SSI Shredding Systems Inc.

At SSI Shredding Systems Inc., “‘No’ is a word we try to keep out of our vocabulary,” President and founder Tom Garnier says, explaining that the company is always up for whatever challenge its customers may bring to the firm. “We’re proud of [that] spirit.”

The Wilsonville, Ore.-based firm designs and manufactures low-speed, high-torque industrial shredding systems that can handle a variety of materials, ranging from paper to an automobile. Garnier founded the firm in 1981 as a service company that disposed of waste.

The company’s first contract, he notes, was for the city of Portland, Ore., to convert woody waste and yard debris into biofuels. However, the company soon determined its fleet of equipment was lacking.

“We found that it needed some improvements,” Garnier explains. “We changed the design of the machine, which led to manufacturing machinery.”

Today, SSI serves clients all over the world and has implemented 3,000 installations in 50 different countries. The firm’s clients include Fortune 500 companies to government offices, including Los Angeles County and the city of Seattle.

Along with its location in Oregon, SSI has an office in Tokyo and representatives in Europe and China. “The world has gotten more global,” Garnier says, adding that the company recently appeared at Pollutec 2012 in Lyon, France.

Engineering Focused

A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in geology, Garnier says his connection to engineering began at birth. Many of his family members are engineers, including his father.

“It’s in my blood,” the younger Garnier says.

This concentration in engineering is reflected throughout SSI, including its marketing. “Our tag line is, ‘What needs shredding?’” he says. “We’re one of these people that look seriously at the applications.”

He adds that 60 percent of the company’s work consists of customized machines. Although building them can be difficult, that’s what sets SSI apart from its competition, according to Garnier.

Recently, the medical and electronic markets have been particularly strong, he says. Additionally, the company has had many customers who are interested in recycling non-ferrous metals, such as aluminum.

“The cost of recycling aluminum is far cheaper than making aluminum,” he says, adding that SSI has seen an interest in tire recycling. “They’re trying to use more materials that have been in landfills.”

Doing it Better

SSI has undertaken several initiatives to maintain or improve its manufacturing quality, Garnier says. These strategies include paying close attention to whom the company hires to join its staff. “We hire people who have passion for the work we do,” he says.

These types of people, he notes, will perform daily inspections on all systems that SSI sets up. “We’re more or less a job shop,” Garnier says.

Additionally, SSI looks for ways to cut down on costs or unnecessary work. For instance, it has attended Kaizen events and utilized lean manufacturing initiatives that have paid off for the firm, Garnier says.

In 2001, he says, the company had sales of $23 million. But after using lean methods, it grew to enjoy sales of $39 million in 2008 before the economic crash. This year, he notes, the firm will have sales of $50 million.

Recovering from Hits

Like so many other firms, SSI was hit hard by the economic downturn, Garnier says. “Across the nation, everything dropped off 40 percent,” he recalls. “We were hit with the same thing, even if [the customers] had a need.”

However, recovery came for the company at the end of 2010. “Suddenly, we started getting super busy again,” he recalls, adding that SSI has continued to stay busy.

One new challenge it faces is a knowledge gap between retired and retiring employees and new hires. “A lot of people that helped create the components for our production are no longer here,” Garnier admits. “People who have [taken over those roles] have to go through the learning curve.”

To shrink the gap, the company has honed interviews to find people that have more hands-on experience, including farming backgrounds, worked on cars or have tangible interests.

One example of the problem with this knowledge gap came when SSI repaired some of its own large hydraulic cylinders. Years ago, he explains, workers decided to switch the bronze wear rings on the cylinders for phenolic material.

But when the cylinders started to fail, the workers who installed the material were gone. “The new people didn’t understand what forces were at work,” Garnier says, noting that it took longer for its current workers to discover the problem.

Despite this challenge, Garnier sees a strong future for SSI. “We’re still growing,” he says, noting that he plans to guide it for another 15 years. “I think they’ll expand our product line and grow with the industry.”