including an EV model.

“The first vehicle off the manufacturing line in San Antonio was the International eMV Series electric truck; the purpose of the plant [is] to manufacture both electric and internal combustion engine powertrains in the same facility,” stated Mark Hernandez, executive vice president for Navistar’s Global Manufacturing and Supply Chain.

These trends bode well for Richardson Metals, an extruder based in Colorado Springs.

Vice President John Tassone says that 2022 “has been a very busy year so far. Our normal lead times pre-COVID were four to six weeks. That’s now out to 12 to 13 weeks. That isn’t due to the lack of skilled employees or backups in the supply chain, but due to higher order rates.”

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Richardson Metals has been making more parts for box trailers.

Not commodities

“The transportation industry has picked up a lot,” says Tassone. “We also do a fair amount of business with the sporting goods industry. We are getting a lot of new opportunities with new customers we had not sold before.”

There are about 800 extruders in the United States. “Most of them have larger draw benches so they can make more commodity products—tubing, angles, bar stock—and they can make shapes faster than we can. We are limited in size range so we focus more on custom profiles, so our products are made into a specific part for someone,” he says.

Customers will send Richardson Metals a drawing and its engineers will study the drawing to “determine whether we can make it. If the customer gives us the order, we have a set of dies made up for that profile,” he explains, adding that die lead times are four to six weeks,” which is workable for most accounts. “We deal with a number of different die manufacturers.”

When the new dies arrive, depending on customer requirements, “we will perform a trial run to make the part to specification. Once approved, then there is a discussion about how fast we can turn the parts out.”

Flowing with the tide

What Richardson Metals has been making more of lately is parts for box trailers. “There are aluminum rails that come up the sides and top to add to the trailer’s stiffness and strength,” Tassone says. “We had not made that application before. There a need for trucks.”

Crafting parts for the medical device market got Richardson Metals through COVID, he says. “Now it’s more [orders from] transportation, window blinds and sporting goods.

“If you look at the aluminum market in total, it’s supposed to grow 3.5 percent per year over the next three to four years. Most of that is fueled by the transportation market,” he says.

The company installed more CNC machining capacity in the past couple years and has been able to bring all work that was once outsourced back into its own facility.

“Traditionally, our extrusions are made to tight tolerances, but sometimes need to be machined to an even tighter tolerance, and cut to length. The customer does not have to send it out to a separate machine shop,” says Tassone.

More recently, the company upgraded its website so that customers can directly submit RFQs and attach part drawings to those requests. More interactive features will be added over time.

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Aluminum demand is forecast to grow 3.5 percent per year through 2025 at least.

Personnel crunch

“We are up at least 5 percent in revenues over the past three years. But we ran one or two people short last year and it’s not due to a lack of trying. The Colorado Springs market is more of a service-oriented town, due to the Air Force Academy and the headquarters for the United States Olympic Committee.

Finding someone to work in a plant 40 to 50 hours a week is difficult,” Tassone says.

“We have worked with vocational schools and temp agencies. We had a couple high school kids in [to visit the operations] last semester. We did hire people who were recommended by an employee. We plan to work with a special needs training program. They will come tour our plant and we will see if there are any jobs we have, such as in packaging and maintenance, that they can work. I would like that to work out,” he says.

To try to find people, Richardson Metals raised its minimum entry-level wage and pays 80 percent of employees’ health care benefits. “We work four 10-hour days so employees have a three-day weekend,” Tassone adds. But the labor shortfall remains a stubborn problem. “We are looking to expand the building and put another shift on but we need more people. Our general manager has been filling in for people who quit or who get sick. We are constantly short one or two people.” He thinks there was one week in 2021 when Richardson Metals was fully staffed.

“Factory jobs are highly repetitive and people think it’s less exciting” than other careers, he acknowledges, but the company hosts free barbecues, gives gifts at the holidays and endeavors “to keep our people happy.”

Despite the staffing woes, “we expect our sales will continue to grow 4 to 5 percent above last year. While the commodity extrusion business may see pressure, we make highly customized products and that niche helps us. As we create additional value, more customers want to work with us,” Tassone says.

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