Customized Conveyor Systems

Span Tech
Written by Jen Hocken

Span Tech, LLC is a global manufacturer of custom-built, plastic chain conveyors with a variety of unique capabilities. Its conveyor systems are built to last and are commonly used in food production, packaging, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing. Span Tech is the only maker of plastic chain conveyors that can fully control the quality of its product by manufacturing almost all of its components in-house.
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“We control everything,” says Dale McDaniel, the vice president of operations at Span Tech. “The only thing we purchase outside that we don’t manufacture is the gearboxes that drive the conveyors and some guide rail. Everything else we manufacture, and that’s quite different from other conveyor companies.” The proprietary conveyor system the company makes is one it has designed from the ground up.

This is not your typical straight conveyor belt company. Span Tech builds modular chains that are custom designed, and it rarely builds the same product twice. There is much design work put into projects at the plant; the front office has more staff than the production office in the back, and that is the opposite of most manufacturers. “We spend more time, energy, and effort in designing and developing the right solutions for a customer and less time on building,” says Tiffany Somerville, the Director of Training at Span Tech and daughter of the owner.

The family-owned firm began in the 1970s as a construction business, and the conveyor system was rolled out in the 1980s. Owner Bud Layne designed the system himself, and his two daughters now also work with him in the company, “It started in my Dad’s garage when I was a small child, and today we’re still running in the same small town that we’ve been in,” says Tiffany. “We’re quite pleased to be able to live and operate here, and a lot of families work here together.”

The headquarters of Span Tech is in Glasgow, Kentucky, and last year, the owner decided to expand the company’s reach by opening a sales and service center in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The Sales & Service center opened in November 2017, and is devoted to service training and product testing. It provides the opportunity to see Span Tech conveyors up close and the ability to test your products on the company’s systems. The goal is to educate partners and future partners on the full capabilities that Span Tech can offer and give them the knowledge of why Span Tech should be their first option in all of their conveyance needs.

“Because we’re such a custom shop, sometimes it’s hard to understand all the possibilities with Span Tech. So we wanted to put up about fifteen systems up there to give it a place that customers can come in and see it, touch it, and understand what the many options are when you come here to Span Tech,” says Tiffany.

The company’s expansion into Wisconsin is working well, and it is looking forward to its next opportunity. It originally planned to expand overseas but decided to take a step back and choose a location closer to home that is within flying distance. Span Tech does have one operation overseas through its sales office in Japan that is staffed by only one employee. It ships its products all over the world using its authorized distributors.

A large portion of the eighty-nine employees are groups of family members who enjoy working together. “The culture here is a family culture. We look out for each other; we help each other, and if someone needs some help, everyone is always willing to jump in and help,” says Cary Bolinger, the Director of Sales at Span Tech. The family-like atmosphere leads to employees being honest with each other, which can be very beneficial for increasing productivity in the workplace.

Span Tech has reached its level of success for two main reasons: Bud developed an amazing product that he continues to perfect while offering customized solutions, and the second reason is its employees. “We could not do what we do without the people behind us, and I am very blessed that I have inherited the seasoned staff that’s been here for twenty-five to thirty years. We have new staff that’s come on in the last couple years that have offered all kinds of new talents too,” says Tiffany.

As a small manufacturing company in Kentucky, it can be a struggle to spread the word about the advantages of working with Span Tech. The team hired a new Marketing Manager to implement new and improved strategies to get the word out about what the company is and what exactly the company does.

The Span Tech team finds that once they develop a relationship with a customer by selling one conveyor system, a partnership is formed, and the company experiences a great deal of repeat business. For example, there was a customer that had purchased a custom conveyor system fourteen years ago from Span Tech and wanted the same product again today. The company pulled out files from storage and was able to fill the specific need.

The owner saw a need to decrease lead times in the industry and began the process to develop software that aids in the design of conveyor systems to reduce the total time. No other conveyor manufacturer turns orders around as quickly, which is a great selling point. “Our quotes literally tell people the number of days from PO [purchase order] until shipping, where all of our competition uses the word weeks,” says Cary.

The conveyor system is designed to fit together simply and easily in a modular way. If an accident occurs and there are damaged parts, it is possible to replace only those damaged parts rather than the entire conveyor. “You can just replace the section that’s damaged or worn. You don’t have to replace the entire thing like a belt conveyor, where you’d have to replace the entire belt if something went wrong with it. With this system, you can replace one link if you want to,” says Dale.

Span Tech designs all their systems to be modular thus allowing the parts to be interchangeable from one side to the other. “If something won’t fit your space on one side, you can take it and put it on the other side, and it is identical, which is just something that I don’t know most people think about, but every time he [Bud] goes to develop something, the first rule is that it all has to have symmetry,” says Tiffany.

Span Tech specializes in innovative solutions for complicated conveyor systems. Customers reach out when there is an issue that no other conveyor company can tackle, and that is how many of the company’s new customer relationships are formed. The company often develops new products based on customers’ requests, and the products that are developed for difficult systems can then be offered and sold to other customers as well. On the rare occasion that it cannot be done as the customer requested, Span Tech will be honest with the customer and work to provide other options for them.

Shipping on time is a key value of Span Tech’s; however, quality will not be sacrificed. Span Tech has to get it done right and reduce the chance of any problems for the customer. The company strives to ensure that only quality products leave the plant.

It has created products such as the Topper Lift, which is a conveyor on top of another conveyor that sandwiches different sized products. Customers can put a tall product in before a short product that is round or flat on a tight elevation chain conveyor that saves floor space.

The customer service delivered is another distinguishing factor for the company. For example, when a customer service department receives a phone call about a ten-year-old conveyor system that is problematic, and the customer needs replacement parts the same day to keep their business running, Bud, in one instance, offered the company plane to get those parts to the customer quickly. There is no hesitation when it comes to helping a customer, and the cost to Span Tech is well worth it, since establishing reliable customer service always pays off in the end.

Tiffany joined the family company three years ago specifically to work in the training department. “My Dad had this idea of developing a Span Tech 360 program, which walks you through the whole process from how we sell a conveyor to how we design a conveyor to how we build a conveyor and service it,” she says. Tiffany has been working on the program for years, and there is only one section left to implement. When she first started, she noticed that the training was basic since it only showed employees what to do without explaining why and how the operation works.

The company is now working on training all internal employees, and every new employee that joins the family completes the Span Tech 360 program. The next training programs to be developed will be for management development, and the company is also working on an external training program for customers. They found there was a real desire and need customer training. They are in the process of creating the training program and know it will be beneficial for both sides.

Another new training tool implemented by Span Tech is its learning management system which moves all of their training programs online. Thus, allowing employees to watch training videos at their desks in their free time instead of having to pile into a conference room to watch a scheduled seminar. There are different topics and courses from which staff can choose, and the company can also design custom learning paths.

The company is looking forward to the future and opening more service centers in the United States and the rest of the world. “The long-term initiative is doing more of these service centers because it has just been an excellent way for people to understand who and what we are and for them to get in and see it,” says Tiffany. Another long-term goal is to develop more manufacturing capabilities at these new locations. The past several years have been exciting for Span Tech as it has continued to break its growth records, year after year.

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