Mark Devaney covers COH, Inc. one of North America’s leading manufacturers of customized crane and material handling systems.
If diversity equals strength, then COH, Inc. is as strong as the cranes it creates. The company was founded upon a belief that the market for customized cranes was being overlooked. From that premise, the company steadily developed its reputation as the go-to choice for customized material handling solutions in several markets, including hydro-electric, steel, aluminum, primary metals, automotive, cement, and pulp and paper.
The company’s products play an integral part in numerous customer manufacturing and assembling processes. Their overhead traveling cranes run just under the roof within a factory or a materials production plant. Essentially, COH systems become part of the process, and if their cranes fail, the process stops.
“We are diversified in many industrial segments, which is a real strength of COH,” said Gilles Lafleur, executive director of marketing. “The thinking behind this strategy by the founder and management team was that every industry goes through cycles so we try to be in different markets. For example, it was bad in the steel business for years, but active in aluminum and magnesium. A lot of the other crane manufacturers were heavily involved in the steel industry and when the market fell they all went belly up. Not so for COH because we are spread among various industrial segments.”
That vision has paid off for the privately owned $25 million company located 20 minutes north of Montreal in Boisbriand, Quebec. With more than 100 employees and a recently expanded 70,000 square foot facility, COH is well-positioned to continue the success it has experienced since its founding in 1969.
A survey of the products provided by COH across a variety of industries illustrates the spirit of innovation that keeps the company on the leading edge of every market it serves. For example, the company is very active in the automotive sector, manufacturing automated systems to facilitate frame turnover and body marriage for light trucks and sport utility vehicles for leading brands. According to Lafleur, the company makes customized, automated systems that flip a frame 180 degrees and marry a body to it as it travels down the conveyor line.
“Once the undercarriage elements have been attached, such as suspension elements, wheels, drive shaft, differential and muffler line, the COH system flips it back on its right side and at a following station takes the body from a parallel conveyor and marries it to the frame,” said Lafleur. “Speed as well as strength is critical in automotive manufacturing, and COH makes cranes that can handle up to 75 cycles per hour, which means lifting and dropping a body so it can be bolted in approximately 48 seconds.”
Another industry that COH is active in is aluminum processing, specifically the automation of anode storage operations. According to Lafleur, an anode is essentially a large carbon block that is created during the aluminum smelting process. It typically takes 20 days to melt an anode, which weighs between 1,000 to 2,200 pounds. COH provides indoor crane systems that can carry five to 16 anodes at a time and stack those seven high in buildings that hold several hundred rows of them.
Although they are heavy, anodes are not the weightiest loads lifted by COH’s cranes. In the automated crane segment, that honor goes to the cement industry, where, according to Lafleur, the company manufactures customized cement bulk handling cranes. “These machines have to operate 24 hours per day in dark and dusty environments or what we call blind buildings,” said Lafleur. “Our typical cement crane will travel 500 to 600 feet per minute, carrying total dead weight plus live loads between 15 and 25 tons.”
COH’s ability to provide such impressive customized crane solutions to so many industries would be remarkable for a company with five times as many employees as it has. Yet somehow through foresight and ingenuity, 100 people make it happen.
“One of our strengths is the fact that we have our own engineering – civil, mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and software engineering – all in house,” said Lafleur. “We have about 25 engineers who work in close collaboration, project by project. It has to be this way if we are to tackle the most difficult and complex jobs for our customers. We also have our own machining, fabricating, and electrical shops under one roof.”
Lafleur added that chief among all challenges is the ever-continuing need to provide automated solutions to customers in all markets. And while that might appear to be a daunting task to other material handling system providers, meeting the demand for new and improved automated solutions plays to the company’s strength. After all, about 70 percent of COH’s sales volume is in automated products, according to Lafleur.
“We have been very early to every market with automated solutions because we saw the need for improved productivity in overhead handling and our unique capability of integrating minute instrumentation on to mammoth size machines,” said Lafleur. The company’s speed to market is matched by its commitment to its primary region, North America. “Everything we do is designed and applied to the North American market, and that’s another way we differentiate ourselves from the standard crane industry. We use North American components that are readily available on the North American continent. This facilitates the provisioning of replacement parts and also deters the use of standard parts made overseas for non-customized material handling systems. Maintenance is also facilitated as our cranes serve in key process applications where unscheduled downtime cannot be tolerated.”
`’COH is also an important player in the modernization market of existing custom production cranes,” said Lafleur. “These cranes worth millions of dollars can be given a second life for a fraction of their original or replacement investment value. This wide market ranges from crane recertification and upgrade of technology to capacity increase and compliance with new regulations. With our full engineering, machining and fabrication capabilities, we start with assessing the condition of the crane. Backing our say with thorough calculations, we provide a full report including quotations for the design, supply and realization of the modifications at site.” Here again, COH has demonstrated its understanding of the market by associating itself with another leader in the North-American crane industry, Cableform, Inc. Together, they can replace the maintenance prone constant potential contactor system of existing DC cranes with Digital DC controls, increasing the crane’s uptime while reducing cost of operation and maintaining the outstanding performance of DC cranes the operators won’t let go.
To facilitate all this activity, the company’s state-of the-art manufacturing facilities include several high bays dedicated for testing and debugging all equipment prior to shipment to ensure minimal start-up time at its customers’ production plants. Each piece of equipment is designed and manufactured in strict accordance to its client’s specifications. Its facilities are certified ISO: 9001-2000. Product lines include production overhead cranes, electro-mechanical hoisting equipment, automatic handling equipment, gantries, telescopic aircraft maintenance platforms, transfer cars and any other specialized handling equipment involving hoisting or horizontal movement of a load by means of hooks or sophisticated grabbing mechanisms.
Expansion and leadership
COH recently brought in a new president, Mike Bouthiette, who has extensive experience in the crane industry, particularly in steel and aluminum production. The company added 12,000 square feet to its facility in 2004 and also expanded its sales team by opening a new office in Reading, Pennsylvania in order to better serve the United States market. Lafleur stated that the East Coast in America is a very active market.
Clearly the company has come a long way from its humble beginnings when it was founded by Bjorn Tollefsrud, a Norwegian-born electrical engineer who had worked in the crane industry for years. According to Lafleur, Tollefsrud broke from his company when he foresaw that too many crane manufacturers were making only standard cranes. He felt that there would be a need for custom cranes for heavy production in demanding industries. Nearly four decades later his vision remains fulfilled.
COH’s dedication to building excellent products and its willingness to assume full responsibility for overall performance is what makes the company exceptional. By maintaining its diverse offerings and growing smartly over the years, its future success – through its focus on North America – is assured.