From Single Specialty to Single Source
Alexandria Industries simplifies their customers' supply chain--by becoming more of it
By Michael C. Anderson
Alexandria Industries (Alexandria, MN) is one of many US suppliers that has had to reinvent itself in order to stay profitable in the modern era. The company serves as a one-stop component shop—a vertically integrated supplier that offers OEMs a single source to design, produce, assemble and deliver a range of components. But it hasn’t always been that way.
When the family-owned company opened its doors as Alexandria Extrusion Co. in 1966, American manufacturing was a giant—accounting for over a quarter of the world’s manufacturing output. Budgets were high, the workforce strong, and global competition weak. A company could do well in such an environment by specializing in supplying a single type of product.
“Our company was a case in point,” said Alexandria Industries Director of Sales and Marketing Integration Steve Schabel. “After we opened our doors, we motored along profitably in those favorable economic waters for years by being a specialty supplier of extruded aluminum to OEMs in the marine recreation market.”
“Once upon a time, component manufacturers like us could get away with that sort of specialization—but not anymore,” noted the company’s CEO (and Steve’s father), Tom Schabel. With enhanced competition and a continuing troubled economy, those once-strong US company budgets and workforces have struggled.
Now, as the challenges of OEMs continue to mount, more and more are looking to partner with suppliers that can simplify their supply chains—shortening the time to market and lessening the total cost of purchasing. “They want suppliers that will add value by doing more than just manufacturing a single component,” according to Steve Schabel.
“We realized pretty early on that if extruding was the sole focus of our business, we wouldn’t have a business for very long,” Tom Schabel said. “So we listened to our customers’ feedback and decided to expand our capabilities.”
The Five-year Plan
The company developed a strategic, five-year vision to help grow the company, based on three primary dimensions: Expanding the penetration of its core value-added services into its customer base; establishing a strong geographic market share in select US geographies; and deepening its customer reach in select vertical markets.
In addition to this growth strategy, the once singularly focused Alexandria Extrusion added new divisions through a series of acquisitions—including Alexandria Precision Machining, Alexandria Extrusion South, Alexandria Extrusion MidAmerica, Alexandria Welding, Alexandria Finishing—and alliances, such as with Alexandria Plastics (formerly Wheaton Plastics). These acquisitions also allowed Alexandria Industries to branch out beyond its home in Alexandria, adding facilities in Wheaton, MN; Carrollton, TX and Indianapolis.
In 2012, these businesses were united under the Alexandria Industries brand.
The advantage for the company’s customers is how numerous supply-chain issues are simplified, if not taken off of the OEM’s plate completely: “Instead of interacting with seven different businesses in different locations, customers can simply make one phone call, interact with one person, place one order and Alexandria Industries will take care of the rest,” as Steve Schabel puts it.
Customers receive value-added services, including design engineering assistance and advanced geometric dimensioning and tolerancing measurement capabilities to help ensure part efficacy and dimensional accuracy. They also have access to a range of complementary manufacturing capabilities.
“Consolidating our seven different business units—each with its own unique set of capabilities—has allowed us to do more for our customers than ever before,” Tom Schabel said. These capabilities now include:
Aluminum Extrusion – Using certified aluminum materials, automated extrusion presses and Kevlar handling system, along with ISO-certified facilities, the company provides an ideal environment to develop precision aluminum extrusions.
Stretch Forming and Bending – After the aluminum has been extruded, customers can take advantage of the company’s stretch forming, rotary bending, push bending, three-roll bending or twin-head bending abilities.
Chemical Finishing – A host of metal finishing services, including painting, plating, anodization, hardcoating, and ExtremEtch—a proprietary aluminum etch process for producing a uniform deep matte finish and effectively hiding machine marks and abrasions.
Precision Machining – Using four and five-axis machining centers with vertical, horizontal and long-bed capabilities, degreed CNC programmers and machinists mill, turn, grind, hone, hob, and broach ferrous and nonferrous-based products.
Fabrication – From simple notching and swedging to complex punching requirements, coupled with TIG and MIG welding expertise.
Assembly – Be it a subassembly or a complete assembly to produce a final, packaged product ready for retail distribution.
Heat Sinks – From circuit-board level to high power, the company designs and manufactures a variety of heat sinks.
Molding – With its thermoplastic injection-molded products, engineered-resin prototypes and polyurethane foam molding abilities, the company has the ability to mold everything from micro-components to picnic table tops.
Developing Quick Responders
Expanding the company’s list of core competencies has enabled Alexandria Industries to serve customers in industries such as marine and recreation; durable medical; electromedical; electronics; firearms; industrial braking systems; LED lighting; solar and renewable energy; and DOT sign manufacturing. Holding onto such a diverse customer base is a result of more than acquiring new divisions, however.
According to CEO Tom Schabel, the company’s most significant ability doesn’t lie in what they do, but in how they do it: “When it comes down to it, we succeed by limiting our customer’s headaches—by giving them quality products fast,” he said. “That’s why we added Quick Response Manufacturing [QRM] to our growth strategy.”
QRM is the company’s version of lean manufacturing. Steve Schabel describes it as a focus on making continuous improvements that eliminate non-value-added waste, responding to customers’ needs by rapidly designing and manufacturing products, and limiting their inventory by doing more of the manufacturing process for them.
“At its core, the QRM philosophy goes far beyond just-in-time manufacturing to relentlessly pursue reductions in lead times and costs for the customer,” Steve Schabel said, “both of which have been enhanced by our vertically integrated supply chain services.”
The Difference Makers
An important part of any successful lean system is, to use Toyota’s terminology, respect for the people who do the actual work. Both Schabels credit the company’s successful transition from single-specialty to single-source supplier to its workforce.
“It’s not our capabilities or machines, but our people that make the difference,” Tom Schabel said. “Their abilities and expertise, as well their desire to push the limits of our capabilities, have shaped what we have become today and are critical to our success.”
The company has a commitment to continually train its people, said Steve Schabel, citing its one-of-a-kind certified extruder program, mandatory process control training, and interpersonal skills workshops as examples. But its more than knowledge that is shared here: Schabel believes that the entire diverse team shares a commitment to core values—of integrity, faith, mutual respect, commitment to excellence and employee well-being—that helps create a workforce that is as content as it is competent. He notes that a third of their employees have been with the company for more than 10 years.
“When the alarm clock goes off on Monday morning, what really gets me out of bed is the people I work with,” said Automation Engineering Coordinator Tom Welle. “I feel like I’m an important part of something—that my opinions will be considered and that my hard work will have a positive impact.”
“We always listen to our customers. When they want us to do something, we try to do it,” Tom Schabel said. “Any steps we take in the future will be with these wants in mind.”
One such step is the deepening of relationships with existing customers—doing more for them than the company has done before.
“Where we were once just extruding, we want to be extruding, bending, machining, molding, assembling, painting and finishing,” Schabel said.
But the company is not limiting its work to existing customers. As part of its five-year vision, Alexandria Industries is working to expand its reach to other manufacturers, particularly those along the I-35 central corridor of the United States—from the Minnesota-Canadian border all the way to Mexico.
“Basically we want to be better partners to customers new and old,” Tom Schabel concluded. “We want to take the headaches of maintaining a complex supply chain off their plates. To give them one supplier to rely one instead of several and make things easier, more cost-effective, and less time consuming.” ME
This article was first published in the August 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.