With roots going back more than three-quarters of a century, Ajax Rolled Ring & Machine supplies seamless rolled rings to the mining, construction, power-generation, wind-energy, oil and gas, petrochemical, defense and rail industries. The recent addition of in-house machining complements the company’s heat-treat and NDT capabilities, helping to minimize lead times.
If it weren’t for the placards with the Ajax logo on them, you wouldn’t know that this 150,000-square-foot facility nestled on 29 acres within the winding, rural roads leading through York County, S.C., was even there. Located about 30 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C., the facility was built back in 1980. The company’s namesake, however, has history dating back more than 80 years.
The plant itself was built under the ownership of Edgewater Steel, an Oakmont, Pa.-based company near Pittsburgh. Edgewater set up the plant to produce train wheels, seamless rings and hammer forgings. Its facility in Pennsylvania had already penetrated the bearings market, and the company was eager to build its presence in the South to better serve several key bearing customers.
In the early 1980s, however, financially strained Edgewater was forced to sell the South Carolina facility. Enter Ajax Rolled Ring. The Wayne, Mich.-based company recognized the strengths of the York plant and had its sights set on adding to its ring-rolling capacity by adding additional mills to its portfolio. Ajax was also interested in expanding its geographic exposure and, consequently, completed the purchase of the facility in 1986.
Several other ownership changes took place in the 1990s and after the turn of the century, leading up to Ajax’s current owner, a New York-based public-equity firm called Prospect Capital Corp. Prospect Capital has approximately $4.5 billion in assets with 110 portfolio companies, some in closely related manufacturing sectors. Prospect Capital purchased Ajax in 2008 and continues to invest in the plant, as evidenced by the recent addition of the 15,000-square-foot machine shop, as well as upgrades to the rolling mills and heat-treating equipment.
Heavy-Truck, Mining, Bearings and Power-Generation Markets
At its core, Ajax is a custom-forge job shop serving more than 200 active customers. Orders range from single rings for one-off applications to production runs of more than 100 pieces. The plant rolls seamless rings up to 3,000 pounds, ranging from 7.5 to 110 inches in diameter, in varying grades of carbon and alloy steel as well as stainless steels. These rings find applications in a variety of critical industrial components, including bearing races, gears, flanges, valve seats and support rings.
The rings produced by Ajax might not always be readily visible in application, but the next time you see one of the brightly colored earth-moving machines resembling an oversized Tonka truck, you can be sure that a forged seamless ring has a role in a gear or bearing beneath the vehicle’s armor. Another recognizable application of the company’s product is a style of two-piece wheels used by several locomotive manufacturers in their train trucks. It might be hard to pick them out as you watch a train speed by the next time you are stopped at a railway crossing, but it’s likely they are there.
In general, industrial markets demand competitive pricing and short lead times. Ajax meets these demands with its dedicated and highly skilled staff of more than 100 employees that turn out rolled rings in as little as seven days. The company operates two Wagner rolling mills and has added automation to one of the mills to handle high-volume production runs. A walk through the shop offers perspective on how the company achieves such short lead times. The crews at each mill are a well-orchestrated and coordinated team. From the press operator and ring-mill operators perched in their pulpits to the blacksmiths on the ground directing the red-hot metal, they are on task as they convert cylindrically shaped slugs of bar or ingot into rings of tight tolerance.
Product doesn’t sit on the ground for long at Ajax. As soon as it cools down from the rolling operation, it’s off to heat treatment, inspection, testing and machining. The plant is laid out favorably for product flow and, though it is large enough to house the two Wagner mills, you can see the entire operation while standing at one end of the shop.
Meeting Customer Demands
Much has changed at Ajax since the plant was first built in 1980, but the company’s attention to customer service and commitment to quality remains as strong as ever. Listening to customer needs and providing added value have been vital to growing the business.
In order to keep lead times down to an average of three weeks, the company keeps as many operations as it can in house. Managing raw material is another key aspect of being competitive, and stocking certain grades of metal helps cut down on delivery times. Ajax has made significant investments in non-destructive testing (NDT), including dye-penetrant and ultrasonic testing. The quality department performs optical-emission spectroscopy on both incoming raw material and finished product, and it conducts dimensional inspection using a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) and a laser inspection machine.
Ajax possesses one of the largest in-house thermal-treatment facilities in the southeastern U.S., using six 10-foot x 10-foot tip-up gas-fired furnaces, each with a capacity for 20,000 pounds, that operate 24/7. Typical heat-treat cycles include annealing, normalizing and quench-and-temper in water or polymer quenchants. Brinell hardness checks are performed on each furnace batch to confirm properties. The equipment complies with the requirements of AMS 2750E.
In addition to forging, Ajax offers engineering support for designing rings with contours on both inner and outer diameters, heat treating, NDT, CMM inspection, and semi-finished and finished machining. Such custom designs can save customers time and money by cutting down on raw material usage, as well as saving time at subsequent machining operations. Customers also take advantage of steel shot-blast capabilities to produce a scale- and oxide-free surface in preparation for subsequent machining operations.
The company offers the convenience and flexibility of in-house machining services for customers that require a semi- or finish-machined product that arrives ready for additional machining operations or final assembly. In addition to machining faces or contoured shapes on rings up to 110 inches in diameter, Ajax can also mill keyways and drill holes using live tooling on its full complement of Honor Seiki vertical lathes, which range from 10 to 110 inches in turning capability. The company has developed a strong network of subcontractors to provide additional machining services when required.
Although its general industrial markets have provided the foundation for Ajax’s business model, the firm has used its combination of skilled workforce and experienced engineering staff to expand its technical capabilities and compete in new markets. Following the growth trends in renewable energy, management supported growth in both industrial-gas and steam-turbine power sources, as well as wind-energy initiatives. The oil and gas industry is another key growth market that fits the company’s ring-rolling size capabilities.
Another area of company growth is in the bearings market. While the rings supplied to this sector are mostly for general industrial applications, Ajax is currently pursuing AS9100 certification to expand its bearing offerings to the aerospace industry.
In the forging world, quality is paramount to success. Ajax has been working under ISO 9001 guidelines for nearly 20 years. Industry certifications are also important to supplying products to the gear and bearing markets, and the company is an active member in both the American Gear Manufacturer’s Association (AGMA) and the American Bearing Manufacturer’s Association (ABMA). The standard product produced in these industries serves many different applications, and product is rarely made to order. To meet this challenge, Ajax has received certifications from the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) and the Pressure Equipment Directive (PED).
Quality doesn’t stop with certifications. Ajax regularly conducts lean events, both with and without customer support. These projects help save customers money by reducing manufacturing and raw-material costs and by engineering tighter tolerances into designs.
Taking Advantage of Technology
Listening to customers has been the key to success for Ajax since the plant was first built. Adapting with and to market changes has let it continue to successfully serve industry and its customers. One example of such a change is the use of a customer portal on its website. Customers have the ability to log in and check the status of their open orders, recent shipments, quality certifications, invoices and accounting balances.
In the information world we live in today, nobody likes to wait for answers. We have gotten used to being a “self-service” society. Just as you can track a bank account after all the tellers have gone home, Ajax’s customers can track their orders whenever they have a question outside of normal business hours. Services such as the portal give customers access to their accounts 24 hours a day. Ajax will continue to develop the portal and plans to add a feature to let customers obtain “quick quotes” in the near future.
Seeing bar-code scanners on the shop floor is not surprising, but Ajax is discussing ways to use QR scan codes to direct customers to the portal for additional information.
Ajax Rolled Ring & Machine has come a long way during 80 years of service to its customers. In addition to serving its long-standing clients, the company is looking to traditional and alternative-energy industries as prospects for future growth.
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