High-Tech Global Exporter Focuses on Quality, Engineering, and Quick Delivery
Investing in robotics and focusing on exports has made this Baltimore wire manufacturer poised for fast-paced production.
Drew Greenblatt, CEO of Marlin Steel Wire Products in Baltimore, Maryland, is fond of saying his technology is so advanced and his production is so pumped-up, it's like his employees are on steroids. He has spent millions during the past decade building up his arsenal of robotics, and plans to spend $5 million more during the next three years beefing up his automation so that his employees are utilizing the best technology in the world to boost their productivity. His intense dedication to advanced technologies not only keeps his company constantly poised to innovate and deliver fast, but it also has positioned Marlin as an aggressive exporter, riding high on a new wave of global manufacturing.
While Greenblatt says his competitors are "hunkering down", hoarding money, and laying off workers, he is busy investing in robotics and exporting 25 percent of his wire baskets, wire forms, and sheet metal products to 35 different countries, including Canada, China, Singapore, Japan, and Australia. Focusing on the global marketplace has strengthened his company at a time when many of his competitors have faltered.
"This is a huge way we can grow our factories in America, by not just selling to Duluth and Denver, but instead across the world," Greenblatt said. The winds of change in American manufacturing have swept out the old style of just selling to other Americans and have encompassed a more global perspective of putting exporting at the forefront. "Now, we're in a good situation where we have rich neighbors who can afford to buy our stuff. The way we're going to grow is not by just selling to our locals. You have to sell abroad, and I think that's a big change coming. Whereas in the past 50 years, a profitable, productive factory just sold domestically, now they have to sell to not just one, but many countries because most of the consumers of the world are out there."
Trifecta of Growth
Greenblatt said there are three keys, which he dubbed "QEQ," that make his company competitive, viable, and thriving in the global market. "It's quality, it's engineering, and we're quick--QEQ," he said. "And we're constantly working at our factory to improve all three. We want to have the best quality in the world. We want to have the most innovative engineering concepts, and we want to ship faster than anybody else." The company, bought by Greenblatt in 1998, initially made commodity wire baskets for bagel shops. Employees would hand-shape the metal, with an average worker making 300 bends per hour. After the popular low-carb Atkins diet put an end to many bagel shops in the 1990s, Greenblatt was faced with either throwing in the towel or transforming his company.
A fortuitous phone call from a Boeing engineer, who needed some custom baskets and was ready to pay more for quality and fast turnaround, opened Greenblatt's eyes to the possibility of manufacturing highly-customized, quickly delivered parts for a slew of industries. The only thing holding Greenblatt back was his outdated 1950s equipment, so he decided to spend $3 million on robotics to get his re-framed company up and running. "We started reinvesting huge amounts of money right back into the factory to bring in a state-of-the-art fleet of robots that could hold tight tolerances and could help with shipping things fast. It also enabled the engineers to get very creative because if everything fits together so nicely, you could really push things to the limit and come up with really innovative designs. Your machinery enables you to do things you couldn't do if a guy's sitting there hand bending one at a time," he said.
Greenblatt also invested in developing his engineering staff. Now, 30 percent of Marlin's employees are mechanical engineers whose combined talents have greatly strengthened the company's ability to provide quick and innovative solutions to customers' problems. "They're coming out with these really slick ideas that are outside the box, and it's really turned into a nice ecosystem at our factory and has helped us strive and prosper," he said. Citing a recent example of an engineering breakthrough, Greenblatt mentioned a basket designed for the Toyota assembly line that would need to hold six brake calipers for a very precise cleaning process.
"Our engineers figured out a way to make this universal basket hold eight (calipers)," Greenblatt said of the production line that included the Camry, Corolla, Lexus, and RAV. "Now all of a sudden, this 2,000 person factory is now 32 percent faster. So they didn't have to buy another curing line, they didn't have to buy another conveyor, they didn't have to buy another factory or hire 700 more employees to push out the parts. Because of an innovative basket design, they're holding eight parts rather than six, so that when it goes from the beginning to the end of the factory, they're getting more done. That's the kind of innovation we're doing, and when you have a production line, things like this really matter. They (Toyota) were able to keep up their takt time, their speed went up a lot, and it made everything in that company more profitable.
"So this is an example of how we helped because our engineers were so smart," Greenblatt continued. "This is classic Marlin, and this is our value to our client. They needed 1,700 in three weeks, so we also had to make it and design it in a way that was friendly to our robots."
Part of Marlin's latest $5 million push to invest in new robotics over the next few years includes a $400,000 Trumpf TruLaser 1030, which the company launched at a ceremonial ribbon cutting in January (see sidebar). It's the "most expensive machine I've ever bought," according to Greenblatt, who expects that it will increase his revenue by $1 million this year. The 2500 watt laser cuts 5/8-inch thick steel at one foot (305mm) per second. "It's very precise at plus or minus four thousandths of an inch. That's been a tremendous asset to us in a very short amount of time because we've been able to enhance our ability to be nimble and to be agile so that we can meet very challenging delivery dates and also have exceptional quality," Greenblatt said.
Marlin's chief engineer, Tony Witt, said in a statement that the new laser will allow the company to perform highly sophisticated cutting jobs with a minimum of set-ups. "We can design the parts on our computers, push a button, send the designs electronically to the robots, and then watch them do their magic. This increases our productivity enormously."
Winning Clients Both at Home and Abroad
Greenblatt has served as president of the Wire Fabricators Association and on the executive board of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). He is chairman of the Regional Manufacturing Institute, has been invited to the White House on five occasions, and has appeared more than 30 times on national television on the subject of manufacturing and small-business needs. Marlin (www.marlinwire.com), having recently received the 2012 "Inner City 100" award by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), has about 40 employees and grosses about $5 million in sales, although Greenblatt expects to double sales during the next couple of years on the back of exports and due to his reinvesting in high-tech capacity.
In addition to new robotic welders and a new press brake, Greenblatt said he has four 3-D robots, which, manned by one employee, can produce 20,000 bends per hour, combined. It's a far cry from the hand-bending that Greenblatt's company once performed. "Now we have tremendous productivity improvements, and the quality is much better," he said. "And we can outdo any Chinese or Vietnamese employee that's hand bending one at a time.
"This is how America is going to have its renaissance in manufacturing. We're going to empower employees to have state-of-the-art technology so they can't be touched. It doesn't make sense to build things in China: You've got freight, you've got quality issues, you've got the late delivery, and you've got to deal with someone who's 12 hours away in engineering. All that stuff goes away if you can have your employees in America be empowered with this technology so they can be efficient and very effective," he said.
One Chicago client who was buying their sheet metal products from China was having quality and on-time issues and turned to Greenblatt. Marlin, who buys all its steel from a Crawfordsville, Indiana, plant that sells recycled steel from old cars and dishwashers, made the brackets using a loading machine that outputs 900 strokes per minute with 20 tons of force moving eight feet per second. The machine runs all night long, and Marlin was able to provide the efficiency and quality the customer needed. "So they stopped buying from China," Greenblatt said. "So it's American-made steel from up in Indiana, and it's an American-made machine out of Connecticut, and it's an employee at Marlin loading and unloading the steel and shipping it off. It's a really neat story. But it's because our employees are empowered with this great technology that they can beat China, where they're hand-cutting these out."
It's "stunning," Greenblatt said, that most American factories don't export. While Germany's economy is about 40 percent exports and Canada's is about 28 percent, America's exports make up only 11 percent of its economy, something Greenblatt said is "short-sighted." President Obama's goal to double exports in the next five years is laudable, he said, adding that it could be a major factor in ending the recession. Greenblatt has testified to the U.S. Senate and U.S. Congress more than six times on topics including small business, taxation, regulations, trade policy, and techniques to grow the economy. The recent passing of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement by the current administration helped Greenblatt become more cost competitive with countries like Germany, which has a zero percent tariff. Greenblatt had an 8 percent duty on sales to Korea before the agreement was passed.
"So when the government knocks down these barriers, I have a fair fight against the Germans and I'm going to sell more wire baskets to Korea because of this. So it's President Obama's job, it's our Congress's job, to make sure we have a level playing field so we can thrive by selling to our global clients. And when you put an eight percent obstacle against me, it's hard because the Germans are formidable. So this is something our government has got to do. They have to go out and sign a bunch of free trade agreements so that I can be more compelling to our prospects," Greenblatt said.
Buying Against the Tide
Taking a "contrarian" approach right now to investing in the company has set Marlin apart from the competition and won them some jobs because they are able to react quickly to a request and provide high-quality parts, Greenblatt said. He was able to win over a client from a competitor who quoted 10 weeks on 5,000 wire baskets going into Minnesota. Greenblatt quoted three weeks and was able to deliver in two-and-a-half weeks. "I think the old vendor hacked and hacked their employee base, hadn't reinvested, and now they're in a predicament where they can't be responsive; where they can't offer quick turnaround. And because of that, we exploited this opportunity, and now they're my client and they've reordered twice since then," he said.
The investments in technology have enabled his employees to meet "outrageous deadlines" and win jobs they've never won in the past, Greenblatt said. Prices for robotics have been dropping, and Greenblatt said he is taking advantage of this and buying machinery at 30 to 40 percent off, as well as taking advantage of low interest rates. He recently invested in a laser with 3.9 percent financing.
"Nobody's buying robots right now. Nobody's upping their gain because they're saying their capacity is low, so why should I buy more equipment? Why should I buy the newest, latest, and greatest when the old stuff I still have is working okay?" Greenblatt said. "And so what's happening is I'm buying stuff that's much faster, much better quality, so that I can really differentiate myself now from everyone that's out there already because they're not investing. They're hunkering down, they're hoarding cash, and they're firing employees." This lack of reinvestment by many American factories right now, he said, has made it impossible for Greenblatt's U.S. competitors to respond to quick-delivery demands, and, as a result, they're losing opportunities.
Greenblatt said he embraces "green manufacturing," and all of his products are made from recycled steel wire that is converted into precisely engineered wire products for industrial users like GE, Honeywell, Boeing, Toyota, Siemens, Roche, Novartis, Baxter, and Pfizer. Marlin also supports manufacturing sustainability by doubling the number of skylights in his factory and painting the walls a reflective white. The natural, visible light has meant less heating bills, a more pleasant environment to work in, and a better ability to catch defects. Last year, Marlin expanded its manufacturing space by 75 percent to maximize efficiencies and permit growth. While he estimates his competitors are making $60 in sales per square foot, he's producing so "lean" that he is at about $160 of revenue per square foot of production space.
"We were making parts so fast they were getting clogged in the aisles and slowing down the next project. So, by opening up new zones, it's enabled us to have better flow. Because of our very aggressive campaign to buy more robots, we're going to need more real estate," Greenblatt said. He is expecting to spend at least $1 million this year on new robotics, and expects so much new equipment to come in that it is costing $150,000 for a pipeline of new electricals to power the machines.
As Greenblatt looks to the future, he envisions his company shipping even faster, being even more innovative, more engineer-oriented, and producing a better quality product than ever before. "We're very optimistic and very bullish. We'll be using the same type of recipe we've been using the past couple of years, which is to hire more engineers, try to push harder on innovation, and buy more robots and technology to empower my employees to be even more productive and more efficient," he said. "I hope when I talk to you in two years, I'll have one fellow running six robots and doing 8,000 bends an hour (off each machine). This is what we're trying to strive for that will take us to the next level."
Returning U.S. Vet Finds Job Waiting for Him after Third Tour of Service
Baltimore resident Josh Wallace had worked at Marlin Steel for nearly a year before leaving for Iraq in January 2011 on his third tour of combat with the Army National Guard. When he returned to the United States a year later, his job at Marlin—setting up robotic wire bending equipment--was waiting for him.
"We think Josh is great," said Drew Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel Wire Products. "He is protecting us, me and my family, my neighbors, my company, my country. I wanted to give our military our full support. What better way than to keep his job open for him?"
Josh served one tour of combat in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, working as a machinist on both deployments. He was chosen to pass an oversized set of shears to Greenblatt, along with U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, Congressmen Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, at the January 12 ceremony to unveil the new Trumpf TruLaser 1030, 2500 watt laser.
"Josh had just come back. It was his first week back at work," Greenblatt said. "I was moved that he returned to us and we wanted everyone at the ceremony to share in our happiness with a tribute to him."
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