It also demonstrates an enormous capacity for adaptation to economic circumstances. Dan Harvey gazes up with wonder at a business that continues standing tall.
There’s a scene in the 1950’s science-fiction film, “The War of the Colossal Beast,” that encapsulates what the Delair, N.J.-based Aluminum Shapes LLC is all about. Early in the movie, a 60-foot-tall man’s enormous footprints leads searchers to a large truck that bears his giant fingerprint.
“While we don’t boldly imprint our names upon our products, our fingerprints are all over the place,” says Bob Jennings, who became the aluminum-extruding company’s new Chief Executive Officer in November 2009, “whether on a tractor trailer, a rail car, storefronts or the curtain walls at large construction sites.”
“You can’t go far in this country without coming across our footprint,” adds Jim Rutherford, who has been with Aluminum Shapes for 34 years and is now in charge of manufacturing.
In business since 1954 (founder Ben Corson seized upon opportunities in the then-emerging aluminum extrusion field), the company involved itself in projects best described as “colossal.” In recent years, it served as the exclusive supplier of aluminum extrusions for the Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument restoration projects.
Such achievements and capabilities would engender any company the omnipresence of a giant, and Aluminum Shapes is certainly a walking-tall industry leader. One of the largest extruders in the United States, Aluminum Shapes boasts a complete range of capabilities within a single plant, which enables the company to better serve a diverse range of customers in the architectural, construction, defense, distribution, and transportation industries.
Large dimensional descriptions also apply to the company’s production facility, a 1.5 million-square-foot plant situated on 50 New Jersey acres. In 1995, the company, which is owned by HIG Capital, a private equity group located in Miami, Fla., installed the most advanced and largest extrusion press of its kind in North America. Appropriate to the company’s name, this installation allows Aluminum Shapes to produce every type of extrusion. The 6,500-metric-ton press extrudes shapes up to a 24 inches wide with weights of up to 40 pounds per foot.
Further, the vertically integrated facility includes two cast houses and seven more presses that range from seven- to 16-inch diameters. “We have the capability to put out 12 million pounds a month, if we get really busy,” reveals Rutherford.
“We’re also a one-stop-shop,” adds Jennings. Besides owning its own extrusion presses, the company is able to anodize, weld, assemble, fabricate and paint.
“Not only do we have the ability to work with a large number of different alloys, we also offer a full range of downstream capabilities, performing functions for customers who’d rather not involve their operations in activities such as cutting, punching and welding,” he says.
THE DOWNSTREAM COURSE
The extrusion process begins within Aluminum Shapes’ own technologically sophisticated foundry, where the company manufactures precision-formulated billets. Reverberatory furnaces melt and process the aluminum ingots, and then transfer molten aluminum into holding/tilting furnaces, where the aluminum is cast into finished logs.
The company’s fabrication department enables it to meet customers’ special requirements. The department includes more than 200 pieces of precision equipment including brake presses and punch presses with up to 400 tons of punching and forming power; miter, cut-off, chop and precision saws capable of cutting up to 24 inches across and down to a half-inch long; pine benders; multi-head spindle drills; and vertical CNC machining centers equipped with pallet changers for running small parts, and larger tables with extended travel for large parts. Further, the welding shop includes the latest equipment for tig and mig welding of extrusions into custom-assembled parts.
As far as anodizing, Aluminum Shapes recently installed one of the most sophisticated lines in the world. Boasting four fully automated, computer-controlled hoists, it can move up to 30,000 square feet of aluminum extrusion during each shift through its tanks for Class I and Class II architectural finishes. Finally, the electrostatic paint processing (which includes a five-stage spray pre-treatment system) creates durable and attractive finishes.
The facility is governed by lean manufacturing principles and a continuous improvement program. In addition, the company’s engineering principles are among the industry’s most innovative, as the engineering staff deploys state-of-the-art CAD/CAM systems to develop draft extrusion die prints for any type of aluminum application.
It’s all part of Aluminum Shapes’ stated mission to provide customers the highest levels of service and quality, which entails on-time delivery of durable yet cost-effective products that meet or exceed client expectation.
ADAPTING TO HARD TIMES
Aluminum Shapes’ high-level customer focus is bolstered by the company’s adaptability and flexibility, which it has certainly demonstrated as the country works its way through the current recession. Essentially, economic circumstances have significantly impacted how Aluminum Shapes operates.
“During this recession, we’ve seen the number of our customers increase. However, as with everyone else in other industries or businesses, just about every order we now run is smaller than what we’ve typically run during the good times,” says Jennings. “That has dramatically changed the business’ complexion.”
For one thing, Aluminum Shapes needed to learn how to become more efficient and effective at the shorter runs, especially related to making quicker machine changeovers and reducing scrap. “This is important because in this period of shorter runs, prices have come down. Normally, in better times, a shorter run size would command a higher price,” explains Jennings.
“But it’s not only run size that has been impacted,” adds Rutherford. “Everyone now needs and wants quicker delivery.”
Indeed, as customers become cash-strapped, they’ve moved more toward just-in-time inventories, Jennings points out. “They want us to produce two to three days before needed, and only in an exact quantity. It’s not like it was in the recent past, when we could operate larger runs and ship the product, and the customer would stock it. So, where they once ordered larger quantities every 30 days, they now want smaller quantities every two weeks.”
Aluminum Shapes’ willingness to adapt not only underscores its customer commitment but also indicates practical business sense. Beyond its versatile manufacturing capabilities, the company keeps determining and adding new ways to assist customers. “It’s about things such as kitting parts, packaging, making weekly deliveries – we’re finding ways to accomplish what they need,” says Rutherford, about customers’ expressed concerns.
The company realizes the bottom line: This accommodating approach promotes new business growth but, more importantly, it maintains existing business. Rutherford perfectly summarizes with a pungent observation: “It’s far easier to find new business among existing customers than it is to go out find new customers.
In the meantime, Jennings says that Aluminum Shapes will remain focused on retaining its talented workforce (the current roster includes nearly 450 employees) as it continues demonstrating, and even adding to, its enormous capacity and large range of capabilities. While its industry has experienced tremendous consolidation and downsizing in an incredible shrinking world, Aluminum intends to keep its gigantic stature.