A company that built the frames for Henry Ford's Model Ts continues to maintain its distinctive edge in the medium and heavy duty truck market, reports Lorie Russo.
Midland Steel is a unique company. Not only because it is 105 years old and manufactured frames for Henry Ford’s Model Ts and not because it made frames for Jeeps during World War II and certainly not because it has manufactured frames, at one point or another, for virtually every automotive and OEM truck manufacturer in the United States. It’s because Midland Steel is one of the largest manufacturers of frame rails in North America whose motto is very poignant: “Our frames are the foundation of your future.”
In other words, says Bernie Baka, vice president of sales and marketing, you cannot build a truck without a frame rail. And that takes a lot of know-how. And that’s where Midland Steel comes in.
What Makes Midland Unique in the Industry
One of the processes that makes the company’s frame rails tough and durable is known as heat-treat. For example, Midland Steel will take a 55,000 psi minimum yield strength rail heat, “then quench it with water to bring the minimum yield strength to 110,000 psi. This gives the rail a stronger, longer life,” Baka says.
But many barriers preclude entry into the business, which is why Midland is only one of two companies in the United States manufacturing frame rails. Those barriers start with an inventory of large bed presses, an expensive investment that necessitates expertise in operation. Midland Steel, for example, has a 6,000-ton form press, the largest in the country. “You need large presses and expertise; you’re making a 40-foot frame rail with tight tolerances in one hit,” Baka says. For another, customers all demand highly customized products, which happens to be Midland’s specialty.
Baka explains, “We know our customers’ end users really understand the product they’re purchasing.” Consequently, truck manufacturers, he adds, “have done a good job of offering options they know their customers want. These options can be in combinations that can almost reach infinity.” Midland Steel can supply the customized frame rails to meet their demands.
Continuing To Build on a Firm Foundation
Midland Steel was acquired in June 1994 by Iochpe-Maxion, a publicly held Brazilian company well-known for its industrial products, particularly frame rails and automotive components. The company, which employs 8,000 at six industrial plants in Brazil and two plants in the United States, is a leading producer of truck and automotive components for both the North and South American automotive markets. Items range from diesel engines, frame assemblies, side rails and chassis components, wheels and rims to electronic control modules, onboard computers, sensors, steering columns, window lift mechanisms, water and oil pumps.
Midland Steel’s facilities in the United States include a 26-acre, 500,000-square-foot plant in Cleveland, Ohio (also corporate headquarters), and a 28-acre, 140,000-square-foot plant in Janesville, Wis. Equipment includes tool and die facilities, decoiling shot blast and cut-to-length line, shearing to 40 feet, 34 stamping presses, (including eight in the 2,000 to 6,000 ton range), two heat treating systems and shot peening, four Beatty tape piercing machines, fusion and MIG welding, custom frame assembly lines, powder coat painting and a coordinate measuring machine. It’s current product line includes:
- medium and heavy-duty truck side rails and reinforcements
- light truck and van front suspension crossmembers
- medium and heavy truck frame assemblies
- truck crossmembers and crossmember assemblies
- heavy truck fuel tank brackets
- frame customization
- heavy truck muffler support assemblies.
The Framework for the Future
Midland Steel, reports Baka, recently installed a $10 million gas-fired, heat-treat system to accommodate new heavy-duty frame rail business and also upgraded and refurbished, at a cost of $2 million, a number of presses. Out of an estimated sales revenue of $108 million in 1999, approximately 5 percent will be exported to Canada, Mexico, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, China and Chile, or, “wherever the need arises,” Baka says.
Midland Steel currently supplies all major truck OEMs except one. Its current customers include General Motors, Paccar, Freightliner, Navastar International, Mack Truck- “and many smaller specialty truck manufacturers,” Baka says.
What keeps the company on top of its game is its ability not only to manufacture a reliable product but to deliver its frame rails in time and in the right sequence for assembly line production.
“Midland Steel provides to our customers a customized frame rail, in line set sequence, just-in-time,” says Baka. “When they take it off the carrier and put it into the line, it’s sequenced to their build; that means the rails have to be accurate because they go right onto the production line by the manufacturer. If it goes down the line and it’s not correct, that’s a no-build.” Because it is the foundation of the truck, it is critical that the rail is right the first time. And that is the perfection Midland strives for.