Category: Metal

Metalheads

Metalheads might be a perfect blend of art and industry – with a healthy dose of entrepreneurial spirit thrown in.

Metalheads began with Adam Stempka, a welder who was laid off from GE. He had always been artistic, and had even thought about going to art school before starting his career as a welder.

Tinkering at home, he created a metal sculpture of a deer head and posted a photo on Facebook. It gained attention and attracted customers – including one who requested a battle-worn flag made of metal.

That was enough to get Stempka’s creative juices going, and he created an American flag, tattered yet resilient. More photos went up on Facebook, and more customers clamored for their own version of that flag.

Soon he teamed up with his father, Ray Stempka, a welding engineer who retired from GE.

Now, less than a year later, their business is booming. They ship to customers around Erie County and nationwide, all based on word of mouth, local festivals and Facebook. They’re building a website, expanding their workshop and working feverishly to keep up with demand.

“This thing keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Ray Stempka says.

For Adam Stempka, this new venture is a perfect fit – it uses his creative side and his mechanical skills, and it satisfies his need to make something new.

“It’s exciting,” he says. “It’s not work for me. I just love doing this.”

About Metalheads: Adam Stempka still creates his more intricate metal sculptures, though the business for the battle-worn flags has really taken off. Now they offer a variety of flags, including some specifically for police officers and firefighters, as well as illumination options for the flags. They make flags as small as a license plate and as large as 4 feet by 8 feet. But while business is busy, the Stempkas are keeping their focus on providing products that their customers are looking for. “We’re just taking it slow and trying to grow organically,” Adam Stempka says.

Why Erie County: The Stempka family is not only deeply rooted in Erie County, they are deeply rooted in the welding industry. Their connection to their community is apparent in every facet of the operation. They support shopping local, and they feature Erie-centric flag designs, like a “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag. “Erie means a lot to us,” Ray Stempka says. That pride is on display on the flags, which all bear the stamp “Made in USA – Erie, PA” on the front.

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges facing Metalheads are not unique to new businesses. For example, the Stempkas say that startup costs have posed a challenge, as has learning the ropes of running a business – even to the extent of how to find the best deals on shipping costs for their far-flung customers. Luckily, however, the Stempkas are finding great resources in Erie County, including working with Gannon’s Small Business Development Center and the Innovation Collaborative.

Fun Fact: Adam Stempka and Metalheads have been nominated for a 2017 Disrupt Erie Award.

Address: Facebook.com/astempka83

McInnes Rolled Rings

McInnes Rolled Rings, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, isn’t the only manufacturer of seamless rolled rings in the country. To stay competitive, then, they had to find a way to set themselves apart.

“We differentiate ourselves by being faster,” says Tim Hunter, president and CEO.

That means the company zeroes in on getting products made for its customers, and getting those products delivered in a timely manner. That turnaround time is even touted on the company’s website: “We ship in as few as five days.”

McInnes keeps the operation focused on that work, rather than branching into other services that would funnel away resources, Hunter says.

It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off for McInnes. The company serves more than 1,000 customers in North America – from Canada to Mexico, coast to coast – and is the fastest producer in its size range, Hunter says.

Part of that efficiency in service can also be attributed to advances in manufacturing. Thirty years ago, Hunter says, we could produce eight to 10 rolled rings in an eight-hour shift. Today, we can turn out 20 in an hour, thanks to modern equipment and procedures.

The old process “was used for thousands of years,” Hunter says. “But the technology changed dramatically.”

About McInnes Rolled Rings: The company produces seamless rolled rings – “just like your wedding ring, but bigger,” Hunter describes – that that can withstand high stress. The rings are used in products and equipment in a variety of industries, including oil and gas, aerospace, construction, mining and even healthcare. The smallest rings, which are about 10 inches in diameter, might be used in aircraft equipment, while the largest, 12-foot rings – which can weigh 8,000 pounds – might be used as flanges on oil and gas pipelines. McInnes’ employment has stayed fairly steady at around 80, even during down times in some industries.

Why Erie County: One of the greatest advantages of being located in Erie County is proximity to raw materials, Hunter says. About 90 percent of the company’s materials are within 100 miles. This helps McInnes keep to its efficient production schedule.

Challenges of Erie County: One of the biggest challenges that McInnes Rolled Rings is facing echoes something I’ve heard from other employers, particularly manufacturers, in Erie County – securing a trained and capable workforce for the future. Hunter has identified a need for a pipeline to ensure that younger workers get the training they need to fill the gaps that will be left by retiring employees, who often have a deep skill set. “We have wonderful people working here now,” Hunter says. “The question is 10 years from now.”

Fun fact: McInnes operates the sixth-largest press in the nation – a press that was built just a short drive down 12th Street by Erie Press Systems.

Address: 1533 E 12th St, Erie, PA 16511 or www.mcinnesrolledrings.com.

SEPCO-Erie

When we visited SEPCO-Erie in Summit Township, I expected to learn about the products and processes of the shop. What I came away with, however, was a lesson in communication.

On the day of the visit, SEPCO owner Dan Ignasiak invited me to attend his brief daily meeting with the staff. It was a fast-moving, informal talk that touched on safety concerns and company news, and also included few tidbits of humor and history.

What was best about the experience, for me, was seeing the open platform for communication between the company and the employees – the employees were privy to the company’s progress, and they were also encouraged to highlight suggestions or improvements that they, personally, were responsible for. It’s an idea that Ignasiak implemented after reading the book “2 Second Lean.”

In the meeting I attended, the brief lesson of the day that Ignasiak passed onto his crew centered on a quote attributed to noted American engineer W.E. Deming: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

That sentiment – which reflects the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen, or constant improvement – is one that SEPCO has taken to heart over the past few years. As we toured the shop floor, Ignasiak pointed out some of the changes that have not only improved the work environment for his employees, but have also boosted his bottom line.

For example, he explained to us how a coolant recycling system that was recently installed now collects, cleans and reuses the coolants that keep the machines running properly. The recycling system helped improve the air quality in the facility, Ignasiak says, and also helps the company save money on coolant. In fact, he says, the system paid for itself in under two years.

It is in those ways that Ignasiak shows that SEPCO-Erie has taken the kaizen idea to heart.

“We’re changing all the time,” he says.

About SEPCO-Erie: SEPCO, which stands for South Erie Production Company, was founded in 1966 by Ignasiak’s father. Today, the company has about 25 employees (some who have been with the company for 30 years) and specializes in fabricated metal parts, especially engine components. The company added its first robotic arm in 2015, with the assistance of a grant from the NWIRC, a nonprofit partnership that serves manufacturers in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Why Erie County: SEPCO has a lot of related support industries in Erie County, Ignasiak says – pointing out that Erie County has a higher concentration of plating businesses than Pittsburgh does. He also mentioned that it is easy for SEPCO to get supplies, since steel trucks can get here easily from major highway routes.

Challenges of Erie County: Ignasiak said he would like to see greater training opportunities for specialized industries – particularly in a community college model that would provide the necessary skills to young people while still being affordable and approachable.

Fun fact: SEPCO’s website seems to say it all about the company, describing the business as “Great people running really super cool machines!”

Address: 1221 Robison Road, Erie PA 16509 or www.sepco-erie.com

 

Coming up next week: We explore Allegheny Wood Works in Lake City.

Performance Castings

The story of Performance Castings is one of commitment to Erie – in more ways than one.

The company, which specializes in iron castings, has been operating at East 16th Street in the city of Erie since 1988, when it emerged from the bankruptcy of Erie Castings.

Owner Steve Konzel committed to continuing that history when he purchased the business just over two years ago. Konzel, who is an Erie native, says he was looking for an opportunity to stay and make a livelihood in his hometown – and Performance Castings offered that chance.

Today, he is working to make sure that Performance Castings continues to provide that livelihood not just for his family, but for his employees.

Part of that means making sure that his work stays diversified, he says.

Performance Castings makes parts for a variety of industries, as part of a concerted effort to withstand downturns in any one sector. So if, for example, the federal government cuts spending, Performance Castings won’t be devastated by losing some work for the Defense Department. Or if the oil and gas industry falters (as it did in recent years), then the company can rely on business from other sectors to weather the storm.

Today, that means that there a variety of parts for a variety of industries – including mining, oil and gas, sewer and drain, commercial valve, rail, heavy equipment, logging and more – coming out of the East 16th Street foundry.

The foundry is located in a historic building and follows a well-established manufacturing process, but this company clearly has an eye on the future as well as a respect for the past.

About Performance Castings: Performance Castings, which has around 20 employees, manufactures iron castings, from the initial steps of weighing and mixing materials to form alloys through to shipping the finished products to clients. One interesting aspect of the company’s work is how it has been affected by technology. Thanks to remote capabilities and 3D printing, foundries such as Performance Castings now can do business with customers across the country – whereas in the past, it would have been limited to companies located just down the street.

Why Erie County: For Konzel, Erie County is home, and that’s where he chose to plant his roots. But from a logistics standpoint, Erie County also ready access to the raw materials needed to operate his business.

Challenges of Erie County: The biggest challenge that Konzel has faced has been finding workers. He readily admits that the work isn’t always easy or glamorous, but it is a paycheck with benefits – and one that offers opportunities for further training and advancement. He has had some luck hiring recent refugees that have been resettled in Erie, and is always eager to find employees who are willing to be conscientious and hard working. Konzel also says that another challenge facing his industry comes in disparities in foreign trade – the different costs of doing business that can create an uneven playing field for businesses such as his.

Address: 242 E 16th St, Erie, PA 16503

 

Coming up next week: We learn about Verify Services in Waterford.

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