Boltex Moving into Custom Production

Begun as a machining operation in 1989, Houston-based Boltex Mfg. Co. started forging its own line of flanges for the oil fields and refineries in 1996. Now, with a large capacity expansion underway, it is moving into production of custom forgings.

Boltex Manufacturing Co. in Houston started small and has grown steadily, building on its strengths. In a little more than a decade and a half, it has gone from a startup to a company with annual sales of $44 million dollars in 2004.

“We started with only a handful of people,”explains Frank Bernobich, president and chairman of the board. “The purpose of starting the company was to provide forgings and machined flanges for the petrochemical and oil field industry”

Boltex flanges are made as carbon steel forgings produced to exacting specifications. The specifications are written by the American Society for Testing and Materials (materials only), the Manufacturer’s Standardization Society, and the American Petroleum Institute. MSS and API standards include the dimensional and marking requirements in addition to requirements for chemistry, physical properties, and heat treatment of the steel.

Boltex’s product list includes welding neck, lap joint, socket welding, slip-on, threaded, orifice, reducing, and blind flanges, each type designed for a specific purpose.

Today, Boltex sells flange products from inventory to customers in oil refining, oil and gas transmission, engineering, construction, municipal development, and related industries.

Growth of the business
“In 1989, we were strictly a machining operation, located at what is our current headquarters location,” recalls Bernobich. “We continued to purchase forgings on a selected basis until about 1996, when we had the opportunity to begin forging our products. In that year, we purchased another facility to set up the forging operation.”

Boltex purchased a Houston building complex that once was part of an integrated steel mill that ceased production in the early 1970s. Both plants are located in northeast Houston near Interstate 10 and the Houston Ship Channel. The close proximity of one to the other is important because the forging plant supplies much of its output to the machining facility.

“We started with a 2,500-ton mechanical press,” Bernobich recalls. “We decided to go with this size initially because it was a good press for people to train on. It also proved to be a productive size.

“The current forging equipment consists of the 2,500-ton forging line and a 6,500/6,300-ton forging line, all complete with induction heating, automatic shearing, and robotic material handling, enabling us to produce forgings from 10 to 270 pounds,” he explains.

Boltex boasts a current forging capacity in excess of 3,000 tons per month and machining capacity of approximately 2,000 tons a month. The remaining tonnage is sold as rough forgings mostly to flange producers.

Producing custom forgings
A year and a half ago, Boltex decided to enter into the custom forging market, specifically for the automotive, truck, railroad, and construction industries.

“A significant portion of our production still goes into flanges, but we have started to receive orders for custom forgings, primarily from the automotive industry,” said Bernobich.

“The reason we have elected to go into custom forging is that the flange market is essentially a niche market. For us to continue to grow, we have to look at different markets, and that means producing custom forgings.”

To accomplish this, Boltex is expanding its forging capabilities, heat-treating facilities, and machining capacity.

Additional forging equipment
Boltex is in the process of installing a 4,000/2,500-ton press line, which should be operating by the end of this year, or early next year at the latest. This, too, will have induction heating, automatic shearing, and robotic systems.

Bernobich admits entering into custom-forging was not an easy process. “It’s a different type of operation. We have different types of assessments going on in terms of forging and machining equipment, and also in heat treating equipment.”

Another initiative is to enter the custom forging market with a hot-forming capability. Boltex is installing two National hot formers, a 7/4 (operational by late 2006) and a 6/4 (in 2007), that it is rebuilding to its own specifications.

The rebuilding process involves upgrading the hot formers from their current configurations, which

didn’t have loading systems or the types of heating and cutoff equipment that was needed. These are among the modifications being made to meet the company’s needs.

The upgraded Nationals will produce the parts typically produced in hot formers, such as wheel hubs and gears. According to Bernobich, “We’re talking volumes of half million to a million and a half per year per item.”

Doing it the Boltex way
“We’re a little more methodical than other companies. We do everything ourselves,” Bernobich points out. “When we do the foundations for the forging presses, we do our own drawings, we have our own construction crew, and we do our own installation of the equipment. Boltex even owns the excavators. Everything is in-house. This is what separates us from so many other people.”

As a result, Bernobich believes Boltex has more experience putting in foundations than many engineering firms.

The forging facility is 200,000 ft2 and has had an onsite construction crew there for several years, and will be busy there for several more years, Bernobich predicts.

Keeping everybody busy means employees move from one type of work to another. “The guys who are welding the foundation reinforcements also do work in our maintenance department.”

Boltex capitalizes on the fact that the people who operate the equipment are the ones who are most knowledgable about how things function “We get them involved in installation, also,” Bernobich says.

“We bought several buildings that were adjoined on a 16-acre site. It was a great facility, but it needed to be refurbished,” says Bernobich. “We removed the walls from the iron superstructure and completely redid the buildings. We replaced floors, painted, added new siding, and built an electrical substation. The facility had tremendous overhead crane capacity that we refurbished.”

For transportation logistics, the refurbished facility features rail access, water access, and truck access — important since Boltex operates its own trucking department to deliver to customers locally.

Toolmaking and maintenance are in-house too. “Dies are made on-site in our toolmaking facility, and we do all of our own maintenance on the presses. The die and maintenance shops are keys to success in forging. Some people will disagree with this, but it happens to be our philosophy. We even have developed some proprietary technology. For instance, the shears that we use to cut the steel are based on our own designs.”

Expanding other operations
Bernobich explains that Boltex isn’t finished growing. “Our plans are to expand our heat-treating facility. We currently can quench and temper, normalize, and anneal, but we’re also in the process of making a major assessment to bring in more sophisticated heat-treat equipment.”

The existing heat-treat facilities were built to help in flange production, but the custom-forging production will be a whole different concept. Boltex is in the midst of studying requirements, and the company expects to be ordering in the next few months an automated system, which will do a variety of sophisticated operations. Boltex is also are looking at expanding its machining facilities.

Quality
Boltex is currently certified by ABS to ISO 9002 and is working on TS 16949 certification.

The integrity of any finished product begins with the raw material from which it is produced. An in-house metallurgical testing laboratory reconfirms all materials and verifies the quality and consistency of the products. On-site heat treatment gives the flexibility necessary to meet the most rigid requirements.

The company maintains a QC laboratory, too, to certify the quality that customers expect.

The organization
So, what, or who, make’s Boltex tick? According to Bernobich, “We have been able to attract very qualified people. We have given them the responsibility to manage, and they have done a wonderful job.”

The plant manager and one of the original employees is Franco Geremia. He has extensive experience in machining and forgings operations. According to Bernobich, “He has supervised everything from building foundations to press installation to the finish machine processes.”

Aldo Bernobich is another original employee who is heavily involved in purchasing and day-to-day operations.

And, David Watts was hired in 2003 to handle sales and marketing of custom forgings. “David brings a depth of experience and industry know-how that we didn’t have before,” Bernobich says. “His involvement with Boltex is working out well.”

Watts, who got his start in the forging industry in 1962 in England, says “Boltex is a very exciting company and I’m proud to be part of it. It’s a company that is looking to the future, not bemoaning what the situation is at today.

“In introducing Boltex to customers and potential customers, I’m finding that many, particularly in the automotive area, are looking at forgers and asking ‘where are these guys going to be in three or four years time’,” says Watts. “When I present the Boltex message to them, they say ‘this is the kind of thing we are looking for, somebody who is moving forward’.”

Today, Boltex has 150 employees, but that number will grow as new operations are started up. “We have a very small staff,” Bernobich states. “We all wear a number of different hats.”

Boltex is in the process of hiring new people, which is not easy at the moment. “We’re looking for qualified individuals from machinists to quality control people to maintenance people,” said Bernobich. “We’re moving strategically, but we are definitely moving according to plan.”

Bernobich says the availability of qualified people is one of the limiting factors for growth, not finances or equipment. Finding the appropriate people to be able to operate things efficiently has proven to be the most difficult of tasks. That’s why some projects proceed in a very measured way.

“As a flange manufacturer, we know we are part of a cyclical industry,” he says. “By entering the custom-forged market, we’ll be able to mitigate some of the peaks and valleys of our current production.”

“We’re not race horses, we’re draft horses.” he concludes. “We pull the big load, and we pull it slowly, but we pull it consistently. We always have our sights set on the long term. We believe the investments we’re making now will eventually bear fruit.”

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