Upgrading Equipment for Efficiency

Written by Jen Hocken

ProcessBarron designs, manufactures, and installs air handling and material handling equipment for heavy industrial applications in the pulp and paper, steel, cement, lime, power, and biomass industries.

The bulk of the company’s business is in the pulp and paper industry, and this makes up over fifty percent of its work. Pulp and paper mills wear equipment out regularly and require plenty of repairs, replacements, and upgrades because of the abrasive and corrosive atmosphere in which the equipment operates.

Since our last feature, ProcessBarron has focused on reinvestment in its fabrication shops in Alabama. It upgraded its shops with computer numerical controlled (CNC) manufacturing equipment and now owns a CNC drill press, a CNC band saw, and three new CNC machining centers: one vertical lathe and two horizontal lathes. The company also introduced extensive lean manufacturing initiatives to reorganize and restructure its shop floor space for more efficient manufacturing operations.

“It has reduced labor costs by a pretty significant amount, up to twenty-five percent in some instances where we’ve implemented the new lean manufacturing processes, and so that allows us to be more competitive whenever we need to be to help our customers out,” says ProcessBarron President and Chief Executive Officer Ken Nolen.

ProcessBarron has no competitors that can provide both heavy industrial material handling equipment and air and gas equipment. The company’s American-made equipment is designed and manufactured in house to ensure its reliability.

Southern Field Maintenance (SFM) was acquired by ProcessBarron in 2007, and this now serves as the division of the company that concentrates on air pollution control. Last year, Southern Field Maintenance acquired Environmental Elements (EEC), a company that has specialized in air pollution control equipment and technology for over forty years. EEC’s product line primarily consists of pulse jet fabric filters and electrostatic precipitators.

The acquisition of EEC brought SFM and ProcessBarron a good amount of field service and manufacturing work because EEC had an installed base of environmental equipment consisting of over 800 units in heavy industrial operations. ProcessBarron and SFM are focused on upgrading and maintaining the EEC installed base of equipment.

“Environmental regulations aren’t getting any less stringent. They’re only getting more stringent, and so, as new EPA guidelines come across and as existing environmental units like precipitators and baghouses age out, those pieces of equipment have to be upgraded to the most updated available technology,” says Nolen. Precipitators and baghouses are air pollution control equipment used to prevent polluted gases from being released into the air. For the past couple of years, particularly since the acquisition of EEC, ProcessBarron has directed its attention towards upgrading environmental equipment to the highest efficiency possible to meet the continually growing demands of EPA guidelines.

Another area of attention in the last year has been helping its customers with energy-efficient fan upgrades. Its customers operate manufacturing plants, requiring large fans that consume a high amount of horsepower. In fact, industrial manufacturing fans are one of the biggest horsepower consumers within a plant as each fan uses up to 10,000 horsepower, and a large plant may have anywhere from twenty to thirty fans.

The company is driven by its commitment to help reduce its customers’ utility costs and to reduce their carbon footprints, so company engineers worked to find a more energy-efficient solution. “What we’ve done is we’ve developed some new technology with more efficient fan rotors that can be retrofitted in place of the old fan rotors that can save significant horsepower consumption. And that savings in energy consumption directly relates to reduced carbon dioxide emissions and a reduced carbon footprint,” says Nolen.

ProcessBarron has become known for providing exceptional service to its customers. Its shops run in shifts around the clock, and if a customer has a downtime issue with their plant, ProcessBarron is prepared to serve the operation immediately, no matter the circumstance.

“We will come in at night to do drawings and get them out to the shop when required – anything we can possibly do to minimize the downtime our customers have will save them money,” says ProcessBarron Vice President of Sales and Marketing Ashley Doyal. “We haven’t lost that focus in our shop or in our engineering group.”

The high employee retention rate at ProcessBarron is a result of the close-knit atmosphere that has been well preserved since the company’s origins as a family business. “Both the shop employees and our engineering and design employees are critical to our business. Our equipment is so specialized and so customized, you can’t just hire someone off the street to do the design and drawing work,” explains Nolen.

The level of experience within the engineering department enables the company to produce quality blueprints that are then sent to the fabrication plant where the shop employees take over. “Our shop guys can take a flat piece of steel, burn out parts, put them together like a puzzle, and weld them together to create a piece of machinery that’s critical for our customers to be able to operate their plants.” The skill in engineering and design must be combined with the highly skilled welders and shop laborers required to manufacture the equipment.

In the last year, ProcessBarron has grown in revenue by approximately ten percent while maintaining the same number of employees. It has achieved this by increasing efficiency through lean manufacturing initiatives. “By installing some of the equipment and doing some of the manufacturing changes that we’ve done, it has helped us be more efficient, so we’ve been able to increase revenue without really increasing headcount,” says Nolen.

The main challenge is replacing its retiring employees to remain competitive as the older generation of skilled labor continues to dwindle. Recently, the company established apprentice programs with the local high schools and trade schools to identify students looking for an alternative to college as a career path.

When it finds a student interested in learning a skilled trade, particularly in welding or machining, the company agrees with a trade school to help that student with tuition fees. Throughout the time they are attending school, the student works a certain number of hours at ProcessBarron, and when they graduate, there is a guaranteed job waiting for them. The apprentice program has been active for one year, and the company currently has four apprentices working in its fabrication shops.

There is a large, environmentally progressive pulp mill under construction in Arkansas right now, and the entire pulp and paper industry is growing somewhat, which is great news for the future of ProcessBarron. Over the past ten years, the demand in the paper industry has shifted from newsprint and magazine printing to developing cardboard boxes as a result of the Amazon effect and the abundance of e-commerce businesses.

The multitude of boxes moving around the world for shipping have prompted the paper mills to convert old newsprint machines and magazine paper machines to produce cardboard to meet the demand of these new services offered around the world. Many of the paper mills have also transformed operations to make the fluff pulp that is used in baby and adult diapers to address the demand for adult diapers as the baby boomers advance in age.

ProcessBarron sees potential in the cement and steel industries as well. “Some of the infrastructure spending that was passed by Congress a couple of years ago is just now trickling down to us, so that’s really helped our customers and helped our business,” says Nolen.

“We’re hopeful that Congress will pass another infrastructure bill in the not too distant future that will continue to support industries like cement, aggregates, steel, and construction.” The deteriorating infrastructure in the United States should be on its way to recovery through these bills that authorize federal spending on highways and infrastructure.



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