PENINSULA, Ohio—After generating about 24 percent growth in 2017, Eagle Elastomer Inc. is planning to expand, according to Neil McHale, vice president of operations.
The company, which mixes fluoroelastomer compounds and extrudes and cures fluoroelastomers as well as sheet products, saw much of its oil and gas business come back during the last year, following a drop-off in 2015 and 2016, he said.
"We saw a lot of that business come back in 2017," McHale said. "Not to the levels it was at before that, but with some of the other growth we saw, we definitely had a nice shift back in that direction."
As the custom mixing business recovers from the low of 2015, the biggest area of growth for Eagle has been cured extrusions, including O-ring cord stock and tubing, as well as other products.
"We've been able to improve our capabilities and do more and more intricate profiles that traditionally have been very challenging, and we've gotten much better at being able to zero in on the requirements that our customers have, which has helped us," McHale said.
Customers are looking for polymer types with better temperature and chemical resistance, driving the shift to fluoroelastomers, he said. Eagle has been working on projects to increase its capabilities to serve that segment of the market, though McHale did not disclose details.
Eagle's O-ring cord business "grew significantly last year," he said, with Eagle producing various sizes of O-ring cord to be purchased by distributors and spliced to specifications. Eagle also improved its ability to produce more varied extrusion profiles, including some with a focus on applications in the automotive market.
The automotive market always has been a lower priority for Eagle, given the usual high level of price competition. But customers were looking for "more of a premium product, and we fit that," McHale said.
One development that has assisted in making the most of the company's growth is the addition of technology that captures and collects data and variables from the processing of materials, McHale said.
"We capture all of the parameters or variables that go into our process in data collection, and it provides us the ability to put that into reports where we can analyze it," he said. "We can use that data, putting in better processes and making sure we're running it more consistently every time."
That data has helped Eagle in producing new extrusion profiles to customer requirements, he said, with sensors that track the temperatures in each zone of the extruder, as well as pressures, screw rates and other data points.
Eagle started testing the system in about 2009 by running it on one of its extrusion lines, and over time added it to all four of its existing lines, he said. The system was customized for each of those lines, which are all slightly different, and took time to gather enough information for analysis. The collection system is not part of an Industry 4.0 effort, but a push to enhance extrusion capabilities and make better decisions going forward.
"When we run the line one way and hold very tight tolerances, and everything comes out, we're making sure we track that," McHale said. "And if we see any variations, we see what may be causing that. We just try to capture all the information and use that in processing materials."
Eagle also upgraded its lab with an investment of about $158,000 in late 2016 and the beginning of 2017 to replace older quality lab testing equipment.
"We were in a position with some of our older equipment was of a brand that was no longer in existence, so we had to upgrade," McHale said. "That's gone really well, and given us some additional capability on testing, which has been good."
The investment included a new Instron tensile machine, a new moving die rheometer, an MDR upgrade and a Mooney viscometer upgrade.
Expansion and investment
Eagle also is investing $1.25 million into a 15,900-sq.-ft. expansion onto the back of the building, scheduled for completion by this May. The expansion includes new automated panners, new extrusion cutting equipment and marking equipment, and a new oven.
The new equipment allows Eagle to do precision-cut lengths, and improves its capabilities for marking extrusions, McHale said.
The expansion process originally started before the market slowdown in 2016, when the company decided to pause it because of a complication with the builder at the time, McHale said.
"We decided to put the program on hold, which was fortunate, because things slowed down significantly," McHale said.
Last year, after solid growth had picked up again, the company picked the project up again and kicked it off in fall of 2017.
Along with the new equipment and capabilities, the expansion also will give more room for processes and flow, he said. It will include an area with temperature control, for ingredients with specific temperature requirements. There also will be room for the possibility of adding more equipment in the future, depending on how some current projects turn out.
Eagle currently employs 46, having hired about five employees in the past year, making up for a few retirements and adding to the total, McHale said. More hires are planned for the upcoming year. If developing projects take off, an evening shift of about five employees could be added.
In the upcoming year, Eagle will continue to work on developing new compounds to bring in additional capabilities, such as with low-temperature elastomers, McHale said. The company also will work on expanding in perfluoroelastomers for more expensive, high-chemical resistant applications.
"We're continuing to see the perfluoroelastomer market grow," he said. "One of the barriers for that is that it's so expensive, but as more and more customers find needs where you need sealing at 600 degrees, you can't use the standard fluoroelastomer. It's not a huge piece of our business, but it's been a nice, growing part."
The continuing expansion and developing projects gave Eagle a solid start for 2018, McHale said.
"We're optimistic. It was a good January for us, and we started out well," he said. "I don't want to get too far ahead, but a lot of it depends on what happens with some of our projects. We have our steady business, but it's some of the new initiatives that we're taking on that are kind of exciting this year."