"We Run It as a Business."

Nov. 11, 2009
A successful blend of marketing and 'one-stop' manufacturing.
Ashland Technologies employees and President Bill Wydra, Jr. (red shirt).

In 2009 INC Magazine ranked Ashland Technologies Inc. as the fastest-growing manufacturer in the state of Pennsylvania and the 55th fastest- growing manufacturer in the U.S. The annual ranking is based on revenue growth from 2005 through 2008. During this time period, Ash-Tec has grown at a rate of 218.4 %.

Founded in 1996, Ash-Tec relocated to a 46,000 sq ft facility in 2007 in Hegins, Pa., that allowed the company to broaden its array of services and increase its capacity.

Bill Wydra, Jr. is president of Ash- Tec. His background and expertise is in marketing not machining. He has little involvement with decisions concerning machinery and operations in the shop. The decision about what equipment to acquire is made on the shop floor by the manufacturing team. Wydra defined his role to his manufacturing team by saying, “I’ll get the business, and you do the work.”

Ash-Tec operates as a business. It’s common for shops to be founded by machinists who are excellent at their trade but don’t have the time or appropriate skill sets to build a business around their core expertise. “Most shops seem to cap out at a size of about eight employees, or so, because this is all they can effectively manage," Wydra said. "We are different because we have a management team that operates our shop as a business. This makes a big difference with customers and with employees."

“Many shops are excellent at making things, but they don’t have a marketingoriented front end to the business,” said Joe Walton, president of Walton Consultants and a long-time business advisor to Ash-Tec. “In the global marketplace, a shop must be able to find new business and not just to live off of old or current customers, or they will fail.”

Ash-Tec employees benefit from this business approach because management has put in place the systems and procedures that remove every obstacle that detracts from an employee’s ability to do his or her job.

“We are customer centric,” Wydra explained. “Once we understand a customer’s needs, we make our machines fit those needs or immediately buy new equipment that does. For example, when we started manufacturing a rifle comprised of 27 different parts we would deliver a batch set of fifty parts at a time to the customer for assembly. This created problems because the customer would periodically be overloaded by the assembly operation. Now, we manufacture the components in a onepiece- flow manner to deliver complete rifle kits to them on a daily basis. This change in operations eliminated a major problem for our customer, increased their ability to have steady, reliable sales and greatly increased cash flow for both companies.”

The culture within the shop results in all employees sharing a focus on customer service. Ash-Tec has developed a strong sense of esprit de corps among its 38 employees through constant communication and frequent off-site social get-togethers.

Customers and employees have bought into the Ash-Tec corporate vision, which is to duplicate the capabilities of the Hegins facility in 20 other locations by 2020. These additional plants will be exact replicas of the current facility; all machines will be the same and even tooling drawers will be identical. Wydra explains, “Having the same brand of equipment throughout helps us standardize our training, become more flexible with scheduling, and allows us to invest in an in-house maintenance technician who knows our equipment inside and out. All of which have a measurable benefit to customers and our bottom line.”

All employees were involved in the creation of this ambitious goal. The company is investigating opportunities to locate plants in Orlando and the Raleigh-Durham area. These areas are attractive because they are strategic locations to serve the company’s core customer base — the amusement park/rides and food service industries.

The Hegins facility is designed to be a one-stop provider for almost everything its core markets need. Its equipment includes extensive machining, fabricating, assembly and finishing capabilities. Recently the company installed a 23.5-ft long powder-coating booth. “By installing this powder-coating capability in-house, we were able to completely round out our services making Ash-Tec the simple solution for a customer looking for a ‘one-stop shop’ for all their needs,” observed Roger Strohecker, manufacturing manager.

Ash-Tec is the dominant manufacturer of trains for wooden roller coasters. “Each roller-coaster car contains about 1,600 components that have to be machined, finished, fabricated, powder coated, assembled and inspected before it can be delivered. There is no way we could accomplish this without our ‘one-stop-shop’ capability,” Wydra said.

• Ashland Technologies Inc. Hegins, Pa. www.ash-tec.com

• Number of employees — 38

• 2009 sales — N/A

• Markets served: Amusement ride coasters; food service; diesel engine fuel filter relocation systems, firearms; diverse industrial applications.

The ability to completely manufacture and assemble products in the plant has led to impressive production time and cost savings. “We can deliver complete products and assemblies in half the time of our competitors,” Wydra said. “Also, by eliminating a major portion of the part-handling requirement when dealing with outside suppliers, we have reduced associated handling costs by 334 percent.”

Ash-Tec has invested in equipment that is not running all the time. This “excess-capacity” strategy has allowed the company to handle workload surges and to respond quickly to customer opportunities. This is one of the reasons Ash-Tec has enjoyed exceptional growth: the company doubled its labor revenue from 2007 to 2008. Labor revenue — the charge for the labor content of a project without consideration of material costs — is the yardstick by which the company measures its profitability. This valueadded metric focuses on the efficiency and effectiveness of its people and manufacturing procedures.

Wydra’s shop, like many others, experiences periodic surging and waning of workloads and was challenged by inserting new first-run parts into an unpredictable schedule. Since their goal is to continue growing, aggressively, finding a good solution to new customers and new first-run parts was essential. To help address this, they formed a separate development group with dedicated equipment and staff. Now, instead of 4- to 5-week turnaround, this group has their new first-run part lead time down to 4 to 5 days. When the job repeats, a separate production team of supervisors will engage and determine the most efficient, cost-effective manufacturing process to reduce set-up and cycle time.

A second function of the “Design/ Engineering Group,” as they call it, is to perform “Design for Manufacturing” reviews for customers. The group analyzes a customer’s product from a machining and fabricating standpoint and suggests design changes to enhance manufacturability. This results in substantial savings, helping their customers become more competitive.

A third responsibility of the Design/ Engineering team is full-service product design for customers. For example, while on his honeymoon in Hawaii, Wydra noticed a long line of customers at an outdoor food stand waiting to order Puka Dogs — a Hawaiianstyle hot dog. He discussed the obvious potential for increased business with the owner and offered the services of Ash-Tec to build him a production hot dog grill, from scratch. Starting with a napkin drawing, the new grill designed by Ash-Tec’s Mark Mensch now cooks two perfectly grilled dogs every 15 seconds. The eatery owners now want to franchise this operation, resulting in 15 additional design projects, including a scaled-down kiosk-sized grill. This is an example of how Wydra’s marketing skills and Ash-Tec’s design and manufacturing capabilities have worked hand-in-hand not only to expand their business, but that of their customer as well.

Although the development group required a considerable financial outlay for their dedicated equipment and extensive 3D modeling software, it has enhanced Ash-Tec’s profitability, competitiveness and customer service. “Our belief is that by partnering with our customers to make them as competitive as possible, we will also reap the rewards down the road,” Wydra said.

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