Whitehall Industries, a longtime industry leader in the manufacture of automotive sunroofs, has expanded its core business to provide aluminum extrusions used in automotive structural components. David Soyka reports on this company’s tremendous growth in supplying components essential to achieve ever-stringent regulatory requirements to make vehicles lighter in order to achieve higher fuel consumption efficiencies.
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What’s fueling growth in the automotive industry these days isn’t petroleum (though no one is complaining about the low price at the pump), but another commodity—aluminum. CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards by 2025 are set to rise to a 54.5 average for cars and trucks. How are automakers going to achieve that?
“The lighter you can make the car, the more fuel efficient it is. Regardless of whether the powertrain is conventional gas, electric or hybrid, using aluminum in the vehicle’s structure wherever possible significantly reduces weight,” notes Yogendra N. (Yogen) Rahangdale, CEO and owner of Whitehall Industries, a precision aluminum extrusion manufacturer of automotive parts and componentry. “Over the next five years we expect to see a 40 percent growth in the use of extruded aluminum in a vehicle. It’s a big opportunity.”
He should know.
Last year, Whitehall Industries racked up $86 million in sales; this year it’s up to $118 million and next year expects to hit $136 million. Not bad for a company that before Rahangdale acquired it in 2010 was pretty much battered by the economic downturn and general woes of the auto industry at the time.
Rahangdale saw the problem as a case of underutilized capacity and need for more efficient work processes. Investment in new equipment and institution of lean manufacturing and kaizen continuous improvement practices restored the luster to Whitehall’s core business of aluminum extruded rails for sunroof tracks, luggage racks, convertible tops and frame support components. Once that business was back on track, Whitehall expanded to provide a range of high tolerance aluminum structural components for its automotive customers. One significant customer is Telsa, maker of premium electric vehicles, which shares Whitehall’s passion for innovation and creative application of high technology to address modern-day challenges.
Added Value Engineering
Whitehall makes both built-to-order and engineers custom designs. “Typically, the OEMs provide us with their specs, and then we look at it to consider both what is the most efficient design and what is the most efficient way to make it,” Rahangdale explains.
“The trick in many cases is that you’re dealing with a light metal that also needs to be very strong, particularly when you’re dealing with component structures that protect passengers. We partner with our aluminum suppliers to develop the alloys that have the right mixture of high-strength and low-weight that can best fit the particular application.”
He adds, “Our focus is in the design and engineering of aluminum-extruded parts through value engineering and up-front engineering support to create optimal results in the end product. We employ more than 25 engineers in a range of specialized disciplines to accomplish this. Plus, we work with our customers to eliminate design flaws prior to production. This removes delays caused by last-minute revisions. Coupled with our lean manufacturing and other continuous improvement practices, such as on-demand delivery, we provide timely and cost-effective products. Our competitive differentiator is we are known throughout the automotive industry as a ‘can do’ company.”
Can Do Culture
A large part of that ability Rahangdale attributes to the some 750 employees of Whitehall. “Our culture here is to always look where we can add value and how we can get things done in better ways that exceed customer expectations,” he says. “Of course, there is increasing demand in the industry for the kind of products we make. But no company is going to steadily grow as we have over the years without the people committed to properly meeting that demand.”
Whitehall is TS 16949 and ISO9001 certified and currently maintains a total of four manufacturing plants. Two operate at its home base in Ludington, Mich.—a 135,000 square-foot extrusion fabrication plant and a 74,000 square-foot fabrication plant. Another 43,000 square-foot plant runs in San Miguel, Mexico. The fourth recently opened in Paducah, Ken. The $13 million production plant created 150 new jobs for the commonwealth.
Given the industry’s increasing demand for aluminum components, Whitehall is considering future expansion perhaps in the western part of the country, as well as in Asia. “Like other commodities in the current markets, the price of aluminum remains stable,” Rahangdale. “So it’s not the case where increasing demand is raising prices or there is any scarcity of material. Plus, it’s easily recyclable, so it has ‘green’ bona fides. Even without the need to make lighter components, aluminum is a highly affordable metal.”
“We continue to invest in our facilities, our processes and our people to make the best possible products,” Rahangdale says. “There’s a wealth of opportunities for us. Even in our basic business of sunroof racks, there’s now a trend for panoramic roofs that are huge. You don’t have these small openings anymore, it takes up most of the roof, now. So, there’s who new generation of sunroof tracks to be designed and fabricated.”
He adds, “We continue to look at opportunities where we can apply our engineering and design expertise coupled with our one-source manufacturing capabilities to provide solutions employed aluminum-extruded parts to the automotive industry. We are a unique company that offers customers a single source to design, prototype, fabricate and assemble and precision components with specifics from, fit and function. Whatever kind of aluminum structural component an OEM needs, we can make it.”