When you manufacture components other companies use to make their products, the pressures are threefold. First, you must distinguish yourself as a premier supplier of the best components in the marketplace. Second, your components must enhance your customers’ end products so that those products can identify the customers as premier manufacturers, in and of themselves. Third, your prestige depends on just how well you understand the exact needs of the customers for whom you are designing and manufacturing components. It’s quite an order to fill.
Hydro Aluminum Wells has handled these pressures very successfully. Headquartered in Baltimore, the company has established itself as a leading custom manufacturer of aluminum extrusion-based components and assemblies. Its clientele includes leading manufacturers of transportation, building/construction, consumer-durable and electrical products. Hydro Wells prides itself on establishing close relationships with these customers early on in the design phase, to determine exactly what their needs are. Sometimes that takes some doing, because customers might not even understand how completely the company could meet their needs.
“A customer might come to us initially for an extrusion, not knowing that we offer manufacturing services and can deliver complete components and subassemblies,” explains Lynn Brown, senior vice president of sales and marketing. By sitting down with its customers and carefully discussing the end use of the component they are requesting, Hydro Wells can then offer suggestions for its value-added capabilities. “What we want to know is how that extrusion will then be further manufactured,” Brown continues.
“In addition to extrusions, some of our customers depend on us to manufacture complete subassemblies involving multiple parts and multiple operations,” Brown says. “We may use components we extrude and others that we purchase on the outside. Then we’ll fabricate with processes ranging from straightforward precision cutting, deburring, punching, drilling, bending and assembly to highly complex, dedicated manufacturing programs. At the extreme, we can provide a completed product for the customer. For one customer, we extrude the metal, finish it and cut it to the desired length. Then we assemble with purchased bracketry, package and label the product. For this customer, we provide a product they can take right off their shelf and send directly to their own customers.”
To Market, To Market
Products using components manufactured by Hydro Wells include things we all use every day. Hydro Wells’ components are found in drapery hardware, pleasure boats, swimming pools, exercise equipment and office furniture. They also go into integrated circuit board mounting plates, heat sinks, electrical distribution bus bars, materials-handling systems and amplifier housings for telecommunications applications.
The building/construction industry uses a substantial portion of the components produced by Hydro Wells. “We manufacture parts for virtually anything you will find in a residential or commercial construction project,” says Brown. “That includes components for windows, skylights, swimming pools, heating and ventilating systems, storm doors, railings and even stadium seating systems.”
Another major percent of the company’s output is used in products for the transportation industry. These include automotive air deflectors, heat sinks, window tracks and Class 8 truck products such as bumper components, structural subframes and truck door assemblies. Other products in this segment include structural components and decking for trailers, and windows for school buses. “We are the largest supplier of school bus windows in the U.S. and we supply most of the major school bus manufacturers,” notes Brown.
Hydro Wells also produces consumer durables. This category includes components for pleasure boats, fitness products and high-end office furniture. “We supply a lot of components to many leading office furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller, Knoll International and Hayworth,” says Brown.
The company is also involved in the manufacture of electrical and industrial components. “We supply to the lighting industry, primarily architectural lighting and industrial lighting fixtures,” says Brown. Other products in this category include components for telecommunications amplifier housings, materials-handling systems, integrated circuit board mounting plates, food service equipment, heat sinks and electrical distribution bus bars.
Yes, We Can
“It’s the can-do attitude of our people and our ability to deliver custom products for challenging and demanding applications that really sets us apart,” notes Brown. “No one else in our industry has as robust a set of value-added capabilities as we do. For example, we recently opened a new, 106,000 square-foot facility in Sidney, Ohio, where we use highly advanced, computer-driven manufacturing equipment like robotic welders and computer-controlled routers, which you would not find in competitors’ facilities.” The Sidney plant is dedicated to manufacturing cab components for a leading Class 8 truck manufacturer, with whom Hydro Wells has partnered.
When a manufacturer of industrial lighting fixtures came to Hydro Wells with a problem, that manufacturer left with a solution and a brand-new product line.
“They were building their fixtures out of sheet metal and were having difficulty with heat dissipation, so they couldn’t use the wattage that some of their customers wanted in the fixtures,” Brown explains. Working with that manufacturer’s engineers, Hydro Wells helped redesign the fixture, basing it around a few large aluminum extrusions. Brown adds, “The extruded components act as a heat sink, so they were able to double the bulb wattage they can handle in a fixture without significantly affecting its overall size. The new design we helped them with saved them money as well. They’ve also used that fixture to develop a lot of flexibility in their product line.”
The can-do attitude that prevails throughout the company begins with management. “We hire management people with an entrepreneurial attitude who have a complete business perspective, and can consider both the operational manufacturing side and the sales-and-marketing side of our business,” says Brown.
Hydro Wells operates six other facilities in addition to its headquarters. Aside from the aforementioned Sidney plant, these facilities are located in Kalamazoo, Mich., Belton, S.C., North Liberty, Ind., Monett/Cassville, Mo., and Moultrie, Ga. The company employs 1,800 people in its 1.2 million square feet of space.
Hydro Wells is focused on two fundamental manufacturing strategies that allow it to continue providing value-added services. “First, we are upgrading our extrusion technology through the utilization of the technical resources of our parent company, Hydro Aluminum Extrusion, a unit of Norsk Hydro of Oslo, Norway,” says Brown. Hydro Extrusion is the second-largest extrusion company in the world.
“Their world-class extrusion technology offers us a marvelous opportunity to upgrade our manufacturing processes and the consistency of those processes.
“Hydro Extrusion’s technical people get integrated into our company in a number of ways,” Brown adds. “We use them on a consulting basis, so they are spending a fair amount of time on site and in our plants working with our people and offering their technological expertise. We’ve also brought in some people from their organization to work with us on a full-time basis.”
Prior to Norsk Hydro’s purchase of the company in February 2000, the company was known as Wells Aluminum Corporation. “It’s very clear that Hydro’s objective in purchasing Wells was to establish a strong presence in the custom extrusion business in the U.S.,” says Brown, who notes that Hydro Wells is prepared for additional growth based on this fact. Hydro Wells reports that 1999 revenues were about $270 million. “Norsk Hydro, with $13 billion in sales, offers us the opportunity to develop new technologies to handle the needs of our customers,” Brown states.
Hydro Wells’ second strategy is to continue to invest in value-added capabilities and capacity. The recent expansion of the Sidney operations is one example. In addition, Hydro Wells recently expanded a paint line and added several new cutoff saws and CNC machining centers.
“Our modest objective is to make Hydro Wells the best extruder in North America,” Brown says, “and we believe we can take that leadership role. We might not be the biggest, but we certainly think that we can be the best.”