For the Stratoflex Products Division, as Sales Engineer Chuck Fielding says, “the charter for all of our employees is premier customer service. Our customers are our No. 1 priority.” Stratoflex takes this commitment with its customers very seriously, considering that its customer base includes the world’s top manufacturers of military and commercial aircraft. For this aircraft to handle safely and precisely, they need the most responsive and reliable motion and control devices available. Stratoflex has been supplying such critical components to these OEMs for more than 40 years.Now a division of Parker Hannifin Corporation, Stratoflex has underscored its customer-first pledge in several ways. The division has elevated the quality of its product line through the unique use of materials that improve the products’ performance. Also, it launched a full-scale program that moved its operations to lean manufacturing four years ago.
Going lean has produced significant enhancements to the division’s customer service. That and Stratoflex’s developments in materials have bolstered product quality to the highest attainable in the industry. These efforts played a major role in Parker Hannifin’s recent ranking as No. 1 in the fluid power category for products offering the best technology, the most competitive pricing and the best customer services. “It was the third consecutive year we were rated No. 1,” says Fielding.
Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, Stratoflex manufactures hoses, specialty manifolds, quick-disconnect couplings and other components that convey fuel, hydraulics, lubrication and coolants in airframe and aerospace subsystems. The division operates three manufacturing facilities, including Fort Worth, its Couplings Business Unit in Camarillo, Calif., and its hose plant in Mansfield, Texas, which produces bulk hoses. The plants measure approximately 350,000 square feet and perform machining, fabrication, assembly and testing. The Camarillo facility is also a major supplier of sophisticated, high-tech couplings for the space market.
Stratoflex’s development of products with new materials and complex assemblies has moved the division into a high-technology niche in what is considered a mature market. “Originally, hydraulic hoses and fuel hoses consisted of rubber compounds made with cotton yarn fiber reinforcements,” explains Fielding. “Now we manufacture hose products using a Teflon(r) inner tube. It’s longer lasting with a stainless-steel reinforcement, and may have advanced fiber covers such as Kevlar(r), Nomex(r) or Cordura(r).” Additionally, these products can be manufactured with a silicone cover for fire protection. They can also have multiple and unique custom ports using compound bent tubes made from exotic materials such as titanium and Inconel.
These products offer distinct advantages over those made with rubber, which has a shelf life and is susceptible to drying out and cracking, especially in elevated temperatures. “Teflon(r) does not react this way, and our newer hoses are smaller, thinner and more compact than the bulky and heavy rubber hoses,” says Fielding. He also notes that the Teflon(r) line has become the company’s No. 1 product offering to the aircraft and jet-engine markets. Stratoflex has also incorporated Teflon(r) in the bulk hoses produced in its Mansfield facility.
Advanced technology also characterizes the quick-disconnect couplings, fuel breakaway valves, hydraulic swivels and ground-support couplings manufactured by Stratoflex’s Couplings Business Unit – whose Camarillo facility is also ISO 9001 certified. “These couplings are high-end, quick-release fittings allowing quick changeovers. They can also be an integral part of a hose assembly we supply to end users in the aerospace market,” says Fielding.
Stratoflex also produces hydraulic fuses and flow regulators, which are critical components in anti-skid brake systems for aircraft. They are also used in redundant systems for aircraft hydraulic systems to prevent malfunctions should the hydraulic system become damaged.
In launching its lean-manufacturing approach in 1997, “we used Flow Management Associates, Inc., of Dallas (now known as FlowCycle(tm), Inc.), who helped us do a company-wide assessment of our processes,” says Fielding. “We focused on process mapping and eliminated any non-value-added processes.” Everyone in the manufacturing sector was involved in the changeover. “This is because lean manufacturing focuses on teamwork,” Fielding says. “We went through a very systematic approach, which is called the MARI(tm) process and which is basically a series of kaizen events.”
The MARI(tm) approach encompasses four fundamental components – Mobilization, Assessment, Redesign and Implementation. “We use these four key words at every meeting we hold,” says Fielding. “We also have what we call a Manufacturing Center of Excellence, which is a meeting room where we map all of our value-chain processes. We can see at a glance any function from manufacturing, management, inventory and delivery rates. It’s a very visual system, and we have all of our employees involved. It’s amazing what benefits this system offers when you get all of the teams of employees, from the ground up, working toward goals. We also inverted the typical management pyramid so that now top management is on the bottom, and our employees lead our organization in our lean initiative.”
This is good news for the company’s customers because since initiating this new approach, Stratoflex has seen increased throughputs and better visibility of costs while streamlining processes. “Parts that might have taken 16 weeks to move through the plant can now be done in a matter of days, and we’ve significantly reduced our backlogs,” Fielding says. “This is because our people are focused more now on understanding what our goals are as a company and what they need to do individually, which includes taking initiative and responsibility.” Redesigning the production floor and re-arranging manufacturing equipment resulted in higher productivity and a smoother value-stream flow of products by families.
Not just focusing on internal activities, Stratoflex is involved in projects to reduce cost while maintaining exceptional quality. The division has created partnerships and long-term agreements with all of its suppliers, such as Davis Machine for machined components and PD Browne Machine Tools for Okuma machining centers.
Stratoflex plans to continue its history of robust growth, especially in its marriage of integral quick-disconnect couplings with lightweight durable flex hose products. “We have so many new products engineered and designed specifically for particular applications,” says Fielding. “No longer do you have to buy a standard product that might be overkill for your particular system. Now you can buy a custom-designed assembly more in line with low-pressure systems with a small-bend radius, or more lightweight and lower-pressure drop couplings, for example. Stratoflex has many flight hours logged with these new, innovative, lightweight products.”
Stratoflex anticipates a bright future as being a part of a systems integrator such as Parker Hannifin. “Many Parker divisions produce different components for the aerospace industry,” Fielding says. “The eventual role for Parker will mean we will be a systems-oriented company, and we will manufacture all of the motion and control devices for companies like Boeing, Airbus and Lockheed.”