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Starr's Future Shines Bright with Shale
VIENNA, Ohio -- Standing alone in the back of the machine shop of Starr Manufacturing Inc.’s 75,000-square-foot plant is a product that the company looks to build upon for another 50 years – pressure vessels for the shale industry.
It’s the company’s first pressure vessel built according to the 2013 ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, says Rich Rodemoyer, Starr sales and estimating representative. Starr’s process has undergone a thorough inspection with a written procedure for each step in producing pressure vessels, down to the nameplate affixed to the narrow cylinder that stands between four and five feet tall.
“If any portion of that fails, we are able to trace it 100%,” Rodemoyer says.
Pressure vessels are closed containers designed to hold gases and liquids at pressures that differ significantly from the ambient pressure. This particular pressure vessel, designed for use with a fuel filter, is made up of 10 to 15 independent components, Rodemoyer says. From start to finish, it took about 12 weeks to build the unit, but now that Starr is certified, “the lead times will drastically drop,” he says.
As activity increases in the Utica shale play, the owner of Starr Manufacturing Inc., Andreas Foerster, says pressure vessels will generate “a good amount of business coming up.” He’s already seeing an uptick in other shale-related business at Starr with production of baseplates for equipment used at drilling sites, and says the company is still shaping its role in the burgeoning natural gas industry.
“There are probably fields that we don’t even know about with applications that we could do,” Foerster says. “I do believe we will grow and widen our customer bases.”
With the company coming off a tough year in 2012, developing new business is a priority for Starr. A combination of lower natural gas prices and new regulations the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposed on the coal industry has led to some mining operations and coal-fired plants ceasing production or closing altogether. With the coal industry being one of Starr’s primary customer bases, the company’s revenue dropped at least 30% year-over-year, Foerster says.
“We lost last year a majority of our revenues within two months,” Foerster relates. “It hit us unbelievably hard. We cut our costs, made sure we only spent what we had on hand, and focused on the areas that we did before even more intensely and adjusted accordingly.”
And while Foerster isn’t satisfied with where the company stands financially, he’s optimistic about how Starr can serve the shale industry. His concern, he says, is that regulations could do to shale what they did to coal.
“Energy independence for every country in the world is one of the biggest issues however you look at it,” he says. “Environmental pollution is also a big issue because we all have grandkids. It’s good to protect, but if the protection goes into killing business, killing employment opportunities, then it’s just fundamentally wrong.”
In addition to coal and now the shale industries, Starr serves the power generation, materials handling and waste management industries as well as original equipment manufacturers, all within a 500-miles radius. Foerster and his wife, Dale, are considered Starr’s second-generation owners because they bought the company from its founders in 2007. Since then, the company received its ISO certification and adopted more Lean manufacturing guidelines to improve project efficiency and reduce scrap waste.
Most Starr products are made from materials such as carbon and stainless steel, Rodemoyer says. The company orders about 100,000 pounds of materials monthly, with some 60,000 pounds of that going into the average baseplate. Baseplates are structural parts that serve as foundations for large pieces of equipment, such as compressors, and can take anywhere from four to 16 weeks to fabricate, he says.
The material is cut into the specified lengths, then sent to the machine shop where workers use four manual machining lathes and eight CNC (computer numerically controlled) lathes to machine the parts according to detailed specification. Computer-aided-drafting (CAD) stations program the CNC lathes based on the customer’s design, or a design Starr generates. All parts must arrive at their final destinations within a tolerance of one one-thousandth of an inch, Rodemoyer says. Parts are inspected by Starr employees and sometimes by the customer. If some aspect doesn’t measure up to the design, Starr has to start from scratch. Since Rodemoyer joined the company in the late 1980s, he says Starr hasn’t had to scrap anything.
The company employs 70 workers on average and can run two shifts, Rodemoyer says. The youngest worker has about three years’ experience, while the most seasoned employee has more than 40 years’, he says.
“Our workforce is flexible enough that if we ask them to work a second shift, they will,” Rodemoyer says. “They’re reliable enough that you can put two or three on a skeleton shift and they’ll manage themselves.”
As the workforce ages, however, finding qualified employees to fill the jobs of those retiring is an issue, Rodemoyer says.
Starr’s vice president, Dale Foerster, is also vice president of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition. Within the coalition, she’s working extensively with “virtually every aspect of training in our region,” including high schools, universities, tech schools and educational service centers, to generate interest in careers in manufacturing. She and Andreas recently gave a tour to a class of 25 from Champion High School, and then visited the school at the students’ request to talk at greater length about the Mahoning Valley’s manufacturing base. (See story next page.)
“They asked us specifics about manufacturing, about all the different things you can do in manufacturing,” she says. “The students that seemed interested gave me hope that all is not doom and gloom, that students are really looking toward career fields that they can succeed in. It gave me hope that the teachers just can’t wait to talk to the employers … and get those employers connected to the students.”
Encouraged by the students’ interest, the Foersters will continue to visit the schools, she says. They have already invited students from other schools to tour the plant and have encouraged other Valley manufacturers to follow suit. As a group, however, the manufacturers coalition is seeking ways to help the schools fund the tours.
“That’s one of the things that’s been cut back in the last year when school budgets got really tight,” Dale Foerster says. “Somehow, we all need to help them find a way to be able to do that.”
Editor's Note: This story was published in the April edition of The Business Journal. Click here to buy a copy or to subscribe.
Copyright 2013 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.