VOL. 6 September ISSUE YEAR 2005
in Vol. 6 - September Issue - Year 2005
More Blast For The Buck
Robert Morey, Chief Operating Officer of Empire Abrasive Equipment Company.
An interview with Robert Morey, Chief Operating Officer of Empire Abrasive Equipment Company, tells a story of continuing growth over half a century.
(?) MFN: How did Empire get its start and evolve into an industry leader?
(!) R. M.: In the early 1940s, Empire secured a contract with the US Army to produce portable air-blast machines. Ever since, the company has kept its ears and eyes open for opportunities to better serve industries dependent on air-blast finishing and peening technology. Feedback from our distributors has been enormously helpful. When industry started moving air-blasting operations indoors during the 1960s, we responded with industrial blast cabinets that still set the standard for versatility and durability. Today, our standard Pro-Finish line includes more than 80 cabinet models with work enclosures ranging up to 140 cubic feet. We also offer a full range of blast rooms and automated air-blast systems in addition to portable blasters. Over the years, our distribution has grown from regional coverage based around the north eastern sector of the United States to a worldwide network consisting of more than 300 distributors plus their sub distributors.
(?) MFN: What has been the primary driver behind Empire‘s growth, product development or expanded distribution?
(!) R. M.: The two forces work in harmony. Our distributors include technically sophisticated people who provide essential intelligence on serving established markets and penetrating new ones. When the drumbeat of demand equals an attractive opportunity, we respond with cost-effective technology emanating from internal development and/or acquisitions.
(?) MFN: How has Empire developed internally?
During the late 1970s, we built a 70,000-square-foot facility to meet growing demand and subsequently installed a comprehensive test-blast laboratory. In 1993, we added another 20,000-square-feet of manufacturing space to expedite production, tighten quality standards and enhance our abilities to meet customer needs. A CNC plasma-cutting machine, for example, simplifies custom work and a computerized material resource planning system helps us manage operations to better support our new one-piece flow manufacturing concept. At the risk of blowing Empire‘s horn, we now offer the best blast for the buck in a wide range of finishing and peening applications.
(?) MFN: That‘s a big claim. Could you explain it?
(!) R. M.: We go head to head on proposals with other producers of air-blast equipment all the time. Our test lab, in-house manufacturing capabilities and the creativity of our engineers give us an edge, particularly in the realm of modified cabinets and automation where many factors come into play. To my knowledge, we have one of very few test facilities—if not the only one—equipped with up-and-running automated systems. In a nutshell, we have the experience and resources to tackle challenges from more than one angle, which improves our chances of finding the most cost-effective solution.
(?) MFN: To digress for a moment, you just referred to "modified cabinets." What, exactly, is a modified cabinet?
(!) R. M.: For starters, it’s one of our biggest growth areas. Now, let me step backward for a moment. When we developed our Pro-Finish cabinet line, we took a modular approach through which customers can select a suction- or pressure-blast system, a dust bag or dust collector, and many factory options based around standard platforms of various sizes. A turntable mounted on tracks serves as a good example of an option designed to expedite the loading and processing of work pieces. In real world production, however, even the most extensive list of options will not fit an eight-foot length of pipe into a three-foot-wide cabinet. By modifying the cabinet to include baffled entrance and exit vestibules on both sides, we enable the operator to feed the pipe through the cabinet in sections. The blast process is contained, plus floor space is conserved. And the customer, who might otherwise have had to purchase a blast room or out-source the work, saves money. That’s one case in point.
(?) MFN: Do you have others?
(!) R. M.: Many. We have made cabinets—including the pressure vessel, storage hopper and media reclaimer—from stainless steel to avoid contaminating parts with mild and carbon steels. Some of our modified cabinets now handle, move and manipulate parts weighing more than a ton, and one of these units, used to clean tire molds, is actually portable. We add special fixturing to eliminate the need for masking, lances to finish the interior of surfaces on hollow work pieces and collection trays, supported by HEPA filters, to minimize dust. We have produced dual cabinets, connected by an extender, with three operator stations as well as two-tiered units designed to finish tall, flat work pieces. But I have only addressed the mechanical angle, not the controls.
(?) MFN: What role do controls play?
(!) R. M.: Air-blasting quality typically depends on the skill of the operator and/or the repeatability of automated machinery. Some of the variables that must be controlled include media type; nozzle/gun numbers, distances, angles and movements; blast pressure, coverage and duration; and part movement. Though these multiple factors can be tricky to coordinate, their variety lies at the heart of air-blasting’s versatility.
Like many other production processes, air blasting is generally repeatable in proportion to the degree it is automated. Often, however, manual processing versus automation is not an either/or question, and our modified cabinets bridge the gap. To automate batch finishing of small parts in a basket blaster, for instance, we include a reset timer. In other applications, we use counters that add up the number of passes made by one or more powered nozzles. When multiple blast variables require easy adjustment to process different parts within a single machine, we move up to programmable controls. Empire always shoots for the most cost-effective solutions to meet a finisher’s needs, and many customers are profitably surprised when we respond to a quote request for an automated system with modified-cabinet proposal.
(?) MFN: What do you mean by "moving up to programmable controls?"
(!) R. M.: Programmable controls enable users of our equipment to store processing parameters and recall them with push-button ease. Once a finishing procedure on a part has been deemed "up-to-spec," it gets logged into memory. Instructions normally tell powered components in the system what to do and when to do it. Powered blast nozzles, for example, can be programmed to trace complex surfaces in three dimensions and can be coordinated with other machinery settings and behavior. In critical applications, such as the shot peening of aircraft parts, these controls support fault sensors designed to prevent "off-spec" processing and provide a convenient link to other data bases for purposes of documentation. But repeatability and faster changeovers stand as the major benefits. Before programmable controls became economically available, part changeovers were tricky, iffy and time consuming. Now they are handled with a few touches on a keypad. When a customer requires versatility and repeatability from a single cabinet or system, we move up to programmable controls.
(?) MFN: Previously you mentioned acquisitions. Are they important to your growth strategies?
(!) R. M.: Our acquisitions have added options for customers. The purchase of Inventive Machine, for example, enables recovery of abrasives and debris at the blast head. These blast/vacuum units mitigate environmental problems when fixed equipment, such as tanks and piping, need to be stripped within a production facility. Our purchase of Hoffman Blast Rooms last year provides rights to all the company’s designs, as well as turnkey capabilities on blast-room installations. This year’s acquisition of AAC Engineering Systems not only gives Empire access to innovative deburring technology; AAC’s products also fit smoothly with our manufacturing capabilities and marketing network. Our objectives focus on offering cost-effective technology. We have no bias regarding acquisitions versus internal product development.
(?) MFN: Where does internal product development fit in your scheme?
(!) R. M.: Again, our distributor network has been invaluable in helping us match product development with marketplace needs. When single-part-flow production became popular, we were prepared with compact machinery designed to work in cells. When environmental pressures began pushing industrial blasting into rooms, we were ready with package and field-erected units, as well as pneumatic blast and recovery systems around which users can construct their own enclosures. When plastic media came into play, we responded with a full range of systems designed for—not around—plastics. For finishers needing a production-grade cabinet on an occasional basis at separate stations, we engineered transportable units that contain all essential functions, including dust collection and media reclamation, within a single enclosure. At the same time, many of our modified cabinets have graduated to the status of standard products. Our innovations are driven by the drumbeat of demand.
(?) MFN: Do you have any other comments?
(!) R. M.: Yes. We appreciate MFN’s interest in Empire and hope this exchange has been valuable to your readers.
We at MFN would like to thank Robert Morey for this interview.