Issue vol9 Iss3
Welded Tubes of Ohio succeeds by working with customers and manufacturing high-quality tubing.
Welded Tubes was founded in 1958 and originally produced small diameter tubing for the auto industry but soon switched to manufacturing tubes for vacuum cleaners and floor cleaning equipment produced by such companies as Hoover and Electrolux. In the late 1990s, manufacturers of floor cleaning equipment began going overseas for their steel tubes – China, in particular – or began using plastic instead of steel tubing. “We had to reinvent ourselves,” says Iain Gilchrist, vice president of sales, who started at Welded Tubes in 2006. “We went back to automotive to promote our engineered electric resistance welded product and technical services.”
Today, 80 percent of Welded Tubes’ business is for the auto industry, with the majority of that being metal tubes for automobile headrests.
The company is two or three steps removed from automakers. Welded Tubes sells it’s tubing to suppliers who manufacture the headrests or to companies who bend, pierce, coin, curnch and plate the tubes prior to sending the fabricated product to headrests manufacturers.
Welded Tubes also manufactures tubes for car seat adjustors, seat frames. mirror brackets and tubing that holds air bag accelerant. “The more engineered tubular products we have in a car, the better,” Gilchrist says.
Not Like Swing Sets
While there are hundred of tube mills in the United States, Welded Tubes considers only five or six as true competitors, Gilchrist says.
“This is not like a fence post or for office furniture or swing sets,” he says. Customers expect “highly tolerance ERW tube, extremely precise welds and mark free finishes for plating and coating. The tighter our tolerance, the easier it is for them to fabricate their product. The weld is critical for fabrication. End use safety is key, and with our high tolerance tube, our customers can produce a good looking product that exceeds the Industry safety standards.”
“It’s about the weld integrity,” says David Jenkins, vice president of operations who has worked at Welded Tubes since 2017 but has 30 years in the industry. “For weld engineering on a very small diameter, this is the best process out there.”
To make sure the welding is of high quality, a lab technician take a sample of welded tube every eight to ten minutes, look at it under high magnification and take a photo. “It keeps our lab technician hopping,” Jenkins says.
Welded Tubes is working with a company that designs digital monitoring equipment to collect data about the tube surface. That company is getting close to producing equipment that will monitor the tubing at the same rate as production takes place. “We are big on documenting from steel to finished product,” Jenkins says. “If anything goes wrong, you need to be able to trace it all the way back. Who milled it, cut it, transported it and packed it. We can follow that back all the way to the ore in the ground.”
14 Million Feet of Tube
Welded Tubes buys steel in coils and then slits each coil to a specific width depending on the desired tube size. The coil passes through a set of rollers that progressively form into a tube shape. “You can only form steel into tubes so fast or you will break it,” Jenkins explains, adding that the tube starts off a bit larger than needed since it shrinks as it cools off.
A high-frequency electric resistance welder then joins the edges together. The weld is actually stronger than the rest of the steel, according to the company. Welded Tubes produces tubes at varying speeds, depending on the size and thickness of the product, and produces roughly 14 million feet of tubing per month, Jenkins says.
Welded Tubes is six sigma qualified in lean manufacturing. “It’s desirable because it helps us become more efficient and improves our time capability,” Jenkins says. “Right now we are focused on reducing packaging costs and reducing the carbon footprint of packaging.”
Most customers order one week ahead although clients also keep some tubing in inventory as a buffer, Jenkins says.
The biggest challenge for Welded Tubes is raw steel prices. “If steel prices go up, our prices must be evaluated,” Gilchrist says. “If the price of steel goes down, our customers expect a price decrease.”
Welded Tubes conducts research to create better tubes. “Prior to the push for tubular headrests designs, they were was less engineered, typically produced from steel bar stock,” Gilchrist says. “Now we work with our customers or manufacturers on specific grades of steel for fabrication and weight. There are changes in design, typically for costs saving, plate savings and weight. The higher the strength [of the tubing], the lighter they can make the car by thinning the wall of the product. The OEM’s are always looking high strength alloys.”
More Mills and Less Scrap
Welded Tubes is located in the town of Orwell, which Gilchrist describes as a small rural country in northeast Ohio. The company pull employees from five counties and even across the border in Pennsylvania, Gilchrist says.
“Finding younger folks who want to come into the industry is a struggle,” Gilchrist says.
To recruit, Welded Tubes works with junior colleges and a local vocational school. “We help them in setting up a curriculum that is meaningful to manufacturing,” Gilchrist says.
The company uniforms and safety shoes for free and Welded Tubes is constantly evaluating its pay in the region.
Welded Tubes has three tube mills in its facility but would like more. “Our customers are encouraging us to add capacity,” Jenkins says. “A fourth would make life much easier.”
The company is listening. Welded Tubes has developed a preliminary budget and design for a new building and two new mills, which it is currently evaluating.
To improve productivity, Welded Tubes is investing about $400,000 in 2019 in equipment that will reduce scrap metal. The equipment will pay for itself within an estimated 16 months, Jenkins says.
“We make a super high-quality parts and partner with our customers on design improvement and changes,” Gilchrist says.