Pittsburgh-based Tri-Arc Manufacturing Company is the only mobile ladder and work platform supplier that also designs and manufactures custom solutions built to the specific requirements of an application or project. David Soyka reports on how this company gets a leg up on improving safety and productivity.
In business, it’s always important to get a step up on your competition. But it’s even more so for the Tri-Arc Manufacturing Company because it so happens this business actually makes steps. In fact, they are a step ahead of their competition because in addition to standard mobile ladders and work platforms, Tri-Arc designs, engineers and manufactures climbing and access solutions tailored to the customer’s unique application.
If you think about it, getting someone up a ladder to work on something is more than just, well, getting them a ladder. As Ron Schwartz, vice president of sales and marketing, points out, “How comfortable the worker is, how easy it is to reach whatever needs to be reached, how frequently the worker needs to move from one spot to another to complete a given task, all have a direct bearing not only safety, but productivity and efficiency. If the ladder isn’t quite the right height or you have to keep moving it to get at different locations, it impedes the work process. If a standard ladder doesn’t get your people safely and efficiently where they need to be to do their jobs right, that’s where we come in to design and engineer a custom designed system for your unique manufacturing environment.”
He adds, “A sound solution comprises three elements: safety, productivity and code compliance. By addressing these three elements, we can provide a solution that is ideal for the work being done and by doing so we help companies develop a safer and more productive work environment while ensuring that all applicable OSHA and ANSI codes are met. Everyone is concerned about cost, but beyond the price of the system we develop, an additional consideration is the cost savings derived from gains in efficiency and decreased injuries.”
Tri-Arc was founded by three brothers in 1959. “It was basically a fabrication shop in a garage,” Schwartz says. “Beginning in the 1970s, the company moved to define itself as a ladder manufacturer with a broad line of rolling ladders and work platforms that were sold primarily through dealer and distributor outlets. This was also during the time when the big box stores were just getting started, and Tri-Arc first established its brand equity in this category by becoming the leader in supplying mobile ladders to many of the big box retailers for their stock and retrieval needs with in the stores. In 1996, the current ownership purchased the marketing rights of the company and transitioned to be more than just a manufacturer of a product, but also an engineering and design consultant. Today, while we still have a broad line of standard ladders as well as mobile and fixed climbing and access products manufactured from carbon steel, aluminum and stainless steel, we are steadily focusing more of our business on designing and manufacturing custom solutions.”
Indeed, according to Schwartz, “Our custom business has been fairly robust over the last five years. We have rapidly become known for our engineering and design capabilities and we’ve made a concerted effort to build on this reputation. As far as I know, we are the only company in our industry that specializes in providing this type of solution.”
Schwartz emphasizes it is not just the ability to manufacture product according to specifications, but the engineering expertise to design it that puts Tri-Arc at the top of the ladder. “We have nearly 50 years of experience as a company in making safe, code compliant ladders. We are the experts in this industry. We are active in the ladder industry and committed to the goal of disseminating information about the proper use selection and care for ladders. Our involvement includes being members of the American Ladder Institute (ALI) where I serve on the Board of Directors currently in the role of vice president. Moreover, our plant operations manager, Eric Pucek, is on the ANSI A14.7 standards development committee for mobile ladder stands.”
But it’s not just knowing what you are doing. It’s also figuring out what the customer needs to be doing. Schwartz notes, “As an example, a team of sales engineers and myself recently spent three days in Seattle touring the facilities of Boeing. We looked at approximately 20 different access and climbing applications with unique requirements. That kind of hands-on approach really makes the difference in a custom system. It’s not just simply a matter of coming up with a CAD (computer assisted design) drawing in response to someone else’s CAD. Of course, we do 3D CAD renderings, but there’s nothing like actually being on the factory floor, or whatever environment the work is being performed in, to get a first hand feel for the working environment to see how the solution needs to fit not only the task to be performed, but where and under what conditions the task is to be performed.”
CLIMBING AND ACCESS SOLUTIONS
“You might think that a company as large as Boeing that manufactures these large and complex aircraft would be able to draw up the kind of ladders and platforms they need that they could then shop out to a local fabrication shop to build for them,” he adds. “But, it’s another one of those classic cases of you know what you know, and you don’t know what you don’t know. We discovered that our customers, even major manufacturers like Boeing, really don’t know where to turn to get help in figuring out the most productive and safest way to access their various assembly and maintenance operations. The fabrication shop doesn’t have the expertise. And neither does the standard ladder maker, who is just going to say, pick from these models. Tri-Arc is unique in having the engineering and manufacturing capabilities dedicated solely to design and build a customized climbing and access solution for any situation.”
An example of one such custom solution is a helicopter windshield installation stand. This involved accommodating the unique dimensions of both the aircraft and the constrained work environment. The application required lightweight material and the ability to hold at least 500 pounds. Using a solid model of the aircraft, the symmetrical work platform was designed around the front cone of the helicopter to allow work on both sides of the aircraft without need to reposition the platform. Constructed of lightweight aluminum, the platform was equipped with counterweights to ensure a balanced load at all time.
While Tri-Arc custom solutions have become particularly popular in the aviation industry, they are also put to work in a range of other industries, as, for example, pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and Pfizer, as well as Ford Motor Company, Walt Disney World and DuPont. A case in point is a platform Tri-Arc designed and made for an injection molding machine. Although the manufacturer of the machine provided a ladder and platform, it was clearly an afterthought of poor quality and it did not take into account the tightly constrained space where the customer needed to operate the equipment. There were also numerous safety and building code compliance issues. Tri Arc studied the situation onsite and created a 3D solid model of the environment. The resulting solution that was designed utilized a 75-degree marine angle ladder to access a raised platform that fit around multiple interference points and satisfied all safety and building code requirements.
Tri-Arc employs about 100 people and does all its manufacturing in a 200,000-square-foot facility where it is also headquartered, in Pittsburgh, Pa. “We do all our fabrication in-house, for both our custom and standard product. But one of our biggest challenges is attracting and retaining the highly skilled welders for the fabrication process,” Schwartz says. “There was a time when you could find the people you needed coming out of trade school. These days, a lot of those schools have closed, and the schools that do exist aren’t always producing the highest quality graduates. So, we’re definitely working to find and/or train people who have these talents.”
Equally challenging is the cost of raw materials. “China has been buying up so much steel lately that the mills are in position where they have so much demand they can basically charge what they want,” Schwartz says. “We do have strong relationships with our suppliers, in large part because we treat them with the same level of importance as we do an external customer, and while our suppliers have little direct influence on the mills themselves, they do work with us to help find the best prices.”
While Tri-Arc customers are primarily in North America, Schwartz notes that recent declines in the general economy do have a bright side. “We’re definitely receiving more interest from foreign companies – we just exhibited at a helicopter association trade show and approximately half of the inquiries we got at our booth were from European companies, which I assume is in part because of the decline of the dollar.”
Another reason, of course, is because of Tri-Arc’s one-of-a-kind service offering. “While we’ll continue to sell standard ladders and platforms, we are moving to emphasize Tri-Arc as a design, engineering and manufacturing firm providing climbing and access solutions,” Schwartz says.
Traditionally, Tri-Arc has sold standard products through distributors and dealers, while selling directly to big box retailers. “For our custom solutions, we’d like to do a combination of both direct sales and distributors. The issue right now is developing the knowledge base with distributors so they have the expertise to work with their customers to design the best solutions that we can then manufacture.”
For now, Tri-Arc is focusing on getting the word out about its unique capabilities with potential customers. “Right now it’s mostly a face-to-face effort,” Schwartz explains. “We used to do about one trade show a year and that was for our industry association. Now, we’re doing seven to eight trade shows in as many different industries.”
That’s certainly a step in the right direction for Tri-Arc that represents a giant leap in improved productivity for its customers.