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Spring Forming Company's Techniques, Procedures Keep Quality at Forefront
This heavy vehicle application is a Skyjacker® aftermarket suspension system. Shown are a set of Betts coil springs and other Skyjacker suspension components.
Photo courtesy of Betts Company
Besides fast turnarounds and competitive pricing, OEMs require quality close to perfection
In the modern global marketplace, contract manufacturers must create parts and assemblies as close to perfect as is humanly possible. To accomplish this, many manufacturing production managers have an arsenal of quality control tools and digital technologies at their disposal to create high-quality parts and components on a consistent, repeatable basis.
Powerful software for monitoring and validating quality is in evidence in most high-end manufacturing plants, where engineers often play a key role. In addition, ISO certifications offer precise procedures for creating high quality every time a part goes from design to production. Thus, quality is no longer guesswork, but a phenomenon associated with precise scientific methodology.
A Fresno, California, contract manufacturer, Betts Company (www.bettsspring.com) has been fabricating and forming springs since 1868. The six generation family-owned and operated business has a long record of providing high-quality parts, components, and products for its customers. The company provides stock and custom products—wire, coil, and leaf springs—primarily for the heavy trucking industry under the name Betts Spring Manufacturing. In addition, the company operates two other divisions: BettsHD (www.BettsHD.com), the company's new operating division for spray suppression and fender products, and Betts Truck Parts and Service (www.BettsTruckParts.com), which provides parts and service for nearly every application under the frame rail of a medium or heavy duty truck.
The company has been a leader in the heavy transportation spring industry for many years. Betts manufactures a large assortment of different types of springs—leaf, coil, torsion, compression, and extension—for a variety of different industries and applications.
"Clearly, longevity plays a key role in our success," said Marcus Shiveley, the company's vice president of finance and business development. "Our company was founded for manufacturing carriage springs, so we were early entrants into the transportation sector. As rail transport was introduced into the West, we become extensive producers of springs for the railroads. As heavy-duty tractor truck applications came into being, we were in the early forefront there. We have been a sustained partner to our customers throughout our history. One element of our company that's unique is that there aren't many spring manufacturing businesses that capture all the different forms of springs."
Typically, most spring companies have a narrow niche focus, Shiveley said, either on the type or size of a spring or on a particular application in which they've developed a core competency. "Early on, our founders understood the potential benefits to a customer of having a bundled solution," he said. "They could purchase wire coil or leaf springs from one manufacturer and have a consistent supplier relationship, and get to know business practices between companies. So this has been another way that we've differentiated ourselves and contributed value across our markets, but particularly in heavy-duty transportation. In the core niche that we're involved with, we are a one-stop shop."
In today's global marketplace, there are very stringent rules and requirements for creating quality parts and products every time. There are now general and specific ISO certifications, as well as guidelines from trade associations, military specifications, and technical mandates from the large OEMs. Betts is completely focused on turning out high-quality parts, assemblies, and products. To do so, the company uses a variety of methods, including careful monitoring and measuring and validation, to continually keep a high level of quality in all of its operations.
"We are ISO 9001 certified and we follow an in-process inspection process, where, during each operation, a sampling of parts is inspected," said Joe Devany, the company's director of operations. "So if we have any parts outside of required tolerances, we stop the operation. Prior to producing a lot of bad parts, there will be an inspection before the next operation. Our internal staff inspects them before they pass them on to the next staff member. There is an in-process inspection setup where everything is documented and operators use a variety of measuring devices, tools, and testers to make sure the parts are meeting the required specifications.
"Also, our industrial engineers are out on the floor monitoring processes, like oven temperatures, making sure they're within the control limits we've set," he continued. "Operators or lead operators will stop the operation when something is outside of these control limits. Anyone on our shop floor has the authorization to stop the operation any time they think parts are not conforming to a customer's specifications."
Betts Spring's achievement of ISO 9001:2008 certification is also evidence of its commitment to quality in product design and business process. "The whole notion of quality is in all that we do—not just our products, but in processes too; it is truly fundamental to our business," Shiveley points out. "We've codified that thinking in an internal document that we call 'The Betts Way,' which really helps motivate our people to focus on continuous improvement."
The Betts Way program is a philosophy and credo that helps its employees understand what it means to work at the company. "Within the Betts Way, we focus on our core values, as well as the top-level metrics that we use to measure the performance of our business," explains Shiveley. "So it's a document that's intended to get everyone on a common playbook of how we approach business. We also invest extensively in training for our people. A significant amount of that training is within the California ETP program, which is a training reimbursement program that rewards companies that invest in their people for employment retention. The people that perform well on our team share those cultural values and understand the importance of measuring our performance through metrics."
Most of the springs that Betts manufactures are strong, heavy structures used for large vehicles—namely for large trucks and trailers in the mining, military, agriculture, construction, and oil and gas industries. It takes careful design and rigorous production techniques to make parts and components that can handle harsh environmental conditions, excessive wear, and high performance requirements.
"It really takes the experience, knowledge, and know-how that we've gained over the past 145 years to be able to play in all of these different transportation industries," Devany said. "It's one of the things we pride ourselves on: continuous improvement, through continuous education for everyone on our team. As we enter new markets, we learn as much as we can about them so we have the right material for the right environmental conditions. We understand the abuse these springs can [be subjected to], so we design the most optimal design to withstand the requirements, and it's the same from a performance standpoint. It's a continuous learning process. We get different publications in the different markets, we participate in several tradeshows to educate ourselves about new markets, and we try to get our team out in the field to learn firsthand about these markets."
Divisions for Parts Distribution and Repair Services
Betts has two other divisions that place them squarely into two marketplaces also involved with heavy truck transport. Betts HD manufactures large truck fender, mud flap hangers, and trailer products, and Betts Truck Parts and Service distributes parts and components, and handles truck repairs and maintenance in three western states. The Betts HD division offers made-to-stock parts and OEM components for Class seven and Class eight, 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks. "HD was actually formed, from a product line standpoint, in the early 1950s, when William Michael Betts III, Joe's grandfather, patented the first mud-flap hanger," said Shiveley.
"It's a part that we still manufacture and sell today, the A-21 bar hanger," Shiveley affirms. "This was the start of this business. We acquired a company called Lifetime Fenders in 2007, as a synergistic acquisition to round out our product line in the spray suppression component category. These are products that are specifically focused on the capture and control of road spray, whether it's water, debris, or mud. These are products like mud flap hangers that hold mud flaps, and quarter fenders for large trucks. This is a business that is focused on the tractor builder, as well as the dealer and aftermarket distributor for truck and trailer parts and components."
This production photo shows the process for making hot wound coil springs at Betts Spring Manufacturing
Photo courtesy of Betts Company
Betts Truck Parts and Service represents a vertical integration into the heavy-duty truck aftermarket. The company owns eight parts distribution and service facilities throughout California, Oregon, and Arizona. They are full-line distributors of heavy-duty truck and trailer parts—the same ones manufactured by Betts Spring Manufacturing and Betts HD—and approximately 65 other, mostly domestic brands of components, ranging from brake shoes and drums to suspension and steering components. The division's main focus is lower chassis applications, including the suspension, brakes, and steering.
When Betts Spring Company formed in 1868, it was the first spring manufacturer west of the Mississippi River. It was founded by William Michael Betts I at a plant in downtown San Francisco. The company occupied a variety of buildings throughout San Francisco up until 1973. In 1973, the business was moved across the San Francisco Bay to San Leandro, just outside Oakland. The fabrication company built a facility in Fresno, Calif., for one of its other business units, Betts HD, in 1992. The company's main plant was moved to Fresno in 2008.
"We saw Fresno as a preferable community to manufacture in and for our employees to call home, beyond what we saw happening in the San Francisco Bay Area, from a cost and quality of doing business standpoint," said Shiveley. "We wanted to afford our employees the opportunity to live in the community where they work, without long travel times. The Central Valley also has a much better cost-of-living scale than the Bay Area."
Betts' engineering department provides a broad range of services, including conceptualization, custom design or redesign, and rapid prototyping. "Our engineering team can work with a concept or on a full design," said Devany. "We can take existing applications and, using our continuous improvement mantra, we can redesign them to get a more optimal design for a customer. We will use the customer's feedback and will inspect the part. We decide if we can choose a different material to improve the design, or if we can change the design completely. For the rapid prototyping, we will take the new design or the redesign, and manufacture parts for the customer very quickly so they can touch, test, and provide feedback on them."
A rapid prototype for a large spring on a large truck might take one or two days for the design, and then the customer might review the design for a couple of days. "Once we get the OK on it, we can have the materials in-house within one week," Devany surmises. "It depends if tooling is required or not, but in less than three weeks, maybe even a week, we can have a rapid prototype for someone."
Engineers Handle a Variety of Design and Manufacturing Functions
Betts has a team of four design engineers that work in conjunction with its outside sales department of three representatives. Depending on customer requirements, the company can educate the customer on what it is that they need. They'll talk about applications and requirements, work up designs, help them on material selection, and functional and physical requirements. At this point, its engineers may have a detailed SolidWorks® drawing to present to them for their approval prior to going into the prototype phase of new product introduction. "Everything starts with a design for custom-manufactured springs," said Devany. "In engineering, there are seven engineers that include design engineers, process engineers, industrial engineers, and quality engineers. Our engineers are intimately involved from the beginning with our customers. They'll travel to their facilities, if necessary, and they'll review their applications firsthand to make sure that we have the most optimal design for their application."
Not many contract manufacturers have been in business over 145 years with six generations of continuous family ownership. What does it take for a company to be around for so long and still be solvent, viable, and state-of-the-art technically? "Obviously, a six-generation family business with fully-sustained ownership in the family is not a phone call that you make every day," said Shiveley. "Joe Devany and I are both proud to be a part of this family business. Joe is a family member, the nephew of our president Mike Betts, and is charged to be a critical part of the next generation leadership. I'm not a family member, but I feel like one. It's been wonderful because of the way this business is run, and the philosophy that's codified the Betts Way. This is a big part of why we've been successful," he added. "The tone and foundation of our business was put in place by our founder. He clearly understood the importance of the customer. This has been our foundation for six generations. The business was destroyed in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and in the Depression era, the patriarch running the business passed away. Emaline, his wife, saw the business through the Depression. It was probably one of the few woman-owned and operated businesses in that era."
Continuing to Grow With Investments in Technology and Staff
Betts Company has continued to grow and progress by investing in its people and in new technologies, and because of its leadership in the way it handles design, business functions, production processes. "We also invest heavily in business practices," Shiveley maintains. "All of this is done in a nicely balanced spirit of family ownership, but as a seriously run business. Both Michael (William Michael Betts IV) and his son Bill (William Michael Betts V), who will be our next generation president, are very focused on self-improvement and establishing a learning culture within our business. Our founder understood that producing a quality product was not enough; you also needed to truly understand what the customer needed and then establish a bond of trust that created strong loyalty. This, he felt, was really a successful foundation for business. This philosophy has been carried forward from generation to generation."
The heavy transport spring manufacturer was originally called Betts Spring Company. About a year ago, the company went through the process of looking at its branding to establish where the company saw itself headed in the future. "We decided to change the name to Betts Company to reflect that we have become a more diverse business," Shiveley explains. "But when we made that branding change and created new brands for each of our business units, we retained our founder's original slogan, 'Building Well, Serving Better.' It's who we are; we focus on products, but we are also heavily into our customer relationships."
Betts keeps in close contact with a variety of technical agencies and organizations, as well as a local university's engineering college, not only to enable them to build better products and components, but also to help them contribute to technological advancements in its field. The company has access to the resources of California State University-Fresno for technical exchanges, and a partnership with Exova Testing Laboratories, a dedicated testing group. In addition, it has close ties with such and industry groups as the Spring Research Institute (SRI) and the Spring Manufacturers Institute (SMI).
"With California State University-Fresno, it's two-fold," said Devany. "Number one, we get to give back to our community and be a resource for engineering students specifically. We get involved hands-on with the engineering school there, where we work with them on specific projects. We also bring interns into our business that help us, and we help the students gain experience in an actual industrial setting. We're able to take a lot of the new technologies that they are being introduced to, and bring them here to educate our staff. And we are able to provide them with some insight into how industry actually works. We've been fortunate to have multiple interns working with us, and we recently hired one of our interns as a full-time employee."
Exova Testing Laboratories supplies the company with additional testing resources that aren't readily available. "They have additional expertise in metallurgy, failure analysis, and they have the equipment to complete a lot of these tests that we can't do in-house," Devany explained. "And they also help to educate us on these things. We work very closely with them; they sometimes come here and, sometimes, we go there. It's all part of our continuous improvement and education so we can gain new insights."
Working with the SRI and SMI keeps Betts informed about the latest technologies for producing the springs and other products that it manufactures. "We learn about the latest software to design the springs, and it also helps us network with the spring manufacturing community so that we stay connected with what's going on in the marketplace," Devany said. "If we want to be around for another 145 years, we just can't rest on our laurels."
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