Strongwell performs when other pultruders can’t
By Margie Church, Editor
Strongwell Corporation is the world’s largest pultruder of fiber reinforced polymer composites. With more than 60 pultrusion machines, three manufacturing plants, and no close competitor, it might seem easy for Strongwell to act smug. Keith Liskey, Strongwell’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, says that is anything but the case. This giant is still growing. It is building, selling, expanding, and mining the world for new markets and opportunities to sell its pultrusion solutions.
Liskey believes the FRP industry is still in the early stages of its growth cycle. More opportunities are appearing as people become aware of how composites can solve their problems. “Our real competition is traditional structural materials — steel, aluminum, wood, and concrete,” Liskey says. Because of this, many manufacturers, such as Strongwell, spend considerable effort and money to promote the understanding and use of FRP products in applications where other structural materials are traditionally chosen.
Strongwell’s President, John Tickle, began a two-year stint as president of the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) on July 1. That’s a powerful statement of commitment. Other Strongwell staff members hold ACMA volunteer positions working on the Pultrusion Industry Council (PIC) and the technical paper, environmental, and technical committees. Strongwell’s sales force is on the front lines of educating customers, engineers, and students around the world about the benefits of pultruded composites. It also was active in developing and understanding the maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standards as they apply to the composites industry.
To promote education, Strongwell has made its design manual available on its Web site, www.strongwell.com. First published in 1979 and written in the style of the American Iron and Steel Institute’s (AISI) steel construction manual, the purpose of Strongwell’s manual is to help engineers quickly determine whether they can and should replace steel with pultruded FRP. “The stiffness and deflection components of a part’s design are at the forefront of a decision whether to use a pultruded FRP,” explains Glenn Barefoot, Strongwell’s Corporate Marketing Manager. “Our design manual is unique to the industry. We’ve compiled the FRP data to compare side by side to steel’s data and then put it in an accessible location.” Barefoot says it is distributed widely to engineering professionals and students.
Additionally, Strongwell has formed alliances with Virginia Tech, the University of Miami, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to name a few. “Educating people about our products is difficult,” says David Gibbs, Strongwell’s Plant Manager for the Bristol Division in Virginia. “Undergraduate engineering students are still not being exposed to the benefits and uses of composites. The possibilities are tremendous. This is why we are working hard to build an FRP component in the American education system. Universities such as these are our partners to help accomplish that.”
The absence of composites education in undergraduate academics makes it difficult to find qualified engineers, not just for Strongwell, but also for the entire industry. “We have a tremendous amount of technical talent at Strongwell,” Liskey explains. “From the education and experience perspectives, we are very fortunate. However, pultrusion is an on-the-job training specialty, and it is in our best interests to promote the science from the ground up.”
A Slam Dunk?
Pultruded products are chosen based on the immediate benefits to the customer, not on cost. They are typically more expensive than the steel, aluminum, concrete, or wood they replace. Durability, safety, ease of installation, and product weight are primary issues that Strongwell’s products can confidently address.
For example, Strongwell’s composite sheet piling is replacing steel, concrete, and wood because of its durability. In addition, some treated lumber leaches chemicals into the water, putting aquatic life at risk.
In ladders, for example, pultruded rails are replacing aluminum rails in those ladders used near electrical hazards. They don’t conduct electricity, they are more durable than wood or aluminum ladders, and they are more attractive.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates that coal-burning utility plants remove the sulfur from their emissions. One solution is installing jet-bubbling reactors. These facilities use Hastelloy®, a highly corrosion-resistant metal alloy that falls into the superalloy category. While this alloy performs well, it is very expensive, costing as much as $20 per pound. Strongwell’s pultruded structural members are specially coated to survive in the caustic environment, plus they are lighter and much more cost effective.
“When we can prove that our products are more capable than competitive products, customers will listen,” Barefoot says. “When our products possess two of those benefits, we have a chance. If we have three, it’s a slam dunk. We’re in.”
“There are a number of pultruders who compete with Strongwell products such as tool handles, handrail systems, structural shapes, and grating,” Liskey says. “There is, however, no company that competes with us across the broad range of products we manufacture.”
The company’s workforce comprises more than 750 employees. Many of these are in research and development (R&D) and engineering. Gibbs says Strongwell’s engineers can take those “cocktail napkin concepts,” draw the part, design it, build the tooling (if they don’t already have it), and get it to the manufacturing floor quickly. Strongwell engineers develop designs using AutoCAD and Inventor® software and then prove those designs with Finite Element Analysis (FEA). FEA models a part or piece of equipment and determines whether it will survive to the desired specifications before it is ever built.
Strongwell’s unparalleled manufacturing capability allows it to respond to what Dave Faulkner, NAC’s National Sales Manager, characterizes as Herculean requests. Strongwell has 580,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 67 pultrusion machines. Most of these machines are multicavity machines. At the facility in Chatfield, Minnesota, machines can each pull up to 24 cavities to produce pultruded grating.
“We have the ability to perform at whatever level of business our customers need,” Faulkner says. “Our capacity is a huge factor in our success. We can deliver massive volumes of products in a timely manner, and in many cases, we are the only company that can.”
That demand has an impact on Strongwell’s raw materials suppliers. Liskey says only a few fiberglass and resin suppliers can make the commitment to supply in the volumes Strongwell needs. Ashland Inc. and AOC are their primary resin suppliers, and Owens Corning and PPG Industries are their fiberglass suppliers.
Gibbs says selecting a new raw material would not be a decision made lightly. Strongwell’s robust R&D department evaluates new raw materials and qualifies them for production. Their in-house laboratory is used to perform test runs that ensure a new material performs properly in the pultrusion process and with the other materials that may be used in the resin matrix. The staff evaluates material performance in terms of wet-out, line speed needs, and bonding. A finished part must exceed mechanical specifications as well.
“Cost can lead us to evaluate a material,” Gibbs says, “but the material’s performance is the utmost consideration. It must perform as well or better than the material it would replace.”
“We also look for companies that are trying to advance the materials technology so we, too, can advance,” Liskey explains. “We have strategic alliances with our raw materials suppliers and our distribution partners, including NAC, to take advantage of their experience and research capabilities, so that we may bring advanced composites to the marketplace.”
An example of these advanced composites is pultruded ladder rails. Produced for Louisville Ladder and others, these rails make ladders safe to use around electrical hazards. Louisville Ladder is one of the largest ladder manufacturers in North America and is a key business for Strongwell. However, Strongwell’s product diversity offers an incredible range of customer solutions and is a tremendous asset to the company.
The majority of the power generation industry has turned from traditional wood cooling towers and embraced pultruded structures. Most of these power generating plants are coal-burning, but some are fueled by natural gas or nuclear power. When the plants burn these fuels to generate electricity, heat is created. The heat is dispersed by cool air blowing through the cascading heated water in the cooling tower structures. Wood traditionally has been used to build the tower framework, but it rots, causing safety, maintenance, and replacement cost issues, and over time, it is not very attractive. This is a classic case of what Barefoot called the “slam dunk.” Thus, Strongwell has become a major player in the cooling tower market.
In an ancillary application, oil is used to cool transformers at electrical substations. Strongwell partnered with American Electric Power to provide COMPOSOLITE® secondary containment systems instead of concrete berms. The composite panel system reduces concerns of oil leaks and subsequent ground water contamination and risks to the public. The COMPOSOLITE system also is faster to install and lighter than concrete. It is UV resistant, low in thermal and electrical conductivity, maintenance-free, and easy to remove if necessary.
Ten years ago, the power generation market represented less than $1 million in annual sales for Strongwell. Today, that market is more than $30 million and is at the leading edge of phenomenal growth opportunities in North America for the company. It is an emerging application internationally, particularly in the Middle East, where a significant amount of development is underway.
Strongwell also plays a role in protecting U.S. citizens and troops from harm. While most of the specifics are proprietary, Barefoot says the company has been involved in a number projects for the Department of Homeland Security. One such project, a building infrastructure venture, involves installing a half-inch ballistics panel behind an aesthetic granite panel for building cladding. “There are some very large jobs pending using this technology, and a significant amount of other types of infrastructure support work is ongoing,” he says.
Strongwell also has shipped more than 25,000 half-inch, fiberglass panels that are installed on roof structures in the military’s lunchrooms, sleeping areas, and command centers to help protect U.S. troops from artillery rounds and mortars. And it has found a way to use new, classified technology to create products to protect military vehicles.
Full Steam Ahead
Liskey says the company operates with a solid one-year business plan, and a more general three-year plan so it can take advantage of opportunities as they materialize.“We have more opportunities, in both new and existing markets, than ever before. Some of these markets could double the size of our company in the near future,” he says. “It will be a challenge to accommodate our infrastructure needs and attract the right personnel to do all the work we expect to see at Strongwell.”
Faulkner agrees that the workforce issue will be a challenge, but he indicates no sign of slowing down. “As we grow, it’s still full steam ahead from a sales perspective,” he says. “Our company ownership has traditionally been very willing to accommodate the business levels with capital expenditures for equipment and facilities. It’s a challenge for our sales force, but at the same time, it delights them to be in an even better position to satisfy customer needs.”
In North America, Strongwell has 10 regional sales directors and managers, plus a number of distribution companies. It also has a European business director in England and is represented by distributors and agents worldwide. Several sales personnel, who reside in the U.S., travel abroad to support the international sales efforts, too.
The company recently broke ground on expansions of Strongwell’s Bristol and Highlands Divisions in Virginia to accommodate its rapid growth. The privately held company’s three manufacturing plants are all ISO 9001:2000 certified.
Learn more: www.strongwell.com