The Protectoseal Co.

It is taken for granted nowadays, whereas in 1925, when Protectoseal Co. was founded, fumes from gasoline, naphtha and kerosene could endanger employee health and be potential fire hazards.

“Above-ground storage tanks are thin-walled vessels, and some are not designed for high-pressure storage,” Protectoseal President Jim Honan says. “So our valves allow those above-ground tanks to breathe in and breathe out. On a warm, sunny day, the liquid will heat up and expand, and the vapor pressure has to be relieved or the tank could rupture.

“At night, when it cools off, the liquid contracts, and you have to normalize the pressure and let air in to reduce the vacuum, or the tank could suck in and crush itself,” he notes. “So you can imagine if a large storage tank ruptures, it can create a serious safety issue.”

Honan compares the company’s fuel tank caps to very sophisticated auto gasoline caps. “We sell fuel tank fittings that use our flame arrestors inside the caps,” he notes. A big market for these is the small tractors that tow airplanes around airports.

“Most of our sales volume – about 95 percent of it – is now with our vapor control product lines, which are low-pressure valves, and our flame and detonation arrestors that are used on industrial liquid storage tanks,” Honan says. Major markets are refining, petrochemical, biofuels, pharmaceuticals and the chemical industry. “We sell products that we invented,” he de­clares. Sold primarily through independent representatives, approximately 17 percent of Protectoseal’s total sales are outside of the United States throughout Central and South America, Canada and mostly western Europe, Africa and Asia.

Protectoseal’s valves are available in sizes from 2 to 36 inches, which is the size of the openings on tanks that store tens of thousands of gallons of liquid chemicals. “Some of the large products weigh several hundred pounds,” Honan maintains.

Cell Production

Many Protectoseal products are made of metal and require the company’s 160,000-square-foot manufacturing plant to cut, bend and weld metal. They also use metal castings, and some products are made from fiberglass and a variety of plastic materials. The company subcontracts many of these non-metallic capabilities.

Honan estimates organizing the production process in seven manufacturing cells has significantly im­proved throughput. “We probably re­duced our lead times from eight to 10 weeks to two to three weeks,” Di­rec­tor of Operations Jack Roche asserts. Protectoseal also has eliminated much material waste.

“When we were set up as a job shop, we had an industrial engineering de­partment with three to four people, a planning department with four to five people and six to seven supervisors for each department,” Roche remembers. Those positions in the single-shift, union shop have been reassigned, and employees now are cross-trained in multiple technologies. “We’ve eliminated waiting time or queue time,” Honan adds.

Now with manufacturing organized in cells, operators receive work orders through computers located in key areas. “The operators generate their own work orders, issue their own material requests, do their own work order receipts – it’s like running your own business,” Roche explains. “So everybody in the cell is responsible for the product.”

“Every morning, the operators call up their orders, and all their drawings are available right in the cell,” Honan adds. “So they know what they have to make that day, and all the tools that they need are available to them. It motivates the team members – they feel like they’re in control of their work environment.”

Each cell has operators for multiple types of equipment, including lathes, mills or radial drills. Because the runs of products – which are specialty items produced only when ordered – are low, the type of equipment in a cell varies and is not always highly automated.

Not a lot of new equipment had to be purchased when the plant shifted to cells. “It was easy to split up the equipment we already had into different cells,” Roche recalls. The changeover to the cells was started in late 2004 and completed by October 2006.

Among the recent improvements made in the factory were new high-efficiency lighting with motion sensors, which with incentives from the electric utility has a two-year payback; a water jet to replace a plasma arc cutting torch; clicker presses to punch out small quant­ities of fluorinated ethylene propylene diaphragms instead of using punch presses; and eliminating parts inventories, because parts are made for each order.