From butter making to ammunition production, Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation has mastered the process of metamorphosing. Lorie Russo reports.
To say that Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation has gone through many changes since it was founded in the early 1900s is like saying a caterpillar sheds a topcoat every year. The story is infinitely more complex.
The account begins with Andrew Chamberlain, a prominent butter maker who started his own company in Waterloo, Iowa, to service the butter-separation industry. It eventually evolved into the Waterloo Rope Belt Company, producing the rope belt products used in the creameries’ large separators, and then changed again, in 1913, into Chamberlain Machine Works. Then came World War I, and the machinery used for creameries was cleverly readapted to manufacture artillery shells for the war effort. While the machine works continued to manufacture a host of products – making washing-machine wringers at one point – at the outset of World War II the company again girded for the manufacture of ammunition, which eventually became the bread and butter of Chamberlain’s business.
Since then, Chamberlain has evolved into a major supplier of ammunition to the defense industry in the United States. And as it leverages its manufacturing capabilities into new areas of machined steel and metal forgings, the company continues to build on a well-earned reputation of producing the highest quality product at the lowest cost.
Located on a National Historic Register site in Scranton, Pa. (the 500,000 square-foot facility on 13 acres in the heart of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region was used by the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad for locomotive repair), Chamberlain has been able to endure and even thrive in a highly competitive field. Since settling in its Scranton location in 1963, Chamberlain has manufactured more than 21 million products, primarily projectile metal parts for the U.S. Department of Defense. Says Emil Kovalchik, defense business development manager, the company now primarily deals in manufacturing artillery projectiles, both 155-millimeter and 105-millimeter, and 120-millimeter mortars.
The Test of Time
The 1980s saw a growth spurt in the defense budget that had begun with the Carter Administration and remained steady until after the Gulf War. “During the Gulf War, the U.S. drew down Cold War ammunition stockpiles in Europe,” says Kovalchik, a Gulf War veteran. Following the war, the Department of Defense also initiated a plan to reduce the size of U.S. forces. This “downsizing” has continued to today.
In 1980, there were 10 large-caliber ammunition producers in the United States and Canada. Of those 10 firms, Chamberlain is the only large-caliber ammunition producer that has survived the changes – including the constant downsizing in the defense industry. It is now the U.S. Army’s only supplier of large-caliber ordnance shells.
“Chamberlain’s plant is extraordinary from my perspective,” Kovalchik says. “One thing that has struck me are the efficiencies that have helped to keep us competitive. The two main ingredients of our products are raw steel and the energies to form the steel.” To keep on top of its game and ahead of the competition, Kovalchik says, Chamberlain streamlined the processes required to manufacture the product, specifically the areas of gas and electricity consumption.
“In the mid-1990s, we looked to see how we could drive down costs,” he relates, “and saw that our infrastructure was still at 1960s levels.” (As an aside, he explains, in the early 1960s, Chamberlain was manufacturing only one type of artillery shell; by 1990 the number had grown to four. Now the company manufactures 21 different products on its Scranton site.) To remain competitive, Chamberlain launched what was to be a highly successful effort to reenergize, reinvest and upgrade its facilities. “We added flexibility to our management strategies,” he says, “which enabled us to beat the competition on price and quality, and gain dominance.” Chamberlain has continued its capital-investment program, recently expending $2 million to upgrade and update its facilities.
Today, 12 years after the end of the Cold War, the defense industry budget has leveled out, calling only for enough ammunition annually for military training exercises and to keep the war reserve adequately stockpiled. Even so, Chamberlain continues to raise the technology bar, developing high-strength, thin-walled shell bodies for ever-smarter projectiles for increasingly sophisticated battlegrounds.
“Now we’re developing shell bodies for smart projectiles that work off GPS (global positioning systems),” Kovalchik says. “These rounds have different capabilities. They’re more thin-walled, yet equally as strong as traditional shell bodies.” One of Chamberlain’s products, the M795 manufactured with HF steel, is designed to fly 35 miles at a speed of 2,800 feet per second. By comparison, artillery used during the Gulf War, still used by the U.S. Army, travels 28 miles.
The end of the Cold War prompted another change at Chamberlain. Says Vice President and Scranton General Manager Jim Flaherty, “With the end of the Cold War, we had to reinvent ourselves to assure our survival. The fact that we’re still here speaks very well for the plant.” That reinvention, he maintains, came about in the form of diversifying into commercial forged-steel products.
Chamberlain now manufactures machined steel products for the oil- and gas-drilling industries, as well as hydraulic filtration. “The thought process is that because of the changing nature of the defense industry, we needed to look to grow our business outside of defense,” says John Iagnemma, commercial business development manager. “We wanted to use our existing capabilities to produce commercial products.”
A fully integrated company, Chamberlain forges, heat-treats and machines its steel. The firm that once built butter-separation machinery is now manufacturing tool joints for the oil- and gas-drilling industry, which are friction-welded to seamless pipe to make 30 foot-long sections of drill pipe. This highly durable pipe is used for land and offshore drilling, where the harsh environment requires high-end steel products that can withstand critical use.
Chamberlain’s capabilities also include hot and cold forging, which can be used independently or in combination to provide intricate cavity shapes. The company has assembled one of the world’s most comprehensive forge ships – six lines, each with an automated three-step press system.
With more than 60 CNC lathes, Chamberlain continues its role as a leader in metal forming, machining and finishing. The company also employs four fully automated heat-treating systems for normalizing, hardening, tempering and stress relieving. Its three largest furnaces are each capable of processing 20,000 pounds of steel per hour. Its welding capabilities include MIG, TIG, stick, inertia, friction and resistance welding. A five-stage phosphate washer services three separate paint lines.
As Chamberlain continues on its mission to deliver the highest-quality products, it still believes that reinventing and reevaluating the work process is key in maintaining an edge with the industries it serves. Says Flaherty, “For the most part, people’s limitations are bounded by their imaginations. You can do as much as you think you can – I think even more than most people think they can.”