Virginia Transformer Corporation custom engineers dry-type and liquid-filled power transformers from three North American facilities. David Soyka reports on how this company powers sales through technical expertise and quality processes to solve problems with made-to-order applications.
Virginia Transformer Corporation started out as a local maker of power transformers to the underground mining industry in the Appalachian Mountains. From these humble origins, the product range expanded to serve broader commercial and industrial markets for distribution applications in building products from scratch in which no two transformers are ever exactly alike. As it grew to become a global company, with facilities in North America and India and over 600 employees, it made sure that transforming success didn’t change its focus on transformers. “Other companies make custom transformers, but we are the only company that makes custom power transformers exclusively,” notes Debbie Custer, strategic marketing director. “That’s one of the things that makes us stand out in the industry.
Of course, just doing one thing alone doesn’t result in success, you also have to do that one thing well. And, in a global environment where companies typically diversify product lines to protect against cyclical market fluctuations, you have to do that one thing exceedingly well.
Given that Virginia Transformer has been growing at an annual rate of 10 to 30 percent since the 1990s, a trend it expects to continue unabated in part because of recent product expansion into larger voltage transformers, the company more than fulfills that promise. In fact, as Custer points out, “”Not only have we enjoyed remarkable growth, frequently exceeding that of the industries and markets we serve, but we have also consistently outpaced the overall expansion of the U.S. economy.”
The product range encompasses both dry and liquid-fill type transformers in a range of small, medium and large voltage sizes. These include Virginia Transformer’s trademarked fully encapsulated coil UNICLAD® series, automatic load tap changing, three phase voltage regulators, drive isolation, transit duty, generator step-up, auxiliary and station service transformers as well as load break switches and air core reactors for utility, industrial, commercial, specialty and export markets. Virginia Transformer customers include both end-users and other transformer manufacturers such as General Electric or Siemens whose customers require custom designs. The company also provides repair and maintenance services in addition to custom-builds.
In all cases, Custer emphasizes, the transformer is expressly designed for a specific use and built from scratch with hand wound coil. “We have over 10,000 designs created by our in-house engineers who cumulatively have over 150 years of experience,” Custer points out. “Typical heavy-duty service life of a transformer is five years. When one of our transformers need replacement, we can easily pull up the blueprints and make modifications to incorporate new specs and requirements.”
Each manufacturing location is dedicated to a specific size transformer and has its own engineering team, centrally coordinated by corporate engineering. The company also has a well-developed training system in which all engineers learn the design and manufacturing practices of all the plants. As a global company, Virginia Transformer can design in metric as well as dual-dimension in English, Spanish and French, among other languages. Designs are compliant with all local and international standards, including ANSI/IEEE, IEC, CSA, UL, MNEMA and Mexican Standard.
Dedicated Manufacturing Centers
The three North American manufacturing facilities are located in Roanoke, Va. (which is also the location of the company headquarters), Pocatello, Idaho, and Chihuahua, Mexico. The ISO: 9001 certified Virginia facility makes medium-sized transformers on 120,000 square feet of floor space with a climate-controlled positive-pressure winding room housing more than a dozen winding machines. The 100,000-square-foot Idaho plant has a 300-ton lifting capacity and was acquired from U.S. Transformer West to produce and service larger transformers. A new state-of-the-art computer controlled core cutting line is equipped to cut core in step lap and other cuts free of burr. A rail spur connects directly inside the plant from the main rail line to speed product delivery and receipt.
Smaller power transformers up to 7.5 MVA, 35 kV transformers are made in a new 65,000 square foot Mexico plant located 250 miles south of the U.S. border. It includes a fabrication shop to manufacture tanks and enclosures in-house. The plant is ISO: 9001 certified and the manufacturing shop has achieved a sigma level of <4.0. “Originally, we made dry transformers for the transit industry and some switch gear in Mexico,” Custer explains. “However, the plant is also located near a number of oil and drilling operations in the Gulf region and these are big customers for smaller-sized transformers. And, while these are still custom-builds, it’s not as complex as the medium and large products and there’s more than an adequately skilled workforce pool available in Chihuahua to handle it. So today it is dedicated to small transformer manufacture, where the customer drawings turnaround time is one of the quickest in the industry.”
In 2001, Virginia Transformer opened a design center in Mumbai, India. According to Custer, “Our India center gets us closer to our global customers. It incorporates the same design norms and practices established throughout Virginia Transformer. India-based design engineers participate in the review process with the engineers at the stateside Virginia Transformer facility. There is constant interaction between facilities to insure quality and continuity. The advantages to customers with global offices are shorter lead times, faster turn around times on drawings and round the clock support.”
Like all manufacturers, Virginia Transformer has had to cope with spiking costs of raw materials. “We can control price hikes to some extent through global sourcing to get the best prices from the best suppliers. In addition, our employees are trained to work with suppliers to attain economies in purchasing and shipping. This is particularly important because we’re frequently dealing with multiple entities and locations. For example, we might have a customer in South Carolina who is supplying a transformer designed by a company in Cincinnati, Ohio that is going to be installed in Memphis, Tenn., which, by the way, is the second highest seismic area in the country and will require a different design than an area less prone to seismic activity. Our people also have to know what to ask about the particular installation and the surrounding environment. For example, can the one way bridge that goes to the customer plant support the weight of the transformer and, if not, how else can we get it there? That kind of communication is essential and is part of a customized service.”
Virginia Transformer plays multiple roles in supplying product: build to a specified design supplied by the customer, design and build it, and/or install it and service it. Typical lead times can run from between 40 weeks to a year for other manufacturers. “It depends on the complexity of the product and how it fits into the overall project,” Custer notes. That said, Virginia Transformer can power up if the customer needs it. A case in point is the Wolverine Creek Wind Farm in Idaho Falls, Idaho, which comprises 43 turbines. Wind farms earn a significant income from tax credits when they meet certain start up deadlines. Virginia Transformer provided the 45/60/76 MVA, 161 kV to 34.5 kV step up, interconnect transformer in 20 weeks from order to delivery, which was ahead of Wolverine Creek’s schedule. The company also provided the installation and start up service for the transformer.
Similarly, Virginia Transformer’s engineering expertise and short production cycle times made it the supplier of choice for Halliburton/KBR under contract with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for transformers to support the “Restore Iraq Oil” project. According to Custer, “In the early stages of the Iraq rebuilding campaign, Halliburton/KBR received a $7 billion dollar, two-year contract to restore their oil production. Since the Iraqi power grid was in shambles, Halliburton/KBR decided to install on-site gas-fired generators and transformers to re-power the water injection pumps that drive oil up out of the ground. Speed was considered of the essence. We provided the engineering, manufacturing, and delivery of 11 step down transformers to the Qarmat Ali water injection facility. From receipt of the order to air shipment from Washington, D.C., we took only seven weeks to execute the entire order – unheard of in an industry where cycle times are measured in months.”
The key in all cases is providing a product/service tailored to individual customer needs.“Meeting the challenges of providing power in a complex and diverse marketplace is why we specialize in custom design and services,” Custer explains. “Custom designs are generally more efficient than off-the-shelf transformers. Since everyone today is looking to increase their operational efficiency, custom design is growing in demand.”
Also driving demand is an aging installed base. While the typical transformer can last as much as 50 years, a high percentage of transformers in the utility industry were put into service in the 1950s/1960s and are coming to the end of their useful lifespans. Technological innovations also promise increased operational efficiency and cost savings. In addition, expanding industrialization in Asia is further increasing global demand for power transformers. As demand continues to surge, Virginia Transformer is the supplier of choice for custom design and manufacture.
“While other companies may offer custom designs, it’s not their core competency,” Custer points out. “We, on the other hand, have doing this for over 30 years, with the same strategic leadership for the past 25 years. We live up to our reputation to meet and exceed customer expectation with products that are delivered on time, every time and on budget. Virginia Transformer continues to grow not only in terms of sales, but in expanded capabilities, quality assurance, geographic reach, technical expertise and continuous process improvements.”