The manufacture of gauges, regulators and other instrumentation controls is a precise business. Precise because customers want devices that deliver accurate readings. Precise because frequently components must satisfy exacting criteria specified by the customer. Precise because there’s no room for error in countering offshore cost pressures and competitive products.This is why Marsh Bellofram is one of the most highly regarded names in this precise industry. Of course, if you’re not familiar with this industry, you may wonder what kind of name is that?
Bellofram was originally established in the Boston, Mass., area in 1953 to manufacture elastomeric rolling diaphragms. John Taplin, the founder and original owner of Bellofram, designed air cylinders, air regulators, gauge protectors (diaphragm seals), and other pneumatic and hydraulic devices using his diaphragms. Indeed, these very same diaphragms continue to be used in the regulators and gauges sold by Marsh Bellofram today.
In the early 1980s Rexnord purchased Bellofram, and then in 1986 sold Bellofram to the Desco Corporation of Columbus, Ohio. Two years later, Desco purchased Marsh Instrument Company, which was originally established in 1865 in Skokie, Ill., as the James P. Marsh Company. In January 1995, Desco combined the similar product lines of Marsh and Bellofram to form a single company that carries both names of its forebears and employs about 800 people.
Today, Marsh Bellofram Corporation is headquartered in Newell, W.Va., about 25 miles west of Pittsburgh, in the northeastern region of the United States. It makes air and gas regulators, process and medical gauges, electro-pneumatic transducers, air cylinders, thermocouples, diaphragm seals, and elastomeric diaphragms. While it is the whole owner of operations based in the United Kingdom, India and China, 90 percent of its sales are in North America.
Marsh Bellofram operates a 120,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Newell. Taking advantage of the synergies of larger corporate ownership, it also makes use of 80,000 square feet facility in Lancaster, Pa., owned by sister company Automatic Timing and Controls. “As the name implies, ATC makes process instrumentation and relays which are marketed similar to the Marsh Bellofram product line,” explains Dwight Nafziger, vice president of sales and marketing.
Nafziger notes that device manufacturing still relies on manual labor. “Part of the reason is that about 80 percent of what we make is truly a custom application; we’re making the component to customer-defined specs. Even where we do some private label gauges in quantity where we could automate the process, we’d still have to test everything manually, so any efficiency gain would be negligible.”
Marsh Bellofram employs a 12-person direct sales force to market its products across the country and prices for a given product could be anywhere from $10 to $500, depending on the sophistication of the device.
“Basically, the product line is split between mechanical and electronic. Even though the general trend is weighing ever increasingly towards electronic-based, the fact is that for certain applications the cost isn’t justified,” Nafziger says. “Think about it. Do you care if your gas meter at home is electronic or mechanical? No, of course not. You just want to be sure the meter is providing an accurate reading. And mechanical mechanisms are still highly reliable for that kind of application. That said, we also make high-precision, electronic components that are meticulously engineered for both ultra-low and ultra-high pressure conditions. Quality here is foremost. It’s not the kind of situation where if the component fails, you just throw it out and get another $10 device.”
This is not to say that pricing is never a consideration. “Today, everybody needs to be cost-conscious,” Nafziger emphasizes. “We ourselves do source some of our components off-shore to save costs. You can’t ignore that option. However, I also think everyone needs to be real careful in considering what we’re getting from overseas. For certain kinds of high-volume, simple commodities, it’s fine. But for anything that requires some customization, or that has tight deadlines, or needs to be extremely reliable, what you save in going offshore can easily backfire on you in poor quality and supply interruptions.”
He also stresses that Marsh Bellofram can’t simply counter any cost competition with this kind of argument. “We’re all price sensitive, and we’re always looking for ways to reduce our own operational costs as a way to keep the price of the product down,” Nafziger says. “An example of our cost-containment efforts is the implementation of cellular assembly two years ago. We’ve really improved our output by making sure that all the components are available at the right point of use.”
However, Nafziger also says there’s a point of diminishing returns in focusing on cost reductions alone. “We simply can’t produce a gauge for less than a dollar in Newell, and while there might be something out there that you can get for less than a dollar, it’s not worth trying to compete in that market. Customers will eventually realize that if they spend a little more initially they’ll spend less on replacements.”
Another approach to reducing exposure to cost concerns is to pursue specialized markets where pricing is not the primary consideration. “We’re having a lot of success with the medical industry, which has exacting standards and high performance expectations,” Nafziger says. “This is a segment we intend to continue to develop.”
Quality and Reputation
He adds, “In the long run, what it really comes down to is quality and reputation. Marsh Bellofram is a widely known and respected name. We’ve ‘been there and done that as much as anyone in our industry. Engineering plays a critical role at every level in our manufacturing cycle, from design to tooling completion to integrating procedures into production processes, and we offer a total quality commitment. We deliver on time, and we fully support a product that is built right. It’s more the rule than the exception that a customer who decides to go the low-cost route ultimately comes back to us for our reliability and service.”
New product innovation also attracts customers. Nafziger cites in particular the extremely accurate T2000 that “will last forever and is ideal for the paper manufacturing and petrochemical segments.” He adds, “Another hot product line is our Belgas line instruments for the controlled flow of process air and gas. The oil and gas industry and the petrochemical segment as a whole has been experiencing an upswing in business, and, consequently, our business is doing very well too.”
And this is a decided and welcome improvement. “Just like everyone else in the sluggish economy, we had a slow couple of years,” Nafziger says. “However, the economy seems to be improving, we’re currently manufacturing at 100 percent capacity and we’re expecting a 20 percent growth in business over last year.
In addition to improving business conditions, Nafziger feels Marsh Bellofram is also well positioned to capitalize on the increasing technical sophistication of instrumentation customers require. “There’s definitely a movement towards ultra-smart devices, with digital output that can interface with other computerized systems. This makes for a very complicated instrument that frequently requires software-programming skills. Fortunately, combining our engineering expertise with some of the capabilities of our sister company ATC, which is already addressing advances in electronic automated instruments, we’re towards the top of the curve, if not ahead of it.”
And this appears a pretty good indicator of ongoing success.