(An interview with Doug Paulson, general manager, BWX Technologies, Euclid, Ohio)
Tell me about how your business started.
BWX Technologies, Inc. (BWXT) traces its history all the way back to the 1850s when Stephen Wilcox patented the water tube boiler. Almost 100 years later, with the advent of nuclear energy, our expertise in the power generation business put us at the forefront of commercial and government nuclear industries. Operating for many years as the Babcock & Wilcox Company, we spun off our power generation business in 2015 to allow BWXT to focus on government and nuclear operations.
Why was the decision made to locate in Euclid?
BWXT purchased the Euclid operations from an offshoot of TRW in 2007. TRW’s predecessors have been in the Cleveland area since the early 1900s and here on Euclid Avenue since before World War II.
How are the products that you manufacture used?
BWXT’s Euclid site manufactures electro-mechanical components for naval nuclear reactors used in submarines and aircraft carriers.
For more than 60 years, the Navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers have safely steamed millions of miles using components manufactured by BWXT Nuclear Operations Group facilities – a track record that is highlighted by our commitment to safety, quality and integrity.
How many employees work in the facility in Euclid, and what kind of skilled labor do you hire?
About 350 employees work at our Euclid facility. Due to the high-consequence nature of our products, most of our employees are considered to be highly skilled. We employ machinists, welders, inspectors, engineers and a variety of professional support staff.
Are there ways that the company participates in the community?
We support the community through sponsorship of Euclid Chamber of Commerce events and contribute to a number of deserving charitable organizations in the community such as the United Way.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that manufacturing currently faces?
The retirement of the older generation of trade workers has, in many cases, left manufacturers with more openings than there are qualified and available employees. This is exacerbated by generally low unemployment. We have an advantage in that our factories have industry-leading safety records and that our work is especially meaningful. Our employees take tremendous pride in the fact that our products keep our sailors and our nation safe. These jobs pay well and do not require tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, so attitudes about trades and technical careers are changing quickly. Our schools and community colleges are helping us narrow the gap.
What does the future of manufacturing, especially in Northeast Ohio, look like?
We can only speak for ourselves. This is an exciting time to work for BWXT. BWXT’s Nuclear Operations Group, which includes our Euclid and Barberton manufacturing facilities, has reported record revenues each quarter for the last few years. The Nuclear Operations Group had a backlog of nearly $3 billion at the end of September. Our fourth quarter and full-year 2017 results are scheduled to be announced Feb. 28, 2018.
What inspires you?
Our products enable our sailors to carry out their mission to keep our nation safe. We keep those customers in the forefront of our minds in everything we do.
Are there interesting facts about you or your business that most people don’t know?
In August 2017, NASA awarded the company an $18.8 million contract to start designing a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) reactor in support of a possible future manned mission to Mars. With NTP technology’s high-energy density and resulting spacecraft thrust, NASA is projecting up to a 50 percent reduction in interplanetary travel times compared to chemical rockets, significantly increasing the crew’s safety by reducing exposure to cosmic radiation.
My goal with this column is to bring to light all the small manufacturers making a small product for big applications and using big ideas with a huge does of innovation. We all use products every day in our houses, cars and at work. But, do we think about where they come from, who makes them and all of the R&D that goes into them? Manufacturing is an amazing industry that utilizes cutting-edge technology and innovative, creative, critical and analytical thinkers as well as skilled production staff who run the machines and equipment on the floor that take these products from an idea and turn them into tangible, saleable goods.
When was the company founded, by whom and why?
Powdermet was founded just over 20 years ago. We had a 20-year celebration here in August 2016. Powdermet’s focus is on the creation of new, nano-engineered materials-science-based technologies. During those 20 years nearly $50 million has been invested in materials-science research here, and Powdermet has earned dozens of patents, three R&D 100 Awards, commercialized 18 trademarked materials, been named to the Inc.5000 list twice (including last year), been named to the Weatherhead 100 multiple times, and served as the platform for 11 new company launches. Terves is one of those launches. Terves technology is based on Powdermet work done for the Department of Defense, repurposed and modified to meet specific needs in the oil and gas industry. Terves was founded in 2013.
Why did you locate in Euclid, Ohio?
This goes back in history, well prior to me, but I believe there were two issues at play here. First, Andy Sherman, our CEO, was originally from this area and relocated back here from California to make this our headquarters. Second, this amazing building and site become available. We occupy what was the TRW World R&D Headquarters. Our building alone is a historical landmark, besides being ideal for our business profile. The other key aspect of locating here was that this region has a broad range of materials suppliers that are well versed in two key areas for us: polymer and elastomeric technology and high-performance alloys, driven by the birth of the rubber industry in Akron and a strong aerospace/military development industry throughout Northeast Ohio.
What do you make?
Essentially, we “make materials do more.” We create technologies, starting at the atomic level, to meet the needs of industry and government. So, we cover the gamut from lightweight materials used for aerospace, armor plating materials used for the military, thermal insulating and radiation shielding composites, nano-coatings (microscopic coatings), reinforced composites, highly engineered and reactive alloys, and high-surface hardness composites. On a given day here you might find a prototype rocket motor on one desk, a high-performance electrical capacitor on another, and a pallet of dissolvable tubular alloy being loaded on a truck.
What types of customers buy your products or for what industries?
Essentially we operate in two different manners. On one front, we are doing funded research to create new technologies for both government agencies and industry. In this scenario, we may be working on specific technology for NASA for the Mars Mission or creating a new material for a major oil company to meet specific downhole application needs. On the other front, we actively sell magnesium and other component materials that we manufacture to companies serving the oil and gas exploration industry. These materials have unique properties that make them ideal for creating tools for downhole exploration work.
What are some of the applications of your products? In what ways are they used that readers might be familiar with? What products? How are they used in oil, gas and
As I noted previously, we literally created a solid-fuel rocket motor, in conjunction with Penn State University. Our most common sales are into more end-use-specific, esoteric applications. As anexample, our TervAlloy magnesium is sold in many cases to companies that build hydraulic fracking plugs. These units are designed to segment horizontal well bores to allow a section to be fracked. Typically, prior practice was that many frac plugs would be set over thousands of feet to allow fracking of multiple stages, and after this process was completed an expensive process of re-drilling the well would have to take place to clear out these frac plugs. Our TervAlloy material actual dissolves after exposure to the environment (elevated temperature and salt water) in these wells; so, the expensive drilling-out process is negated.
How many employees work for the company and in what types of roles? What types of skilled labor do you hire?
Our workforce varies with market demand (e.g., the price of oil), but I’m comfortable saying we operate with 25 or so staff. The skill sets of the organization are broad. We have some truly brilliant material scientists and engineers, along with highly skilled production staff (foundry and machining). We also have the full array of administrative and support people to make this all work.
How long have you been with the company, what is your role and what do you enjoy most about what you do?
I’m a relative newbie here, having joined around one year ago. My role is oversight of our sales and marketing efforts. Our sales efforts are essentially all Terves-focused and international in scope. On the marketing side, I work with both the Powdermet business and the Terves business. For me, the most enjoyable aspect of my role is working in an industry that is new to me – most of my prior experience was in the specialty chemicals and retail consumer markets.
What role does the company play in the manufacturing industry locally? Do you use local suppliers or have local customers?
We absolutely use local suppliers. As I noted earlier, it is one of the reasons we are located here. On the other hand, other than work that we may do for NASA that happens to have oversight at Glenn Research, the vast majority of our customers our outside of the area. This is particularly true for the Terves customers, who are basically located in key oil locations: Texas, the Western U.S., Western Canada, the Middle East, and the North Sea.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge that manufacturing currently faces?
In our business, I think there are two areas that represent our greatest challenges. On one front it is innovation – the ability to not only ideate exciting new technologies, but also to quickly move those technologies to production. The other issue is the ability to manage tremendous variability in demand – the oil industry is commodity-driven and very reactive to price movement. Anyone here can tell you on any given day what West Texas Crude is trading for per barrel. The other challenge that we face is that we operate in a true international market, and, essentially, as a raw material supplier, we need to innovate to assure that we can offer differentiation, because there is the inevitable issue of an off-shore producer creating a low-cost knockoff material.
What does the future of manufacturing look like?
From our perspective, it is about people, systems and equipment to produce very high-tolerance components as efficiently as possible.
Who is Bob? What do you enjoy outside of work?
I enjoy Cleveland and spending time with my family and friends. I was raised here, spent time in other locations, and have a great appreciation for our city, our parks, our sports teams and theaters, and the great food venues available to us. I also love the West Side Market.
William Sopko and Sons Co., located at 26500 Lakeland Blvd., Euclid, Ohio, was started in 1952 in the basement of current owner Bill Sopko Sr.’s parents’ home on East 267th Street. His dad, also Bill, worked in the Maintenance Department at Tapco (now TRW) after returning home from serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Prior to the war, he worked at Ohio Ball Bearing Company (now Applied Technologies) in the Spindle Repair Department.
Bill Sr., says, “Many people do not know what a spindle is. It is NOT the wood spindle on a staircase. In industry, the spindle assembly has a shaft that is mounted on bearings and turns at high speeds. The special bearings must support both radial and axial pressures. On the end of the shaft an adaptor holds either a grinding wheel or a cutting tool. The higher the speed, the more precise the spindle must be.”
Since his father had two young children at the time, one of them being Bill, Sr., Bill Sopko decided to go out on his own and start a business, William Sopko and Sons Co. His wife, Mary, did the paperwork. They picked Euclid as home because it was the perfect place to have a family and establish a business. In the early 1950s, Euclid was booming with industry. Then they had two more kids to make a family of six.
Mary died in 1967 and Bill in 1974. The business still was located in the basement on East 267th Street. In 1971, Bill Sr. graduated from college, got married and rented a small block building on St. Clair Avenue. He purchased a milling machine, saw and surface grinder. Prior to this he had outsourced all of his manufacturing to local shops, many still in business today. In 1976, the company moved out of the basement into a building on Lakeland Boulevard in Wickliffe. In the early 1990s it needed more space and moved back to Euclid into the company’s current location on Lakeland Boulevard.
The current business has three segments, all related to precision grinding and machining. First, it is a precision spindle repair service company that rebuilds all types of ball and roller-bearing spindles. Most popular are surface grinders, cutter grinders, internal grinders, Moore Jig grinders, both foreign and domestic. The company has rebuilt more than 10,000 precision spindles during the past 64 years. Second, it manufactures grinding accessories that include wheel adapters, internal grinding quills, collet chuck quills, extensions, flanges, spacers and precision wheel screws. Finally, the company is a stocking distributor for spindle-related products. Its major lines include Dumore hand grinders, tool post grinders, parts, spindles and drill units, and Gates power transmission products including flat spindle belts, poly vee, variable speed and vee belts.
Sopko and Sons employs experienced machine technicians who can run manual lathes, CNC turning and milling machines and a complete precision grinding department to grind its products and spindle repair components, as required. Sopko does not do contact grinding for other companies. Grinding shops are its customers, and it does not compete against them. According to Bill Sr., “Some common applications of our precision spindles include forming and sharpening the cutting edges on the tiny drills the dentist uses to drill your teeth for a filling. Some spindles are used to grind hardened ball bearings, automotive engine blocks and jet aircraft components.”
Currently, the third generation is involved with the company. Bill Jr., Brian and Jillian Sopko all are on board to continue to serve valued customers all over the country. With regard to the future, Bill Sr. says, “The future will have many technical advancements affecting the whole world. People in manufacturing will make products of tomorrow using precision machine tools. Our business will adjust to this new technology as it is discovered, and we will continue to service and supply the needs of the new century.”