Valin® is a $200 million provider of automation, filtration products, and measurement systems that are used to help other companies make things more efficiently. Joe Nettemeyer, the second CEO in the company’s history previously worked at Emerson for 21 years under Chuck Knight, a tough-minded boss but one who elevated the St. Louis based company into a world class manufacturer. Since coming to Valin® 12 years ago, Nettemeyer relates how smart manufacturing has forever changed everything about the manufacturing world he knew at Emerson, but also how it has transformed mid-size companies like Valin®.
Initially Valin® like many firms its size, were providers of component parts –essentially dumb parts—that were used in various manufacturing processes. Today, all dumb parts eventually become commoditized. The expansion of their product portfolio with the introduction of sensors and devices with network capabilities allowed Valin® to enter the world where smart devices are integrated into larger centralized control systems that maximize product yield and increase productivity.
For example, Valin® provides and services a robot to Shutterfly that stuffs envelopes with pictures. To do this manually Shutterfly had to pay people $10 an hour. All-in, the robot does the job for $4.50 an hour and does so for three shifts a day with no coffee breaks. Valin®’s automated custody transfer measurement system is also used in the oil and gas fields to allow for remote collection of data on the amount of oil and gas being transferred from the well-site to a pipeline or tank. Remote monitoring reduces the number of field site visits and lowers support costs. Similar sensors are used to monitor wind turbines, which because of their remote locations used to require people to be sent out to monitor them at great costs. Today, process control technology allows owners to know when a system is likely to falter in advance of a breakdown, making repair visits to be both timely and cost-effective.
REC is a northwest U.S. company that manufactures poly-silicon which is used in the production of solar cells. The problem is that poly-silicon is a chemically highly aggressive material that attacks metals and equipment forcing periodic shut-downs of equipment for repair virtually every month. Upgrades in automated process heating systems with integrated controls provided by Valin® reduced shut downs just once a year and increased yields to REC by 30 percent.
“All these elements are part of smart manufacturing which mean not only doing more with less but changing the process by which you normally make things,” says Joe Nettemeyer. He points to the example of Samsung which faced the dilemma of having to shut down a flat panel manufacturing plant because the current system using hard-wired sensing devices couldn’t allow for making panels more than 60 inches to accommodate demand for panels that had to be 8o inches. Valin® showed Samsung how to redesign the manufacturing process using wireless sensing devices. Without the redesign Samsung would have faced a retooling that would have cost 20 times the cost of the upgrade.
“Technology is advancing so quickly that just to stay in the marketplace it forces all of us to change what we do,” says Nettemeyer. “Smart also opens the door to new materials at the molecular level. Nanotechnology and 3-D printing are the future of manufacturing.”
“12 years ago we were large a parts provider to the semiconductor industry. After our sales dropped from $75 million to $25 million in the wake of the dotcom bust, we realized our parts were being shopped out and our own returns dropped accordingly. We realized that we had to offer integrated services and upgrade to offering consultative engineering solutions,” he says. “In the last five years we’ve built revenue up to $200 million and raised returns to shareholders by 270 percent.”
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