Mark Devaney reports on Lau Industries, whose consistent focus on the future has made it the recognized global leader in manufacturing air-moving components and fan systems.
It has been said that there are two types of manufacturing companies: those that make products; and those that help those that make products. Both are of equal import. After all, where would the manufacturing plants in America be without companies like Lau Industries pumping air into them – literally?
Today, Lau is the recognized global leader in manufacturing air-movement components and fan systems in North America for the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning (HVAC) and refrigeration industries. Throughout its history, Lau has remained at the forefront of air-movement components manufacturing by maintaining its long-time commitment to using cutting-edge technology.
Two recent product introductions demonstrate how Lau maintains its sights firmly on the future. One is a quiet, efficient propeller fan designed for a residential air-conditioner condenser unit. The other, the motorized wheel housing assembly, is a direct-drive wheel and housing with a motor attached in the factory prior to the shipment. Both products – the efficient propeller because of its technology; the motorized wheel and housing assembly because it’s a new business for the company – show how Lau has oriented its business on staying ahead of current air-movement technologies.
Ahead of the Game
Lau engineers design specialty propellers with their proprietary computer program, called iFan. This program uses the principles of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to optimize the fan blade for a customer’s application. By doing so, iFan allows more of the up-front design work to be done on the computer, thus reducing the need for trial and error. The program saves product development time, and eliminates the costs and inaccuracies that often occur in handmade patterns.
The motorized wheel and housing assembly represents a major departure for Lau. For many years, the company sold wheels and housings, and many of its customers bought both components from Lau. Including a motor sized to the application adds value by placing these components already assembled into one convenient package. The customer needs only to bolt the assembly to its unit and wire it, and it’s then ready to provide the air movement the customer requires.
Both new products embody two of Lau’s core manufacturing strengths, engineering and cost reduction. The company’s engineering capability is evident in the new propeller’s use of iFan and its highly efficient design. The motorized wheel and housing assembly reflects the flexibility by which Lau’s engineers can determine the most efficient blower/motor combination for each individual customer. Says Michael Neely, research and development engineer, “Many customers have unique requirements that demand special product features, especially during the application-development phase.”
They also show Lau’s ability to reduce costs for customers: The new propeller’s computerized design makes for more efficient product development and performance; and the motorized wheel and housing assembly saves money by packaging the blower components together, as opposed to selling them separately.
A focus on the future has been Lau’s cornerstone from the beginning. Edgar B. Lau, who founded the company in 1928, was a pioneer who envisioned the enormous potential of moving air throughout structures in an efficient and effective way. Known as Lau Blower Company, the firm opened for business as a producer of large-volume, high-quality blower wheels.
From the start, Lau’s engineering department has been the leader in air-movement research and development. “Our engineering team has extensive experience and technical expertise in the areas of air-flow performance, aero-acoustics, structural application, testing, design and development, and vibration analysis,” says Dr. Michael Brendel, director of engineering. “Lau engineers design centrifugal and axial products for residential, commercial, industrial and after-market customers for both the domestic and international areas.”
This research and development of innovative products and services has pushed the company’s growth – largely because the engineering department works closely with the sales and marketing division to meet customers’ current and future needs. Lau is dedicated to designing, manufacturing and supplying air-movement components to the customer’s exacting specifications. “We offer product samples in small quantities to assist customers with new product development and agency approvals,” says Tony Moffett, marketing manager.
“We also can assist our customers in the selection of our standard products for their new or redesigned units.”
“Our field-based, OEM factory-direct sales representatives consult with buyers, purchasing agents and design engineers to acquire the general specifications and parameters to produce an engineered part,” says Doug Muller, OEM sales manager. “They also assist in the proper selection of components based on these parameters. Prototypes are then fabricated in our Dayton, Ohio, model shop. We submit the required samples to our customers for final, preproduction testing and approvals. It is not uncommon for us to continue to produce these approved components for the same customer for many years.”
Quality Through and Through
Lau’s size and strategically located facilities position the company for continued market dominance. The company has 1,400 employees in 11 manufacturing locations: four in Indiana (Indianapolis, Lebanon, Rochester and Shelbyville), two in California (Banning and Irwindale), two in Ohio (Dayton and Englewood), and one each in Fridley, Minn., and Juarez, Mexico. Through its merger with Penn Ventilation in May, Lau also has facilities in Junction City, Ky., and Tabor City, N.C. In these facilities, Lau incorporates state-of-the-art statistical process controls and carefully monitored inspection routines to ensure total quality and cost control. Product managers provide the technical support necessary to ensure smooth integration to the production process.
Along with the iFan program, the Lau engineering department uses three-dimensional computer modeling and has capabilities in new prototype testing and the handling of a variety of new product development projects. In developing its own products, Lau uses industry-standard equipment and procedures to test air flow, corrosion, critical frequency and vibration, sound, destruct and product reliability/life testing.
To maintain its competitive edge, the company belongs to several trade groups. These include the Air Movement and Control Association (AMCA), the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) and the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA). “Our complete engineering lab is regulated by AMCA, and includes material-analysis, air-flow and vibration-testing facilities,” says John Wagner, laboratory manager.
Lau recently installed a 9-foot diameter air-flow test chamber, which is consistent with AMCA/ASHRAE standards and which is registered for AMCA Figure 12/15 operation. The new air-flow chamber replaces two AMCA/ASHRAE Figure 12 chambers that were built in the 1950s. It allows for reduced air-test turnaround time, better test repeatability and improved test data storage/retrieval, and incorporates an automated test protocol. Its flow capacity greatly expands the Lau engineering laboratory’s air-measurement capability.
Reaping the Whirlwind
“In addition, basic technical assistance is available through our applications engineering group via telephone, customer visits, Whirlwind fan application software, product catalogues and e-mail,” says Ken Behme, application engineer. Whirlwind, the most innovative software program available in its industry today, provides the quickest and easiest selection of all Lau air-movement product lines. The program disks come with detailed instructions for each selection step and feature. Users can access the online help screens for assistance.
Whirlwind’s latest version offers expanded product selection in propellers in the axial category and forward-curved direct drive products in the centrifugal category. The program also provides sound and dimensional data for all product categories.
Growth through acquisition and product development has been an important strategy for Lau. Its success was further ensured in 1990, when it was purchased by Tomkins PLC, the London-based international manufacturing company.
The company’s leadership in air-movement components is a result of Edgar Lau’s creativity, attention to detail and determination to give customers what they wanted. “We will do whatever it takes to preserve this legacy, including being fiscally responsible and customer responsive, which has made us the world’s most diverse and dependable full-line supplier of component products,” says Frank Sraj, vice president of OEM sales and marketing. “Our customers respect our technical capabilities and the integrity with which we operate our business. Exceeding our customer’s expectations is not only part of our job; it’s part of our culture.”