In business for more nearly 40 years, Thermal Corporation designs and manufactures a broad line of advanced industrial heating equipment highlighted by band and cartridge heaters and thermocouple and RTD probes. However, the Madison, Ala.-headquartered company isn’t just another assembly line operation. Rather, it fashions customized solutions delivered in rapid fashion, particularly for clients in the plastics industry. “Even with our fairly small production facility, we’ve gained a strong market hold through our ability to quickly deliver custom-designed products,” comments Claire Renner, Thermal Corporation’s director of ISO programming and manufacturing.
Bob Stottle founded the family-owned business in 1969, and it initially operated as a reseller of competitor’s products. “But it evolved into a manufacturer,” relates Stottle’s daughter Jennifer Taylor, who now serves as the company’s vice president of marketing.
AN ENGINEER’S PERSPECTIVE
In its early catalog-house existence, Thermal Corporation distributed thermal supplies (e.g., insulation, heat exchangers, heaters, coolers, temperature and heat measuring devices and related supplies), targeting a market that included engineers and scientists in university and industrial laboratory settings. An engineer by education, activity and intellectual inclination, company founder Stottle envisioned his business as a means to support like-minded individuals and organizations. Essentially, he drew from his own experience and observations to develop the kind of company he wished existed when he worked as an engineer.
To make a long story short, Stottle eventually saw that a large number of orders his business received were for cartridge and band heaters. Further, most of those requests came from customers in the plastics industry. In this way, Stottle perceived a business niche. As the company began growing, Stottle’s on-the-fly business education directed him and his company into the industrial heater business. With this pronounced tilt in a new direction, company growth proceeded at a rapid and steady rate.
FROM DISTRIBUTION TO PRODUCTION
By the mid-1970s, Thermal Corporation became the largest distributor of band and cartridge heaters for major U.S. manufacturers of related products. Moreover, Stottle, ever an astute learner, eventually realized that customers who purchased band and cartridge heaters also deployed temperature sensors (i.e., thermocouple and RTD probes). Appropriately, in 1977, Thermal Corporation added probes to its product line, and as the market was without a reliable producer, Thermal made an important corporate decision to produce these items in house. This proved an evolutionary developmental leap, as it steered the company into its manufacturing activities. By 1983, after it secured the necessary capital equipment outlay, the company also manufactured cartridge heaters.
With that considerable financial hurdle surmounted, the company continued moving forward and, in 1991, it started designing and building ceramic knuckle bands. This added another element in the product line, and it complemented Thermal’s mica heater line and enabled the company to better respond to quick-delivery requirements for its manufactured products, which became a company hallmark.
Today, Thermal Corporation’s prime niche is high-quality, custom-made heaters and temperature sensors, and it separates itself from the competition through its characteristic ability to accomplish rapid delivery.
“Our competitors typically require a two- to 12-week window to accomplish their delivery,” says Renner. “But, when it comes to things such as custom heaters, which we design specifically for individual customer needs, we can turn something out in one day or three days, at the most.”
“In many cases, if we get a call in the morning, we can build and ship out a product by the end of the day,” adds Taylor.
Renner indicates another interesting fact: “Because we customize, almost everything that comes out of our plant can be considered a new product.”
CELLULAR WORK FLOW
According to Taylor, Thermal Corporation accomplishes all production beneath one roof that covers an 11,000-square-foot plant. “Within that manufacturing area, we have cell patterns for our five major production lines, which include cartridge heaters, band heaters, thermocouples and RTDs, ceramic bands and nozzles,” says Taylor. “The nozzle band heater is the smallest version of band heating technology, and the ceramic knuckle band, which is an insulated high-watt density, high-amperage type of heater typically deployed in extrusion.”
With the plant’s cellular flow, she adds, the plant includes areas for preparation, fabrication and assembly. “We also have our own testing lab and research and development area, where we can analyze failures, perform component testing, competitor testing and lifetime testing,” she points out.
Adds Renner: “One advance we’ve recently made in the facility is the installation of a Class 4 laser cutting machine that has improved production work. It allows us to cut metal to custom fits, which eliminates a great deal of hand fabrication. It’s one way that we’ve been able to improve speed and efficiency related to quick delivery.”
The company has 32 employees and it employs cross-functional training across teams, which enables individuals to be well versed in more than one product line. “Thus, they can learn a different cell and then shift into areas where help is needed,” informs Taylor.
As far as specific products, Thermal Corporation’s high-temperature cartridge heaters are manufactured with swaged magnesium oxide insulation. Each unit is offered with the option of an incoloy sheath that surpasses stainless steel sheathed heaters as far as temperature ratings and chemical corrosion resistance. In the area of band heaters (which are used to heat cylinders such as barrels and nozzles of plastic injection and extruding machines), the company designs and manufactures mica band, ceramic band and nozzle band heaters, each manufactured to customers’ specific needs. The company’s thermocouples, temperature probes and sensors can measure temperatures up to 1800-degree Fahrenheit. Further, each thermocouple meets exacting tolerances and specifications. In addition, the company provides a wide selection of Fuji PX series temperature controllers for accurate, cost-effective methods to control customers’ process temperatures.
While Thermal Corporation has strongly focused on the plastics, it hasn’t limited itself to that industry. “As far as plastics, we deal with what can be considered a two-way market, as we sell to a lot of distributors who, in turn, seek customers in the plastic industry, and that trickles down into any place where plastic and rubber products are used. But we’ve steered away from that a little bit in our temperature sensor line, which involves food service, metal workings and steel mills,” reveals Taylor.
“We’ve also touched on the automotive and healthcare industries, and one of our newest customers is working on bio-diesel products,” says Renner.
Thermal’s increasing versatility has contributed to the company’s growth, and it has even insulated it from recent vagaries in the U.S. economy. “Despite what’s been happening, our growth has been stable over the past several years,” reports Taylor. “In fact, we’re currently in a situation where we need to hire more engineers, and we’re even targeting development of new products. As we look ahead, we’re anticipating a growth rate of up to 10 percent each year.”
In the meantime, when a customer presents us with a problem, Thermal Corporation engineers work intensely to deliver the most appropriate, viable solution. In this way, the company has established ongoing relationships that fuel the company’s continued development. This commitment to quality and quick service places Thermal Corporation’s customers in fast company – a relationship that benefits everyone concerned.