Producing high-quality steel castings for a multitude of industries, Harrison Steel combines a traditional philosophy of product quality and reliability with the modern principles of lean manufacturing and a focus on continuous improvement. Geoff Curtis, Vice President and General Manager, and Bill Fricke, Director of Quality, discuss the deep-rooted history of their company, as well as some recent shifts in mindset and organizational investments that have them poised to succeed for many years to come. Steve Engelhardt reports.
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Harrison Steel was founded in 1906 by J.W. Harrison, an English immigrant who had spent time working in foundries prior to coming over to the United States in the beginning of the century. Working for a business called the National Car Coupler Company, they noticed his expertise and extensive experience in working with foundries and asked him to develop one of his own in Indiana, to produce and supply parts for the bustling rail industry at the time.
Harrison’s success allowed him to take over the foundry on his own, and by 1914, he had left the rail industry behind in favor of the construction and mining sector, a move bolstered by steady business from Holt Manufacturing, a company that later went on to become Caterpillar.
Curtis, a fourth generation, great-grandson of Harrison, says that since then, the company has worked hard to maintain their roots in tradition while also embracing innovation, something that has particularly been on display over the last five years. “Over the last 20 years, we have worked hard on improving upon our steel casting processes for the OEM construction and mining market,” he says, adding, “But lately, given our sustained success, facilitated by strategic planning, we find ourselves aggressively moving into other industries as demand for high quality steel castings has spilled over into additional markets, including oil and gas, pump and valve, power generation, and agriculture as well.”
Investing In The Future
Fortifying this expansion into additional markets is the fact that Harrison Steel has invested significantly into its processing capabilities, including the implementation of changes in their melting practices, and a $11 million investment into a brand new, 29,000-square-foot finish machine shop. “We have really made a strong effort towards diversifying ourselves, because in today’s marketplace, high quality steel castings are in demand, and we’re in a position to meet that with our new abilities and refined manufacturing methodologies,” Curtis says.
He says that spurring this change was a slight shift in company philosophy thirteen years ago, when leadership came together and developed what they refer to as their “Critical Success Factors.” “We embrace our history and how we got here, but we wanted to become global competitors,” he says, adding, “So we set out to increase the rate of return on our investments, diversified our products and markets, increased employee satisfaction, and as a result, improved our customers’ loyalty.”
In terms of their products, Fricke says its all about quality and reliability. We offer on-time delivery he says, continuing, “and in terms of quality, we measure that through parts per million that are defective, and to date this year, that number is only at 1,250.” He says that optimizing a customer’s “value stream” is extremely important to them, and with additions like the new finishing machine shop, which includes state-of-the-art Mazak V100 and E1850 machines, they are in a position to do just that.
On top of advanced machinery and expansive floor space, Harrison Steel’s manufacturing prowess is displayed as much in the actual machinery as it is in the production processes employed to facilitate it all. “A few years ago, during this organizational shift, we looked inward at our production facilities and sought ways to improve the overall logistics of everything,” Fricke says, adding, “After conducting tests such as Process Failure Mode Effect Analysis (PFMEA), we were able to develop our own unique production system called HPS, or the Harrison Production System.”
Fricke says that continuous improvement is central to their manufacturing efforts, and the Harrison Production System, inspired in part by similar programs run by Toyota and Caterpillar, seeks to do just that by utilizing metrics and other problem solving tools to determine the factors of their manufacturing facilities that are critical to their overall success.
The system also advocates for a significant amount of lean programs and Six Sigma techniques, to provide them with a tremendous amount of additional data, enabling them to effectively keep their finger on the pulse of their manufacturing efforts at all times. “Manufacturing is the focal point of Harrison Steel, and we have made very strong efforts over these last five years to ensure that the aspect that is most crucial to our company is also our biggest strength,” Fricke says, adding, “and I would say that as of today, we have achieved that goal.”
And yet, if manufacturing is the company’s biggest advantage, its customer service isn’t far behind. The company has increased its customer staff, not only through additional hiring, but also through inward training, turning its metallurgical, methods, and quality engineers into additional beacons of assistance for customers in need of expert insight. “We like to work with our customers in every step of the process, because their opinions and confidence in our production capabilities is extremely important to us,” Curtis says, adding, “and given our inclination towards continuous improvement, we are always open to hearing their suggestions for improvements in our processes.”
In addition to listening to the voices of their customers, Harrison Steel also offers ‘Foundry 101’ classes for those who may not be entirely up to speed on the nature of steel castings. “Not every engineer we run into is going to be familiar with castings, so we want to be able to provide them with the most impactful knowledge that we can,” Fricke says, adding, “Two to three times a year we will either go to a customer site or host a foundry presentation from our headquarters, discussing casting processes and the factors that inhibit or better enable their usefulness.” Because at the end of the day, Curtis say that Harrison Steel looks to serve as not only a manufacturer and supplier of steel castings, but also as an educator and partner that customers can rely upon long before or after a deal is made. “Continuous improvement is key to our goals, and being transparent and open to the market’s demands is a great way to achieve that,” he says.
He recalls a particular instance a couple of years ago with a customer who was introducing a new mining truck to the marketplace and had chosen an overseas competitor to produce one of the needed casting components. Yet, right before being made available, it was discovered that there was a severe quality issue with a particular casting. “Our customer asked for our help and we jumped in with both feet. We produced the casting modeling, pattern production and had samples ready for first article inspection, all of which was done from our facilities in Attica,” Curtis says, adding, “within six weeks, we were shipping these castings to the customer, who had a global demand for their mining trucks, and allowed them to meet that demand with very little downtime.”
Keeping an open mind in what is a fast-evolving world, Harrison Steel has the tangible capabilities and philosophical flexibility to not only stay competitive, but thrive in the modern steel castings market. “We understand the sophisticated nature of the market, and have adapted to the needs,” Curtis says, concluding, “But at the end of the day, it’s about delivering a quality product on time.”