In 1963, two Swedish engineers decided they had some better ideas to improve the extrusion manufacturing process. This “welding of minds” formed the basis for what is today the Sapa Group, an international fabricator of aluminum components with significant market presence in Scandinavia, Europe, Asia and, thanks to the acquisition of Portland, Ore.-based Anodizing, Inc. in 2000, now in the U.S.
Sapa, Inc. is an independent operating company and, in the decentralized decision-making structure that characterizes the Sapa Group’s operational philosophy, can rightly pat itself on the back for becoming the market leader and establishing a distinctive brand identity as an innovative solutions-provider in the northwest region. Still, Sapa believes there’s more work to be done to improve operations, reduce errors and enhance product quality even further. “The future challenge for us is to transfer and integrate the knowledge and experience of our parent company to introduce new technology and more value-added services,” says Patrik Andersson, marketing manager.
Indeed, Sapa Inc.’s competitive advantage builds not only on the customer base and experience of an acquired company in business since 1964, but the worldwide technical resources and connections of an international company. At the same time, it enjoys the independence of being the captain of its own fate in promoting unique products and production techniques.
The New Metal of Choice
Though it is not yet as widely used as in Europe, aluminum is beginning to replace steel as the metal of choice for transportation and construction applications. In addition to being lighter but still high-strength, aluminum is also more easily recyclable. Aluminum extrusions as an alternative to the casting and injection molding of other more traditional materials such as wood, copper and plastic is what distinguishes Sapa Inc., and as aluminum continues to capture market share from other materials, so, too, does Sapa.
However, it is hardly a simple matter of having the right product at the right time, though that is certainly an underpinning factor. Equally important is providing customers with custom solutions that respond to their needs in timely, flexible and cost-effective fashion.
With about 800 employees, Sapa Inc. maintains North American headquarters in Portland (worldwide corporate headquarters are in Stockholm, Sweden) while operating six manufacturing facilities totaling 500,000 square feet that include six extrusion presses, two anodizing lines, vertical and horizontal paint lines, extensive machining, fabrication and welding facilities, a sheet metal fabrication plant, and a thermal break line. The company also maintains a division focusing on precision aluminum extrusions that operates throughout the U.S.
Sapa makes frame parts for bicycles and aircraft, construction materials for high-rise buildings, heat exchangers for automobiles, and various “built-to-order” applications for customers in a range of industries. And while Andersson acknowledges that cost is, as always, a concern, it is not the overriding factor.
Manage Production Costs
“Our focus is on bringing value to the application,” he points out. “While some manufacturers compete as commodity suppliers, least-expensive isn’t always best because it may not fit exactly what the customers need, when they need it.”
In addition to being ISO accredited, Sapa Inc. is, as you would expect from a company with roots in Sweden, a practitioner of lean manufacturing practices. One example is a total production management program (TPM) in which teams responsible for a specific manufacturing process are formed to identify waste and eliminate underlying causes. The results of one team’s efforts are then shared with other TPM teams to assist in solving similar production problems and avoid replication of effort.
Value-Added Services and Technology
Value-added services include working closely with customers to meet unique technical requirements and tight lead times. “We have a direct sales force that is highly technically-oriented and whose primary function is to support the customer in developing design specifications,” Andersson explains. “Sometimes the customer hands us the specs, but just as often our engineers get involved at the start of the design process to achieve an optimum solution.” Andersson stresses, however, that this is a future direction and more inherent in the capabilities of the company’s European operations.
Also, because Sapa Inc. manufactures most of its own dies, lead times are dramatically shorter, one to three days as opposed to one to three weeks. Quick delivery of an exact fit to a precise customer need is a large part of the Sapa Inc. success story. Equally important, Andersson explains, is innovative manufacturing technology that produces complex shapes more precisely as well as more economically.
“With our friction-stir process, a rotating tool is pressed into the metal and moved along the lines of a joint, without need of a filler metal or shielding gas,” notes Andersson, who adds this also is a part of the overall group’s capabilities. “Aluminum is ideal for this process because it is able to withstand high temperature. By effectively welding extrusions together in this fashion, we can provide a larger single extrusion. Compared with fusion welding, you get more strength and greater leakproofness, as well as joints that are perfectly flush. From a manufacturing perspective, it increases repeatability because there are fewer variables to control.”
Another innovative technology is a hydro forming process that uses high-pressure water to form three-dimensional shapes in a single operation (again, a Sapa Europe technology, not yet employed in the U.S.) A profile is placed in a die that has an inner geometry that replicates the shape of the finished component created through hydrostatic pressure. This results in reduced machining, which in turn lowers production lead time and manufacturing cost.
Andersson emphasizes that “we are continually involved in research to improve every aspect of extrusion technology. Our abilities to produce extrudable hard and soft aluminum alloys sets us apart as one of the few manufacturers capable of producing 2000-, 7000- and 6000-series alloys. These capabilities, along with the utilization of the most modern and innovative methods of extrusion die tooling design and equipment technology, provide us with the capabilities to offer products and parts that before could only have been made with more expensive materials and processes.”
Going beyond processes
The main difference between Sapa and its competition is that Sapa is not satisfied to extrude and process profiles. Today the company wants to refine ideas, profiles, people and companies. Sapa does not compete with a low price. Sapa wants to be a competitive turnkey solution for its customers. “Our customers focus more on streamlining their organization, and increasing not only flexibility and production resources, but their access to unique know-how as well,” says Andersson. “Sapa offers everything from fundamental design concepts and generating prototypes, through development work and production, to approach logistics. Our customers can exploit the entire range of skills Sapa is building up within the Group. Customers can avoid having to handle transportation all over the place – the legs are already there at Sapa. This is often a very cost-effective solution.”
Sapa Inc. maintains it can tailor aluminum in configurations that would be nearly impossible with other materials; this is how it has become possible for the company to shape its own future as a market leader on the West Coast as well as becoming a highly valued premium brand in Europe.