Whitehall Industries switched gears from manufacturing precision components for the copier industry to becoming a precision aluminum extrusion operation primarily serving the automotive industry. David Soyka reports on how this leading maker of automotive sunroof tracks opens up new business expansion.
Automakers have been through some tough times, but no better indicator of recovery is the improved results of manufacturers that supply the industry. Case in point is Whitehall Industries.
Founded in 1974 and originally based in namesake Whitehall, Mich. (since relocated to Ludington, Mich.), the company first made precision components for the copier industry. In 2001, Whitehall established a precision aluminum extrusion operation to extrude aluminum profiles with tolerances tighter than industry standards. Like many automotive suppliers, Whitehall experienced tough times during the economic downturn starting in 2009 and a year later bank ownership was looking to divest the company.
Enter Yogen Rahangdale, an engineer with a history of successful performance improvement initiatives in the automotive industry and retired president and COO of a leading drivetrain supplier. Looking for new challenges, Rahangdale saw Whitehall’s considerable potential.
“Great people were already in place,” Rahangdale says. “They just needed better tools and processes to work with.” This involved the purchase of the latest robotics and computer systems, as well as new machining and workspace environments that represented millions of dollars of investment. These include 70 CNC machining centers that have 3, 4, & 5 axis machining capability, a HYDROMAT V12 Trunnion precision transfer machine, 32 hydraulic stamping presses up to 250-ton, hydraulic stretch bending presses, nine coordinate measuring machines, and in-house capability to design and build specialty machine fixtures with sophisticated logic and controls as needed. Manufacturing is ISO/TS 16949:2009 certified.
As you might expect from an automotive industry veteran, Rahangdale is a proponent of lean manufacturing and kaizen continuous improvement. Just one example is component assembly. “Many of our finished products require some level of assembly,” he notes. “We designed dedicated work cells with automated assembly fixtures and machinery for the high volume jobs, with flexible work stations for the lower volume jobs. All work stations have ‘error proofing systems’ to ensure every component part is in place and properly assembled.”
The combination of state-of-the-art technology coupled with more efficient workflows paid hefty dividends. In 2010, the company’s two plants in Ludington were running at considerably less than capacity. Today, with a total of about 350,000 square feet of manufacturing space, Whitehall Industries operates a third plant in Mexico and has announced groundbreaking on a new facility in western Kentucky. Rahangdale estimates his company’s growth as quadrupling the rate of the auto industry as a whole.
The Future is Aluminum
The reason for Whitehall’s tremendous turnaround: “The use of aluminum in automobile manufacture is growing and is going to continue to increase,” Rahangdale notes. “The objective is to make a car as light as possible to increase fuel efficiency. Reduce the weight of a car by 10 percent and you get a 6 to 8 percent improvement in gas mileage. CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations are pressing automakers to higher levels of fuel efficiency every year [with a target of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025]. Quite simply, you make what your customers need to succeed, and you’re going to succeed.”
Indeed, Whitehall is the leading provider of aluminum extruded rails for sunroof tracks. “There was a time not so long ago that a sunroof was a luxury option,” Rahangdale notes. “Today, sunroofs are not only almost a standard feature, they’re getting larger.” The automotive manufacturers are developing more components from light weight aluminum alloys. “Our aluminum structural components help cut down on the extra weight of traditional steel components, and help our customers meet their fuel efficiency objectives,” Rahangdale says.
In addition, aluminum is easily recyclable and the use of components made of the metal help boost an automaker’s “green” bona fides. Whitehall in particular can set claim to be at the forefront of green innovation; it is a supplier to electric car maker Tesla, which many see as the pioneer in a new kind of American-made car that is stylish and highly fuel efficient.
Whitehall also makes aluminum luggage racks, convertible tops and frame support components. Although Rahangdale says that 90 percent of its business derives from the automotive sector, a focus it intends to maintain, Whitehall also supplies the business machines, copier and printer, consumer goods, medical device, office furniture, sporting goods, and architectural lighting industries.
“We manufacture for a niche market in which we have a very large share,” Rahangdale points out. ”We’ve attained this position as result of our unswerving commitment to quality and on-time delivery.”
The window of opportunity for sun roofs as well as other niche markets is wide open for Whitehall as it continues to maintain a market leadership that outpaces the competition.