April Terreri learns how Chromalox maintains its lead as the largest producer of residential electric heating elements in North America.
Modern men and women have a lot to be thankful for in a tenaciously curious young man living at the turn of the century. Edwin L. Wiegand was a mere teen when he began to work on a way to convert electrical energy to heat energy.
In 1915, his invention of a metal-enclosed heating element embedded in an insulating refractory helped carry the world further from elemental dependence on fire-powered energy as the heating element he invented found numerous industrial, commercial and residential applications. The Edwin L. Wiegand Company was born in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“We are the largest producer of home appliance electric heating elements in North America,” says Don Simcock almost a century after young Wiegand’s first electrical experiments. “Inclusive of all types of heating elements produced, we are still the largest,” continues Simcock, director of sales and marketing at the Vernon, Ala., headquarters of The Wiegand Appliance Division of Emerson Electric Co. For nearly 90 years Wiegand has produced high-quality heating elements for OEMs and the replacement market.
Small Customer Base: Large Accounts
Chromalox is the well-known and established brand name of the Wiegand Appliance Division, devoted exclusively to the home appliance market. “The majority of the heating elements we produce are tubular heating elements,” explains Simcock. “The range-top element, for instance, is an insulated electric coil inside a tube of metal. It is then formed and pressed flat. Some people might think it is just a solid metal rod, but it is actually an assembly.”
The St. Louis based Emerson Electric Co. acquired the company in 1968. The Edwin L. Wiegand Company was then split, in 1990, into two divisions: The industrial and appliance divisions. The industrial division is located in Pittsburgh.
“Our customer base is quite small, but they are large accounts,” says Simcock. The major appliance market accounts for the company’s largest segment of sales.
Products in this market include electric cooking, dishwasher and refrigeration products. Chromalox’s big account manufacturers include such household familiars as Frigidaire, GE, Maytag and Whirlpool. Heating elements for applications in electric water heaters account for Chromalox’s second-largest market segment. Major clients in this segment are like Rheem and American Water Heater. Other markets requiring Chromalox’s heating elements include heating and ventilation, and air-conditioning industries.
Technological leader In Industry
“We are the only full-line supplier of electric heating elements,” says Simcock. “Our competitors are generally specific to one of those markets. We spend a lot on new product development and our engineering department is heavily resourced. We provide our customers with a much higher level of technical and design support than our competitors can even approach. That’s really our strength.
Chromalox engineers work closely with major manufacturers.
“What frequently happens in our industry is that one of the big manufacturers will come to us in the early phases of designing a new platform appliance,” explains Simcock. “Typically, we will get involved very early on in the program and work hand in hand with manufacturers’ engineering and marketing groups and we will help design specific electric heating products to optimize the performance of those appliances.
Two of Chromalox’s manufacturing facilities are located in Mexico, and the third is the company’s headquarters in Vernon, Ala. The Vernon facility occupies about 190,000 square feet and employs about 400 employees. The two Mexican facilities employ about 1,250 in 150,000 square feet.
Lean Manufacturing/Employee Pride
In its desire to maintain its leadership role in the industry, Chromalox has embraced a new manufacturing philosophy. “We are now embarking on installing lean manufacturing in our Vernon facility,” says Simcock. This lean manufacturing concept strives to reduce inventories and is designed for quick throughput.
This is a very customer-focused system, according to John Stoops, company president. Chromalox, he says, benefits through reduced costs, and improved productivity and quality. “The whole key to the concept is to involve your employees and utilize what quite frequently is an under-utilized resource in companies: The people out there in production doing the work.”
“As simple as it is, companies continue to miss (using) that resource,” he adds. “When we go to a lean manufacturing environment, we will be able to produce products like that and non-repeat orders in something like two days because we won’t have our facilities operating with work in process,” says Simcock. “It will be a pull system; rather than trying to push product through your factory, it’s pulled through as required.”
Innovative developments Chromalox’s newest technological advance is its radiant glass-top element. Although the company experienced its share of stops and starts, the duration of the project allowed Chromalox to sufficiently evaluate its competitors’ products. “We have targeted our products to improve on existing designs,” explains Simcock. “That is really what Chromalox is all about. Innovation can be a negative if basic reliability issues are compromised.”
Assessing The Marketplace
“I see us still leading the pack as the leading manufacturer,” says Simcock of the future of Chromalox. “We also recognize that’s harder and harder to do. New competitors periodically arrive on the scene. We are ready to accept the challenge and begin to explore markets beyond North America,” concludes Simock.