North Carolina-based Ultra Machine and Fabrication is a manufacturer of precision sheet metal products specializing in armor plate. David Soyka reports on how this unique company lives up to its name in providing products that literally make the difference between life and death.
Standard business lingo talks about targeting markets or targeting growth. However, for Ultra Machine and Fabrication, its products are made for customers who literally are targets in Afghanistan and Iraq. This Shelby, N.C.-based defense contractor manufactures armor plated parts used in military vehicles that are credited with saving lives in providing a high level of protection against improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Frank Stewart founded the company in 1989 originally to make precision machined parts for the textile, tobacco and rubber industries, as well as the military. Only three years ago, the company, which remains privately-owned, had as few as 25 employees making primarily industrial parts. Today, it has about 380 employees, with 98 percent of its business focused on military work. It also recently expanded its 110-acre campus to encompass a total of 223,500 square feet under roof for manufacturing and office space. The Shelby facility is dedicated to component assembly, fabrication and shipping. A portion of the cutting, bending and welding of armor plate is performed mostly at a 70,000-square-foot plant in nearby Kings Mountain. In addition, a new parts painting subsidiary opened a 70,000-square-foot building in Forest City. This facility has both commercial and military paint capabilities. Ultra is ISO 9001:2000 registered and is also a federally-qualified HUBZone manufacturer, a designation standing for “historically underutilized business zone,” launched during the Clinton administration to give preference on federal contracts to small companies located in disadvantaged areas.
Ultra produces parts from armor and steel plate and fabricates subassemblies that are shipped to prime military contractors for final assembly onto a military vehicle.
“There aren’t many fabricators equipped to do what we do,” explains Wendell Fannin, vice president of business development. “Armor and high strength steel plate is a totally different animal; it requires a pretty big investment in specialized equipment required to set up and cut parts.” Indeed, the company just invested $15 million, both to acquire new equipment and expand its facilities space to gear up its armor plated parts manufacturing capabilities.
“We recently purchased two 6,000-watt Tanaka laser cutters and two 6,000-watt Bystronic lasers, which are some of the largest lasers you can get, to add to our two Mitsubishi lasers,” Fannin notes. “The Tanaka Laser is a 13-foot by 224-foot dual gantry plate laser capable of processing large and thick plate. The Bystronic Lasers are 5-foot by 10-foot shuttle-table style lasers. The Tanaka laser, in particular, allows you to lay very wide pieces of sheet metal down and still hold tight tolerances.”
Ultra also has precision CNC (computer numerical controlled) press brakes capable of handling a multitude of parts in all sizes and thickness, including a fully automated 2,000-ton, 40-foot press brake that is the only one of its kind in operation in the southeast. The company also has five high-definition plasma cutting machines, referred to as the “workaholics” of the manufacturing area. One of these machines is dedicated to beveling and drilling capabilities that eliminates costly secondary operations.
Fannin is quick to note, however, that the right equipment is just one half of the equation. “The experience and dedication of our employees, some of whom are military veterans, makes them fully focused on achieving levels of excellence that are absolutely essential in making parts that directly bear on the safety of American service people. At Ultra, quality is not a standalone process that gets performed right before shipping the product, but rather drives every step of the manufacturing process.”
Ultra employs 180 certified welders to perform highly technical large weldments with close tolerances that involve very strict visual and non-destructive testing on-site. “In addition, we have four certified welding inspectors and two certified associate welding inspectors,” Fannin points out.
While some manufacturers are struggling with attracting and retaining skilled labor, Fannin says, “The labor pool in this region is pretty good. As a company, the quality of our labor is pretty strong and certainly one of our assets.”
This is not to say that Ultra isn’t also on the cutting edge of automation. “We have six robotic welding cells that are well suited for a broad range of applications, including small, stationary parts that may require welding on one or more sides, nested arrangements of parts grouped into fixtures, and medium sized parts and assemblies,” Fannin notes. From its inception Ultra has been committed to continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, and continuous learning in every facet of its operation. We’re always looking for ways to better our processes.”
Ultra has ramped up to provide components for up to 500 trucks per month, but has hit a temporary roadblock. “The government scaled back from our original expectations,” Fannin says, “so our production isn’t what we originally thought. However, the increased capacity we attained in anticipating this demand represents an opportunity for us to diversify. We’re exploring several potential industrial markets for our specialized fabrication capabilities. The crane industry, for example, requires these long stretches of housing for their equipment. Similarly, mining equipment often requires larger protective plates.”
The company also diversified internally in starting a painting business, called Ultra Coat, which will employ about 100 people in Forest City, N.C. According to Fannin, “This unit is primarily for the application of chemical resistant coatings on large subassemblies made from armor plating.” “Right now, that work is mainly to supply its primary military customers, but we are looking for other commercial opportunities as well.”
While Ultra utilizes its own direct sales force, it is looking to add outside salespeople to further support its growth strategy. “We’ve been looking at independent salespeople, but we want to be careful that these are individuals we know and trust who can knowledgeably represent us,” Fannin says. “The integrity of Ultra is what has earned the trust and confidence of our customers, and we don’t ever want to lose sight of that as we grow the business.”
In addition to diversifying into new markets and expanding its customer base while maintaining its commitment to defense contracting, Fannin expresses two goals. “We want to be the technology leader of Cleveland County, not only for us to attract business, but to attract additional business here to North Carolina. Secondly, we are instituting practices to become a green company. We live in a beautiful part of the country and we feel it’s only right that we do what we can to give back to the environment in any way we can.”
Fannin points to founder and president Stewart as the driving force behind Ultra’s recent success. “Frank is truly a visionary, always looking for what’s next and how to address it positively. From the start, Frank wanted Ultra to become a growth-oriented, world-class, customer-driven company. I think we’ve achieved this, and at the same time, we’re making a significant contribution to the war on terror.”
In a recent Veteran’s Day presentation recognizing the contributions of its employees, Stewart commented, “With the increasing global threat in the last few years, the need for innovative companies to develop and manufacture vehicles for the protection of soldiers is critical to savings lives and preserving American values. We at Ultra are proud to assist in such an important endeavor by providing precision armor parts for companies that manufacture such vehicles. We all strive together in finding an effective solution to an ever-present and real danger.”
And this is why Ultra’s corporate slogan is, “We’ve got success in our sights.”