Volume 13 | Issue 3 | Year 2010

For more than 60 years, Webb Wheel Products has designed, manufactured and supplied wheel end equipment characterized by its industry’s highest quality levels.
“We started out in 1946 and in the next six decades, we emerged as one of North America’s leading provider of wheel end components, serving three commercial vehicle classes [6,7 and 8] and three sectors [truck/trailer OEMs, transit/bus and aftermarket],” describes Vice President of Sales and Marketing Ken Kelley.

Indeed, Webb Wheel provides what are arguably the world’s best brake drums, as well as hubs, rotors and spoke wheels. The inevitable question: How did the Cullman, Ala.-based business reach this pinnacle of achievement?

“We became an industry leader by continually investing in our future,” Kelley points out, adding that dollars are funneled into new manufacturing technology, research and, ultimately, new product development. “During the past decade, when many North American suppliers felt pressured to move manufacturing out of the United States, we decided that it seemed more logical to invest in advanced equipment that would foster domestic production.”

Investment not only assured the company’s survival in a complex new-world economic order but also positioned the company as a competitor to beat. “We were able to deploy elements such as automation, robotics, bar coding and vision systems,” Kelley reveals. “We minimized manufacturing costs without sacrificing product quality, which proved attractive to our customers.”

The next logical question involves cost: How much did Webb need to put out? The total figure isn’t available but Kelley offers an idea about the kind of figures involved: “Since 2004, Webb has invested more than $45 million in facility and capability upgrades.”

A hefty price to be sure, but it helped Webb maintain and sustain and then grow its technological excellence, and it provided the company a level of manufacturing superiority that represented an industry benchmark. Further, it helped shelter Webb against the cold and harsh global winds. “Our industry has been impacted – or attacked, that’s a better word – by imports, especially from China,” observes Kelley. “So, rather than outsourcing product, we decided that investing in our company, our customers and our shared future made better sense.”

The company’s intuitive assessment proved correct. “Today, our capabilities enable us to successfully compete with the off-shoring ‘bandits,’ with almost all products made in the United States by a very dedicated and highly skilled workforce,” explains Kelley.

The technological investment – into robotics and automatics and such – helped the company streamline its throughput, which contributed to the client value proposition.

“Our customers pay a slight premium over our competition, which they’re willing to do, as they know they’ll receive a higher level of quality and a more consistent delivery of products,” says Kelley, pointing out that the alternative – product importation – leads to variability in quality and delivery.

Also, customers currently want to only place small- to medium-sized orders to optimize working capital and maximize cash flow, observes Kelley. “They want to have these orders filled quickly so that they can place their next order. Meeting this need requires a dependably short lead time, and that’s something we now readily offer.”

True, the customer pays for such dependability, and they’re willing to spend the extra cash. Bottom line: The lowest price doesn’t always provide the most advantageous return. Webb customers readily perceive the subtle difference.

As far as customers, Webb’s business units address the company’s three focus areas – truck and trailer OEMs, transit/bus and aftermarket – and these units are so well defined that Webb can easily and regularly target the needs of its strategic partners. Further, Webb keeps itself close at hand. It has established a coast-to-coast distribution network that ensures immediate product availability. The network includes more than 8,000 warehouse distributors and OEM truck and trailer dealers.

On the OEM side, the company’s major customers include trailer companies such as Great Dane, Utility Trailer and Wabash National. On the transport side, Webb serves such well-known names as Kenworth, Peterbilt, Freightliner, Volvo/Mack and Navistar. In the meantime, it captured a significant portion of the industry’s aftermarket business.

All the while, the company went the extra mile, as it realized that its customers’ growth and success contributes to its own growth and success. It’s a formula that, like an algebraic equation, is at once both simplistic and profound and, above all, symmetrical. All you need to do is understand the math.

Of course, it helps that Webb is associated with a leading global manufacturing enterprise. Webb is part of the Marmon Highway Technologies (MHT) company that provides a family of commercial vehicle products and services for similar customers. In turn, all MHT companies belong to the Marmon Group, an international association (and a Berkshire Hathaway company) comprised of more than 125 business units that operate independently within diverse business sectors.

Webb was placed beneath the Marmon umbrella back in 1971, following a major industry acquisition. Webb’s own roots date back to 1946, when the basic and seminal manifestation (then known as Webb Wheel) was established in Webb City, Mo. Ensuing decades formed a complex narrative of acquisitions and company moves, but the most important thing to know is that, after it moved into its current Cullman headquarters in 1981, the company experienced growth that was consistent and regular and that ultimately made significant contributions to the trucking industry.

Today, Webb has several major facilities, each one centering on the company’s various activities. Its Cullman site includes company headquarters, transit unit plant, and one of its major aftermarket manufacturing facilities. Webb has another aftermarket manufacturing facility located in Siloam Springs, Ark., as well as an OEM manufacturing unit situated in Tell City, Ind. The Arkansas plant encompasses 350,000 square feet, while the Indiana facility measures 80,000 square feet.

Two years ago – in a major strategic initiative –Webb opened an R&D facility to service all of its units. It not only enhanced capabilities but also increased the Cullman site to more than 400,000 square feet. “It’s a standalone operation,” describes Kelley. “That is, it doesn’t attach itself to any one focus area of production. We equipped it with leading-edge technology, such as an in-house dynamometer that simulates vehicle braking events in a controlled laboratory environment.”

The facility also includes state-of-the-art rapid prototyping and metallurgical equipment and a fully functional prototype foundry. “By establishing such a facility, we not only can develop new products but get these products to the market much more quickly,” Kelley points out. “It represents just one more substantial financial investment in our overall growth plan. Further, it enabled us to produce parts that will make a huge difference in our future product line. Our recently introduced Webb Vortex™ brake drum technology is one such product.”

The first Webb Vortex™ product was introduced in 2008. In February 2010, Webb debuted a complete family of Webb Vortex™ brake drum sizes at the Technology & Maintenance Council’s annual meeting. According to the company, this latest Webb Vortex™ product family represents a high-performance, cost-effective solution for fleets that need and seek the most viable alternatives to meet existing and near future industry standards.

The new Webb Vortex™ advantage specifically relates to one of the U.S. transportation industry’s most considerable trends. The federal government recently issued an update rule that requires a reduced stopping distance for new commercial vehicle tractors. This 30-percent reduction – a staggering figure – goes into effect in 2011. Beyond Webb walls, technology already exists that will help achieve the new standard, but Webb will help its clients more easily address the cost and weight logistics. “The change requires substantial brake equipment changes to a truck’s front axle,” explains Kelley. “More torque will be required, and the standard size of the brake system will be forever changed.”

In response to new regulations, Webb expanded the number of vehicle applications for its Webb Vortex™ drum to include drums for larger and/or wider S-cam drum brakes. The company anticipates that many fleets will choose its options. Simply stated, as fleets upgrade to larger/wider brake drums to meet the new stopping distance legislation, the Webb Vortex™ drum technology will help offset additional weight incurred.

The North American transportation industry has been hit hard during the current recession with declining freight volumes and rising operating costs; however, over the past several decades, this industry sector has shown great resilience and innovation. Fleets are constantly seeking technological solutions to optimize profitability. Each pound of weight saved equates to an added pound of payload (revenue) and major fleets calculate fuel mileage in tenths or ten thousandths of a mile.

According to the EPA, “Every 10 percent drop in truck weight reduces fuel use between five and 10 percent. Trimming 3,000 pounds from a heavy truck (about four percent of its loaded weight) with lighter-weight components could improve fuel economy by up to three percent and save between 200 and 500 gallons of fuel each year. Saving this much fuel would eliminate between two to five metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.”

Webb is addressing this trend. “Currently, there is a lot of activity related to emissions in the heavy truck industry,” says Kelley.

As the company reports, since 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated phased-in changes to diesel engines used in North American commercial vehicles. The changes were designed to reduce the amount of diesel exhaust emissions. Over time, changes to diesel engines have increased their weight and cost and, in some cases, caused a slight reduction in fuel mileage. Meanwhile, commercial fleets have sought methods to lose weight and increase fuel mileage. “The engines necessary to meet EPA regulations cost more and weigh more, so fleets have been seeking viable solutions to save weight and improve fuel economy. Webb has been working on this for quite some time,” says Kelley.

This explains how and why Webb’s revenues have surpassed the $150 million level. The company continually heeds industry and customer needs, and it responds by developing technology that is not only appropriate but cost efficient. That comes back to investment. Webb’s financial outlays have led to outstanding products and, further, positioned the company at the vanguard of its industry.

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