Forger Works to Become More Agile

Sept. 11, 2004
Houston-based Forge USA is reducing its lead-time to better serve its open-die forging customers. A computerized production control and scheduling program plays a key role in improving the company’s ability to fulfill orders quickly.

Fast, innovative, reliable. Forge USA is working hard to make those three words part of its reputation with customers.

At its plant in Houston, Forge USA produces open die forgings of various steel and alloy grades. "We provide high-quality custom forged products for a wide variety of industries by producing complex shapes and sizes," states the company’s sales brochure. "We maintain high standards for quality, on-time delivery, and reasonable prices."

Tough customers —
About 60% of the products Forge USA produces go to the oil-and-gas industry, including rigs for offshore drilling. The company also produces shafting for naval and commercial shipbuilders, and spindles, rolls, and shafts for commercial applications. And, it produces components for papermaking, plastics, mining, mineral processing, off-highway, and power plant equipment.

In serving these industries, company officials recognized that customers were asking for more than just meeting specifications. They demand shorter lead times, higher levels of on-time delivery reliability, and competitive pricing. These became the driving forces behind Forge USA’s development of a proprietary scheduling and production control system.

The system streamlines daily operations, making on-time manufacturing more reliable and virtually eliminating specification deviations.

History in brief
Forging interviewed Jerry Brougher, co-owner, for this article. He first purchased the company in 1975, when it was known as Gulf Forge Co. After running it for more than 18 years, he sold it in 1994 to the owner of a Canadian forge shop. Renamed Alberta Forge, it was put on the market in 2001 following the untimely death of the interim owner. Jerry Brougher and his son, Wade, bought it back and changed the name to Forge USA. As Jerry puts it now, "It turns out I wasn’t as interested in retiring as I thought I was."

Jerry Brougher has seen a lot of the forging industry since 1958 when started his first full-time job at Cameron Iron Works, with an MBA from Harvard, and a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Texas. He worked for Cameron for several years, and then managed a conglomerate for six years. He was president of the Forging Industry Association in 1986-87 while running Gulf Forge.

Developing equipment — When the elder Brougher was working at Cameron, he spearheaded several forging equipment design projects. "We designed a 20,000-ton press in 1960. The design was very successful, and we expanded and built a plant outside of Edinburgh, Scotland. That plant had a 30,000-ton, side-ram press, which we designed. Both the 20,000- and 30,000-ton presses had the capability of making vertical extrusions as well. After the success we had with the 30,000-ton press in Europe, we built a 35,000/50,000-ton press and installed it near Huston. The 35,000 tons was the rating of the extrusion stroke, and the 50,000 tons was for the closed die stroke for making big turbine disks and similar forgings."

"All of those presses were designed in-house," Brougher recalls. "We built them ourselves and they were company-owned. They were not financed by the government, which was very unusual at the time. Other big presses in the industry were originally paid for by the Air Force, but ours were done with private money."

Forge USA operations —Jerry Brougher continued his interest in equipment development when he purchased Gulf Forge in 1975.

"We did a lot of furnace design," he remembers, "and we designed a very unique quenching system for large forgings that has been very effective. I completely rebuilt the 2,000-ton press that was here, and added a 20-metric-ton, rail-bound manipulator. It made for a pretty good open die forge plant for forgings up to 55,000 lb.

Soon after Jerry and Wade reacquired the shop in 2001, they began investing in upgrades and improvements to meet current requirements.

"From the day that we bought this place, back three and a half years ago, we’ve put in capital improvement projects. We replaced the computer controls for the press. That system is only a year old now. We’ve got a brand-new computer-control system for our rail-bound manipulator. We’ve rebuilt the hydraulics on that manipulator, so it’s like a brand-new machine. We have put a lot of low NOx burners into our forge furnaces. We have a program right now with very-high-velocity burners in our heat-treating furnaces. We’ve upgraded our mobile-handling equipment by redesigning the rear axles on them to reduce maintenance costs. We’ve added another band saw.

"We’ve spent a lot of money here, and intend to continue on," Jerry Brougher says, "because you are either moving forward or you’re going backwards-there’s no standing still."

With its 2,000-ton press and the rail-bound manipulator, Forge USA produces blooms from 50,000-lb ingots to hold in inventory. Brougher explains why: "This inventory gives us a two- to three-day reduction in the forging cycle compared to starting with an ingot. In most cases, when we receive an order, we can heat up a bloom overnight and forge it the next day." And, forging from blooms produces a better quality forging.

That reduction in what would be considered normal lead time is one example of how Forge USA is improving its agility. Another is outlined in the company’s sales literature: "Our advanced dimensional control provides significant machining savings, reducing costs, and lead times."

Forge USA uses a large complement of furnaces for heating and heat-treating. The forge shop has six furnaces, and heat-treating uses a mixture of car bottom units and box furnaces, nine in all.

The company is beta testing a system whereby each burner throughout these furnaces will be controlled individually in place of the more typical approach of using one control unit for all the burners in each furnace.

Brougher explains, "We found a controller manufacturer who supplies equipment that we can use to control the ratio for the individual burners and still stay on ratio with all the burners. It takes some control software to get it done. We’ve got that software, and in beta testing we’re meeting with significant success, so we think that over the next year we’ll apply it to all our furnaces.

"It does two things: it gives better temperature control for heat-treatment, and it also saves gas. We think there is a pretty interesting payout on our investment in the system just in the reduction of gas consumption."

Heat-treat operations — Forge USA’s heat-treating operation consists of the aforementioned box and car bottom furnaces, plus a water quench tank and a polymer quench tank.

"Our production control software allows us to monitor hardness trends by alloy, and to monitor tempering temperatures required to achieve hardnesses at the top of the range," says Brougher.

He outlines the value of the high agitation quench system. "The best quench system is the very smallest system into which you can fit a piece. The problem you have with quenching is that the piece is at a very high temperature and the water flashes to steam immediately. If you don’t keep a steady supply of water wiping across the face of the piece at a fairly high velocity, a steam barrier forms at the interface between the piece and the quenching fluid. That acts as an insulator.

"So agitation is key. And, when you have a propeller pushing the water, the further it has to move the water, the lower its velocity becomes. So instead of wanting a big quench tank with a lot of volume, you want the smallest possible quench tank with the highest horsepower in it. To keep the bath temperature down, you take hot water out one side and put cold water from a cooling tower into the other side.

"For a tank that handles 50,000-lb pieces, ours looks pretty small, but we have an enormous cooling tower. We use 100 hp of agitation close to the piece, so we get very good quenching."

Forge USA also has polymer quenching available. The company prefers to quench with water because of the greater depth of hardness it achieves, but it uses the polymer quench when water quenching would provide too severe a quench.

Machining and quality control — Forge USA concentrates on performing procurement of materials, forging, and heat-treating. Machining and testing are performed under the company’s control by subcontractors.

"Our machining is done by people with whom we have supply-chain agreements," explains Brougher.

"We also use third parties for all of our non-destructive inspection and physical testing, because we think that arm’s length relationships between us and testing labs are a source of comfort to our customers. Most of our customers like the fact that we use outside testing sources." The outside inspection services provide ultrasonic inspection, magnetic-particle inspection, and dye-penetrant inspection, as well as physical testing, as required.

"We have a primary vendor that does all our tensile and impact testing. We deliver specimens for testing in their labs. For ultrasonic and Magnaflux testing, the services come to our place or go to our machining sources.

"We conduct annual audits of those vendors as part of our quality system," Brougher points out.

He also points out that achieving ISO certification was a top priority when his son and him reacquired the company. With that priority, Forge USA was able to achieve certification in about six months.

Handling equipment
"At Gulf Forge, we designed a mobile manipulator that has proven to be very reliable and very cost effective through the years," Brougher says. "In all, we have seven of these mobile units in various sizes, all based on that design. Some have forks for handling pallets around the heat-treating area. Others have forging clamps that are used for forging operations. Their capacities range from 3 ton up to 15 tons.

"We did design a clamp of our own to go on a very large fork truck that allows us to handle 55,000 lb pieces in an out of the furnace and under the press. That is what we use to charge our manipulator as well," Brougher explains.

Proprietary system for managing production — Company sales literature discusses the proprietary system for managing production. "From quote to certification, valuable time is saved. Quotes, compliance, production procedures, purchase orders, verification and material certification are performed almost automatically. The system of computer-analyzed checks, cross-checks, and verification makes certification errors practically non-existent."

Brougher fills in some details. "Our software technology calls for a production plan for every part produced that includes forging instructions for producing a specific reduction. Certifications can be provided via e-mail and in a custom format compatible with customer requirements.

"That’s an integral part of our success here. Everything goes into the database from the original inquiry right on through to the final certification. All the data that measures the progress of the part through the various departments is entered by the department head in real time.

"It’s been a wonderful thing for us because it practically eliminates clerical functions around here. It’s a very low cost sort of thing," Brougher points out.

"The ability to have real-time information on every work-in-process part is very important. We maintain lead times that are considerably shorter than the rest of the industry. Our software system has really been key to helping us do that," Brougher says.

"The software system generates the quotes. It sends the quote to the customer, receives the order from the customer, returns an order confirmation, and issues the order to the shop. Then, the shop can get the part loaded into the heating furnace that evening, so it can be forged the next day. A high percentage of our work is done this way.

"It’s been an excellent marketing strategy for us," Brougher concludes.

"When we reacquired the company, my son arranged with a friend to design the software architecture for us. Then we hired programmers to fill in each block in that architecture. Over a about two and a half years, we completed all the blocks and had the whole system integrated. Now, we’re upgrading it, and tweaking it as we go," Brougher says. "It’s very effective."

The system is comprehensive. "All our customer specifications are in the computer," Brougher states, "And the system has interlocks so before a raw material supplier can ship an ingot to us, they’ve got to give us their chemistry of the heat. We enter it into the computer and it is compared against the purchase order. If it matches, it releases the supplier to ship the order.

"When we are allocating steel to a job, that job has to have a specification in the computer. If we allocate steel that does not meet the specification, the computer will not print the ‘cut’ ticket for that heat. Our computer system keeps us from making mistakes in selecting material that doesn’t meet the customer specifications."

Small but experienced staff
With the company’s focus only on forging and heat-treating, it can operate with a relatively small staff. "We have 36 employees at the current time," Brougher reports.

"We have a high percentage of veteran employees," he says with pride. But he also acknowledges that can be a problem as employees retire. "You either do a good job of recruiting younger people or you are not going to be in business. When we have openings we talk to the people who are here and ask them for recommendations of people that they know. A fair amount of our recruitment is done that way."

Forge USA has a program to encourage self-improvement. "We have a program of paying for tuition at community colleges, and we encourage our employees to take advantage of it. We have some Latino workers who used this program to upgrade their English language capabilities. We’re pretty aggressive about trying to get our people to upgrade their knowledge and skills."

Inventory —Forge USA uses its inventory of blooms to reduce delivery times. "We have the capability of making blooms from ingots using our 20-ton manipulator. So for a lot of the grades we forge, we make blooms of the ingots soon after we receive them. Having blooms in inventory cuts our response time."

Here’s why. "It might take you a day and a half, or maybe even two days, to heat an ingot to the point where you can forge it. If you have already heated and forged the ingot into a bloom, you can probably heat the bloom overnight and forge it the next day. We like to keep a blend of ingots and blooms so that we can respond in a more timely fashion. Nearly all of our orders are filled out of our stock."

Forge USA’s primary supplier is the ISG Steelton, in Steelton, PA. "They are really an excellent ingot supplier," Brougher comments, "because that was their mission when Bethlehem Steel operated Bethforge, a forge plant that made really big forgings."

It would seem to be an expensive proposition transporting ingots from eastern Pennsylvania to the Gulf Coast of Texas, but Jerry Brougher puts it into perspective. "If you look at it from the standpoint of our local market, we’re putting ingots on a rail car and bringing them here with the cheapest freight rate. Our competitors selling into this market, on the other hand, are selling smaller quantities of machined forgings, so they have a higher freight rate. They also sometimes even ship by truck. So as far as our local market is concerned, we’re at an advantage freight-wise, rather than at a disadvantage. We just have to buy material by the freight-car load."

Foreign competition — "Foreign competition has not been kind to this industry," Brougher states. "It’s not a very level playing field. That’s why we are so interested in faster delivery, because our overseas competitors can’t get a job here quick enough."

He explains: "Our competitors in Europe get a rebate of their value-added tax when they export something. That amounts to about 20% of sales right now. The VAT in Europe is what they use to pay their social costs.

"Wages are higher in the EU than they are in the U.S., so it’s not a cost-of-production issue. A forger in Italy gets to waive his value-added-tax costs on an export job that he bids against me here on the Gulf Coast. More than that, he can offer six month’s terms because he gets 95% of his credit guaranteed by his government."

Based on recent experience, Forge USA has an effective plan to meet that unfair competition. As Jerry Brougher sums it up, "We are pressing very hard to continually increase the quality of our product, because we have to in order to survive in this business. We’re also willing to make investments to reduce costs, and above all, we work very hard to become more agile."