The residential and commercial HVAC manufacturing industries have seen a number of changes in the past six years. Rising material costs and new federal regulations are driving the transition to more environmentally friendly refrigerants. This, coupled with more demanding mandates on energy efficiency, have impacted the cost of systems. Now, the industry is looking for better quality and cost solutions from new materials and more efficient designs, leading HVAC manufacturers to make the switch from copper to aluminum tubing. For many of these manufacturers, this change proved to be a challenge because copper had long been the standard material used in their systems.
Brazeway Inc., a national aluminum extrusion and fabrication specialist, helped make this transition easier for its manufacturing customers. “We’ve been developing this capability for 15 years, but have seen an incredibly rapid transformation in the past four years in particular,” CEO Stephanie Hickman Boyse says. “The transition from copper to aluminum is one of the most important developments in the HVAC industry in decades, and I think we’ve helped lead the charge when it comes to our customers’ ability to make that transition successfully.”
The company, which also designs and fabricates heat exchangers and evaporators for the residential refrigeration market, was able to take advantage of that knowledge when assisting its customers with the transition. “Because we’re not just an extruder, we can help our customers transform their production lines and materials, which helps their speed to market and quality assurance,” she adds.
Brazeway is the only North American-based extruder to also design and fabricate heat exchangers. The company also supplies round and micro-channel aluminum tubing used in automotive heating, cooling and fluid transmission units. “The fact that we design heat exchangers for one market allows us to leverage that technology in the other two,” Boyse says. “We have a unique knowledge base and capabilities.”
The company, founded in 1946, remains independently owned and operated. “We compete against large, multinational companies who are vertically integrated and involved in everything from mining to extrusion,” she adds. “We are a small, highly innovative and extremely creative company that operates with a speed and flexibility that multinationals can’t often provide.”
Brazeway’s extensive research and development capabilities help it build its knowledge base. The company operates two R&D laboratories near its corporate office in Adrian, Mich. One of the laboratories is focused on metallurgy, and the second is used to develop and test heat transfer tubes, components and coils in systems, Vice President of Market and Product Development Mike Adams notes.
“We view ourselves as a technology company in addition to a manufacturer,” he says. “We can work with customers to understand their field application requirements, and because of our understanding of metallurgy, we can work with our suppliers to create alloys that meet their changing requirements. The alloys we develop are advantageous to our customers for their robustness and to us for their manufacturability.”
In the heat transfer lab, technicians test various tube designs and compare their performance. “Having an in-house proving ground eliminates the design-cycle bottleneck that can occur around testing, allowing us to bring new concepts and innovations to market more quickly,” the company says. “Our testing capabilities quite frequently exceed that of our clients, allowing us to serve as an integral part of their development processes.”
Heat exchangers are also placed into appliances for full product testing. “Our environmental tests put the entire appliance through climate-controlled conditions that vary temperature, humidity, and pressure, and [we] conduct real-life usage simulations such as door-swing reactions and pull-down performance,” Brazeway adds. “Data is amassed on every variable imaginable, from energy usage to refrigerant mass flow and frost visualization.”
Brazeway’s R&D capabilities and ability to partner with suppliers to develop new alloys distinguishes it from many other extruders. “I think companies love working with us because we’re independent and can work with multiple organizations to develop alloys and speed up the innovation and development of our products,” Boyse says.
The company is dedicated to never-ending R&D activities. “One of our philosophies is ‘obsolete everything you do,’” she continues. “The success of our innovation and the commitment to our customers has been proven throughout the history of Brazeway. It is our ongoing mission to question convention and constantly strive for opportunities to improve upon the technologies and processes that will continue to transform our products, and increase their value to the world.”
‘A Dynamic Culture’
In addition to its corporate office and R&D laboratories in Michigan, Brazeway operates an aluminum tube extrusion plant in Shelbyville, Ind., and aluminum extrusion and fabrication facilities in Hopkinsville, Ky., and, Monterrey, Mexico.
The company has in recent years invested heavily in its design and manufacturing capabilities. “This has been a huge period of growth and investment for us,” Boyse says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
The company has doubled the size of both its Kentucky and Mexico facilities and has made investments including a new extrusion press, multi-stranding technology, micro-channel coating capabilities and new product lines such as heat pump coils for new vent-less dryers coming to market. “We’ve added state of the art equipment that helps us make the products the industry demands for the future,” Adams says. The company’s new extrusion processes are also enabling it to produce smaller-diameter tubing for the HVAC industry with longer life alloys that are more difficult to extrude on conventional presses.
All extruded products are custom designed and manufactured to OEM’s unique specifications. “We assess and design for our customers’ independent needs for their units, and as their platform changes, we’re constantly working on next-generation products that will replace what they have now, with the benefit of greater energy efficiency and lower cost,” he adds.
Later this year, the company will launch its newest line of products, the eco7 line of energy efficient evaporators for household appliances. The line will enable appliance OEMs to meet the new ENERGY STAR and federal efficiency mandates. The small size of the evaporators will also allow manufacturers to add storage and shelf space to refrigerators, which ultimately benefits consumers, says Director of Sales and Business Development Saumin Mehta.
Boyse credits the company’s success in introducing new products and ability to meet customers’ demands to its internal culture. “Our industries, housing and automotive, were hit dramatically by the financial crisis. Despite that, this period of the past five to seven years are really when I’ve been the most excited about our innovation and culture. This has been one of the most creative times in the company’s history,” she says. “We’ve had a flow of innovation because we have created an open, young and dynamic culture that allows people to experiment, make mistakes and take risks, and that’s paid off beautifully for us.”