ATI’s Cudahy investment was years in the making

Made in Milwaukee

Products are processed after being forged in an isothermal press at the Cudahy facility.

ATI Forged Products

5481 S. Packard Ave., Cudahy

Industry: Forged products

Employees: 750 in Cudahy 

Products are processed after being forged in an isothermal press at the Cudahy facility.

The planes flying over the ATI Forged Products facility on South Packard Avenue in Cudahy serve as a regular reminder of the mission-critical work completed in the 1.4-million-square-foot plant. They are also a working example of why ATI is investing $95 million to increase its isothermal press and heat treating capacity.

“You can stand here and tell what planes have those engines and what planes don’t, especially when they take off,” ATI Forged Products president John Minich said as he entered one of the plant’s buildings while a Southwest Airlines flight passed overhead.

The engines Minich is referring to are the next generation of jet engines, designed to be quieter and more fuel-efficient. To be more fuel-efficient, the engines need to run even hotter, requiring parts made from alloys that can withstand higher temperatures. ATI uses an isothermal press and advanced heat treating to achieve the unique properties needed for parts to withstand the heat of a jet engine.

The press functions differently than a traditional forge. The die and the material have to be at the same temperature and the forging takes place in a vacuum at more than 2,000 degrees. After being machined, the parts are then tested for any defects and measured in a temperature-controlled room to make sure they meet exacting specifications.

“I used to maybe be concerned about flying,” Minich said. “But after I’ve been exposed to the rigid process control, the rigid specifications and the requirements of our (original equipment manufacturers) and the (Federal Aviation Administration), I don’t worry about flying.”

Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Technologies Inc. acquired Cudahy-based Ladish Co. Inc. in 2011 for $778 million with the goal of combining its specialty metal production with Ladish’s forging and machining capabilities to create a more integrated supply chain for customers.

Minich, a longtime ATI employee, came to the Cudahy facility a little more than a year after the acquisition closed to help with the integration. He said the combination of continuous improvement efforts, investment in new technologies and restructuring union contracts have allowed the facility “to earn the right to grow.”

Sales from the Cudahy facility will be up 50 percent this year from 2014, even with a net 20 percent reduction in employees, to about 750. The reduction in staff has come through attrition and retirements, not layoffs, Minich said. About 100 people have been hired in the past two years and the facility had 50 openings as of early May.

The Cudahy plant dates back more than 100 years, meaning its layout isn’t designed for modern manufacturing. Still, Minich and his team have worked to optimize the existing floor space. Hundreds of truckloads of scrap have been taken out of the facility as obsolete machinery is removed and storage areas are organized.

“The folks here have the vision of that so I don’t even have to suggest to them,” Minich said. “If it’s non-value-add, out it goes.”

ATI has also made investments, including $5 million to increase sonic testing capacity and $3 million to upgrade an isothermal press.

Those improvements allowed the Cudahy facility to win out over North Carolina when it came time for ATI to decide where it would add isothermal press and heat treating capacity.

The expansion plan also is designed to accommodate future growth in the business and technology. The heat treating equipment will be installed in a former storage area where the building can easily be expanded.

“We designed this for the next couple decades,” Minich said, adding the equipment can handle parts and products the company isn’t even aware of today. “If we designed the process for our current product requirements, we could be obsolete very quickly.”

The facility’s business growth is evident in the work-in-progress throughout the plant, not just for jet engines, but for helicopter parts, tank hatches and mining equipment. Products can take four to 26 weeks to complete, with an average of about 12 weeks.

“For us, inventory turns and cycle time are really, really important, because you can imagine the value of these products, that’s cash,” Minich said.

He acknowledged his teams continue to work on eliminating bottlenecks in production.

“In our continuous improvement and investments, we are looking at how do we best break those bottlenecks so we can keep the material moving, deliver on time to our customers and take on more business,” Minich said. “That is our No. 1 challenge today.”

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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