In a sedate industrial-park setting a mile or two from the Ohio Turnpike’s interchange at Streetsboro, Ohio, lies the two-building compound occupied by Viking Forge Corp. (VFC), a forger of steel products. Incorporated in 1988, privately owned VFC will be closing out its first quarter-century of operation this year.
The company owes its origin to Buyers Products, a distributor of truck-body and trailer parts located in Mentor, Ohio. As a distributor of steel forged products, Buyers Products’ owner and two colleagues decided to start a forge shop to supply its business so as not to be too reliant on sometimes unreliable outside sources of product to sell. Men of action that they were, they set up VFC in Streetsboro in a high-bay building that is VFC’s current main production facility. They bought some used gas-fired furnaces, presses and other necessary equipment and started their forging business. They soon learned, however, that the forging business is a challenging one. The first two years or so were very rocky for the fledgling company.
Undaunted, the owners had the tenacity and good sense to seek a consultant to review their operation and help VFC get on track. They found the person they sought in Ian Williamson of Forging Developments International. VFC’s equity partners hired Williamson in 1989 and kept him on as consultant through part of 1991. Under his direction, numerous important changes were made that set the operation on the right path toward the competitive business that VFC is today.
Williamson made four fundamental changes to the operation he found when he arrived. Broadly stated, he defined and established his standardized and scientific approach to forging; incorporated state-of-the-art process-control technologies into the press lines from start to finish; established a quick-change tooling system (referred to internally as cassettes) and tooling design philosophy; and changed everything over to automated, PLC-controlled induction heating.
These changes were well on their way toward implementation as 1990 turned into 1991. It was about this time when Roger Koeberle was hired as VFC’s general manager, a position he still holds today. Early in his tenure, Koeberle, who came to the industry from professional-services firm Ernst & Young in Cleveland, spent $5 million purchasing new equipment such as presses, saws, furnaces and other systems. In fact, the willingness of VFC’s owners to gain competitiveness by investing in the business is what attracted him to the industry.
When Koeberle came on, VFC had 10 employees and one press line running. Under his management during the years since, the company grew to running six press lines (with two in reserve) and employing 185 non-union associates running three shifts.
VFC offers products for cars, trucks, and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), as well as parts for material-handling vehicles, the oil and gas industry, and some ordnance. Its primary products include drivetrain components, valve and compressor parts, ordnance, wheel hubs and numerous other products. Its impressive customer list includes companies like Acura, Ford, General Motors, Halliburton, Honda, Hyster, Mercedes and Yale.
A Trip Through the Plant
VFC’s forging operations are best described by following an incoming piece of steel through the plant. The company buys carbon, alloy and stainless steels – about 80 million pounds per year – from an assortment of suppliers, both domestic and foreign. Nominally, carbon steel accounts for about 60% of total annual output; alloy steel accounts for 30%; and stainless accounts for 10%. All raw steel is delivered to VFC as round, hot-rolled bar.
When it is time to process an order, the raw steel bar is located and removed from the steel storage area, which is currently an open-air yard. As the current expansion nears completion, a covered steel storage area will be used to store raw-material inventory.
Once raw material is selected from the storage yard, it is brought to a sawing/shearing station, where it is cut into billet lengths. “Anything that can be sheared will be sheared,” Koeberle said, “because shearing is more efficient and there is less waste.” That which is not sheared is sawn to length in one of four automated saws.
Sawn or sheared lengths of bar stock become forging billets. As part bins are filled with cut billets from the saw or shear, they are brought to the appropriate press line, where they are preheated to deformation temperature by multistage induction furnace lines. Glowing billets are then transferred to the press, where they are forged into shape.
At the time of this writing, VFC had five forging press lines up and running, with the possibility of adding one more in 2013. The company actually has six presses on site: four National presses (1,300- to 2,500-ton capacity range) and two Erie presses (2,500- to 4,000-ton capacity range).
From the actual forging process, excess material is trimmed off the still-glowing parts as needed. The parts themselves, after sufficient cooling time, are blast-cleaned as needed and eventually brought to the quality-control area, where they are inspected for defects, dimensional accuracy, etc.
About half of the company’s part production requires further heat treatment before shipment. VFC utilizes three commercial heat treaters for this work. Similarly, though the company has a rudimentary metallurgical testing lab, advanced destructive and nondestructive testing of its finished parts are performed at a commercial testing lab.
Tool and Die Design
At the heart of VFC’s operation is its tool and die designs and operations. The company makes its own tooling in a 12,000-square-foot machine shop located in building 2, which also houses corporate offices. The tooling features a type of modular design that enables rapid change-out, advanced near-net-shape capabilities and positive interlocks to reduce mismatch and run-out.
For each part the company makes there exists a tool and die assembly that fits into one of the presses for forming heated bar billets. These are colloquially called “cassettes” by the staff or, more formally, sub bolsters. Using these cassettes, the company boasts a 30-minute turnaround time from the last finished part from one cassette to the first part off the next cassette on any given press.
At the end of a production run, each cassette is removed, cleaned of lubricant residue (mostly graphite) and made ready for its next production run.
After an uncertain and shaky start, Viking Forge has found its stride in its production of steel forgings utilizing unique tooling designs.
“We don’t target specific markets,” Koeberle said. “We just do what we do best and find markets that require our output. Because our products show up worldwide, we consider ourselves a global competitor.”
$8 Million Expansion Under Way
Nothing expresses a company’s favorable outlook toward its business quite like the commitment to invest $8 million to expand. That is precisely what Viking Forge Corp. (VFC) is doing.
In 2002, when a building adjacent to VFC’s original high-bay facility came up for sale, the company not only had the good sense to purchase it, but an additional 13 contiguous acres of land (in a separate transaction) adjacent to the original facility as well. Both purchases proved to be far-sighted. The second building now houses VFC’s executive offices and its machining operation. This machine shop became the basis of its captive tool and die development. The extra 13 acres purchased gave the company some future growing space, of which it is now availing itself.
In the summer of 2011, VFC did a preliminary expansion study on how to best utilize the property at its disposal. It decided on a physical expansion and significant reconfiguring of its operational layout. When completed, the expansion will almost entirely reconfigure VFC’s flow of production inputs to the press lines and the subsequent shipment of finished forgings. Everything from the routing and unloading of incoming supply trucks to the way cut bar stock is fed to the induction furnaces and press lines for forging will be changed.
The company’s current facilities include 65,000 square feet of forging operations, 12,000 square feet of tool and die shop and 4,000 square feet of office space. The new addition will include an 110,000-square-foot building expansion and an 80,000-square-foot crane yard for steel storage. Even so, only 30% of it will be utilized on the new facility’s first day of production (scheduled sometime in 2013). VFC will still have room to grow even beyond the current expansion’s completion.
|VFC’s new expansion will house production and raw inventory||
The expansion will include a new unloading dock and a turnaround for delivery vehicles.