September 8, 2013

Heat treat addition makes Metal Finishing a one-stop shop

Metal Finishing Co., a locally owned aerospace parts finishing and inspection company, has been on a mission to expand its capabilities and its operations.

Metal Finishing Co., a locally owned aerospace parts finishing and inspection company, has been on a mission to expand its capabilities and its operations.

It recently added the ability to heat treat parts, which means machine shops can get their parts heat treated, inspected and finished in one place, the company said.

Before, shops had to send parts to as many as three companies for the services, said Ed Ball, Metal Finishing’s vice president of sales and marketing and director of customer relations.

The capability puts Metal Finishing in a unique position in the industry, he said.

“We are the only company that we’re aware of in North America that offers heat treat with processing,” Ball said. “The addition of heat treating is going to make a big difference not only to Kansas but nationwide.”

Heat treating is a complicated process that gives parts the proper hardness before they’re finished, inspected and installed on an airplane.

Having the services under one roof cuts time, administrative burden, the risk of damage and overall costs to the shops, Ball said.

Besides heat treat, Metal Finishing offers more than 100 approved pre-finish and finish processes for aluminum, steel and composite parts for machine-shop customers. It also performs a variety of nondestructive testing, which checks for inclusions and imperfections.

“We try to take it all on,” said Robert Babst, the company’s president. “We want to be a one-stop shop and offer a diverse array” of services.

The company has a long Wichita history. Babst’s grandfather, Harley Babst, founded the company in 1940. His father, Bob Babst, is the company’s CEO. A brother joined the company a year ago.

Metal Finishing operates four sites: a main facility located in multiple buildings on McLean Boulevard near Lincoln and Harry, a facility at 701 E. Murdock and one in Wellington. In 2011, it opened a facility in Chihuahua City, Mexico, to support planemakers that have facilities there.

It did not move work or jobs to Mexico, Ball said.

“We do not export anything to that facility,” he said.

In 2010, Metal Finishing opened a location on Murdock to offer customers a “quick turn” option – giving customers a three- to four-day turnaround for basic aluminum processing. Employees at the site perform the company’s heat treating and nondestructive testing services.

At its combined sites, the company employs more than 300 who work two shifts, including 250 in Wichita.

Its expansion is paying off.

“We’re bringing in a lot of work from out of state,” Ball said. That includes work from Europe, Mexico, Canada and elsewhere. “We’re helping to make Wichita more of a cluster. We want work to stay in Wichita.”

About 95 percent of all the parts that go into an airplane have some sort of testing or finishing done before they’re installed.

“You can’t just go buy a piece of sheet metal, make a part and put it on the airplane,” Ball said.

The company’s most “adventurous project” to date was the addition of heat treatment of aluminum alloys, the company said. An accreditation audit was completed in July.

The company is making a significant investment in equipment to take on the work. Its largest furnace to date was just installed and will be running within the next two weeks, Ball said. That gives the company two furnaces and 14 “age” ovens.

“We’re really excited about that,” Ball said.

Preparing for better times

Metal Finishing was growing “nicely” through 2008 when the economic downturn hit. The company had a small layoff in late 2008 and sales bottomed in 2009. Since then, however, sales have been growing 10 percent a year, Babst said.

“We’ve just now reached the same sales level,” as 2008, Babst said.

The downturn gave the company time to focus on how to prepare for the future.

“We know the aerospace market is cyclical,” Ball said. “We know it is eventually going to come back.”

It asked customers about the biggest hurdles they faced, he said.

“One of the things that they said was ‘quick turns,’” Ball said. “That’s why we invested in the Murdock facility, and that’s why we invested in heat treat.”

Metal Finishing’s biggest customers are the machine shops that supply directly to Boeing, Cessna, Beechcraft, Bombardier, Sikorsky and other original equipment manufacturers.

The company says it holds more Boeing approvals for processing than any other independent processor worldwide.

Roughly 60 percent of Metal Finishing’s work is for commercial jets, 5 percent for military and 35 percent for business jets.

Changing for customers

It has a customer base of 1,500 to 2,000 customers, Ball said.

“We try to treat the little guy the same as the big guy,” Ball said. “Ethically, it’s the right thing to do.”

Plus, those small customers may grow into big ones someday, he said.

The business has changed over the years. Many machine shops have consolidated and been bought by larger firms.

That’s presented some challenges, Babst said, because decision-making can move to a corporate level and work can sometimes be directed elsewhere.

On the other side, it also presents opportunities to gain work.

Going forward, future expansions will be based on customer needs and changes in the market, Ball said.

The company has the room to expand.

“If someone comes to us and says, ‘Can you do this process? This is a new process.’ Then we’re going to explore that process to make sure there’s a business case for us and more than likely put it in,” Ball said. “We have to explore the market. That’s why we went to Mexico. They said, ‘We need your services here.’”

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