On Cleveland’s near West Side lies an unimposing industrial area tucked away behind a large Target store that faces you as you exit the highway. In this industrial area is a building front that conceals the high work bays and industrial-plant facilities that lie farther back from its front-facing office facility.
The sign on this building identifies it as the home of Bula Forge & Machine – a study in contrasts where old-line manufacturing meets innovative technology. It’s a place where flames and fire mingle with the banging of drop hammers and forging presses. It is also a place in which 3-D modeling, the hum of high-speed CNC machining, unattended die making and the whir of 3-D printing lend striking contrast to the time-honored forging traditions.
Bula Forge & Machine is a company as focused on providing customers with solutions to their metal component needs as they are on supplying forgings. The company’s mission statement says it all: “Unique or difficult – we will get it done.”
The company specializes in supplying parts of carbon, alloy and stainless steels. It serves both military and private industrial customers, supplying parts from 1-50 pounds in runs from 50-10,000 units. The company prides itself in being small enough to focus on detail, large enough to handle complex projects and flexible enough to adapt to customer needs.
A COMPANY'S EVOLUTIONBula Forge & Machine, Inc., an Ohio Corporation, was founded in February 1973 as Bula Forge Inc. The business, started by Fred G. Phelps and his son, Wayne, began with used equipment in extremely poor condition – and no commercial accounts. The first few months of the company’s existence were used to repair and upgrade the used equipment and perform some overflow work from another forging company. In the meantime, efforts to secure a solid customer base began.
Through due diligence and just plain hard work, the company managed to survive its first few years. In 1976, Fred Phelps’ daughter, Karen Mason, joined her dad and brother in the enterprise. In 1978, the company moved from its dilapidated 3,000-square-foot dirt-floor facility to a 28,000-square-foot facility on Cleveland’s East Side. With more room to work, more equipment was added to better facilitate the manufacture of steel forgings. During 1979, a machine shop was acquired to take care of die and maintenance needs. Subsequently, an office building was leased to accommodate management and administrative activities.
And so business continued through the 1980s and beyond, as Bula Forge slowly evolved from a company that could supply only rough forgings to one that offered more and more value-added services such as precision CNC machining, sub-assembly, assembly, fabrication, heat treating, welding and surface finishing. Bula’s transition to more of a full-service company was important to their acquiring and maintaining a stable customer base.
The company’s next milestone occurred in 1992, when it expanded again by purchasing the assets of a defunct West Side (Cleveland) forging company. Along with that acquisition came a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. In late 1994, Bula Forge moved into that West Side facility. In 2000, streamlining the operations of both manufacturing segments into one company, they became Bula Forge & Machine.
In 2007, as a result of succession planning, Bula Forge & Machine became a woman-owned business when Karen Mason became the principal owner through a generational transfer of the company’s stock.
SUCCESS IN DIVERSITYBula’s success lies in its diversity. They have found their niche working on challenging products other shops cannot or will not tackle. Combining 1- to 50-pound forged products with other machined and purchased items, Bula supplies not only forgings, but also finish-machined assemblies and subassemblies. Remaining flexible and nimble, they work to provide solutions to customer problems.
“Stitching together a wide array of unique capabilities, we transformed ourselves from a forge shop to a custom supplier who happens to have forging capabilities,” said Wayne Phelps, Bula Forge & Machine’s president. “Our customers have unique and difficult problems and products. They are not standard, run-of-the-mill forgings and require unique solutions.”
LEAN - A WAY OF THINKINGAlthough Lean has been around a long time, Toyota’s high-volume, low-mix model did not fit this job-shop manufacturer. Thanks to Ohio State University’s affiliation with the Forging Industry Association and its Forging Defense Manufacturing Consortium, Bula managers were trained in Jobshop Lean, a program geared toward the low-volume, high-mix markets served by Bula Forge.
“This initiative got us more focused and has helped us bring our shop to a new level of operation,” declared Wayne Phelps Jr., Bula’s vice president. Now, individuals are taking ownership of what they are doing. Open discussion is bringing about change in thoughts and ideas. The focus on small daily improvements and changes accomplishes more over time than many huge drives and initiatives. Employees from the forge shop to engineering to the administrative group look for daily improvements in their areas. This is not just a forge shop or machine shop – it is a company that develops a process, refines it and then repeats it.
TRAININGOne of the secrets to Bula Forge & Machine’s growth is its continued reinvestment in itself. At Bula, this includes reinvestment in its employees and their training. Instead of the hand-wringing of many companies lamenting the lack of trained employees, Bula Forge has taken responsibility for training employees to meet its growing manufacturing needs.
The company’s management is aware that training and cross-training are the backbone of the workforce. Currently, the investment in training includes 11 men and women enrolled in the on-site CNC training, which is done by a certified instructor from a local college. Other training ranges from blueprint reading, magnetic particle inspection and shop math classes to welding and electrical training.
All employees participate in the semiannual Safety and Benefit Day. This off-site event provides all the necessary safety training for employees. Spouses and employee guests are invited to attend the luncheon and benefit program held in the afternoon. This forum allows Bula Forge an opportunity to promote the well-being of employees and their families. Guest speakers meet one-on-one with employees to discuss such things as health and wellness, budgeting, family-life issues, medical insurance, 401(K) and retirement planning.
GROWTH, OPPORTUNITY AND COMMITMENTCompany management recognizes that a precursor to growth in their business is investment in the tools that make employees more productive. Recently, additions to equipment and engineering facilities have better positioned the company to serve its customer base. Included are a CNC circular saw, a 3-D printing unit, an electrical-usage system for equipment utilization and production monitoring, an electric annealing line and major upgrades to the 3-D modeling (Solidworks/Cosmos) and CMM software packages.
In the near future, both a larger hammer and forging press are being contemplated, as are additional vertical and horizontal CNC mills. Since the first of the year, Bula has added three new customers and projects a 30% overall growth for 2008. With double-digit growth as the norm, these plans are more than just a wish list for the future.
Just as Bula’s management is committed to positioning their company to take advantage of growth and opportunities, so is it also committed to its employees and the greater community. Bula’s management feels that sharing is an important part of business, so a commitment is made to employees through education and profit sharing, in addition to matching funds on 401(K) plans. Additionally, the company tithes its profits, setting aside a portion for local charities as well as national or international needs. Employee contributions to charity are matched, as employees are urged to get involved in their communities.
KATRINA AIDEmployees at Bula Forge & Machine took pride, and were humbled, in knowing the products made by their hands were used in the Katrina relief efforts. These parts were used in the bulk load and delivery systems of CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters used during the Katrina relief efforts. The parts were used for dropping sandbags into the hurricane-devastated area shortly after disaster struck the city and inhabitants of New Orleans in 2005.
THE LOOK AHEADBula looks to the future with enthusiasm and optimism. Although the past has taught valuable lessons, Bula concentrates on the present and plans for the future. This ISO 9001-2000 certified company continues to seek ways to improve processes and expand capabilities, accommodating an ever-changing manufacturing landscape and providing competitive advantage and opportunities for employees, customers and vendors.
For additional information visit www.bulaforge.com