A new consumer product must be displayed appealingly, yet protected from rough handling. A tech manufacturer needs a rugged enclosure to encase circuits and power supplies. Or a tool manufacturer wants a small, custom box to go with its products. All these tasks are the kinds of challenges handled daily by Bull Metal Products, where a focus on quality products and excellent customer service has been the key to a loyal customer base built over more than 60 years.
Bull Metal Products is a manufacturer of sheet metal, rigid wire, and tubing products that thinks both globally (about the complex challenges it must solve for customers) and locally in terms of how it particularly targets the needs of customers in the Northeast and east of the Mississippi. The company is based in a 40,000 square foot facility in Middletown, Connecticut, considered the southernmost city in the busy Hartford-Springfield Knowledge Corridor, which features a combined metro population of 1.9 million. This region is itself in the heart of the Northeast Corridor and is located minutes from Interstate 95 and other major transportation facilities.
Now a second generation family business, the company was founded by New Jersey-raised Cliff E. Bull, a 1948 graduate of Wesleyan College in Middletown, Connecticut. Bull had earned a business degree and recorded a remarkable athletic career on both the football and baseball teams. In fact, Bull went on to pitch for the local Middletown Giants and then the Washington Senators baseball teams before going to work for a local sheet metal manufacturing company as a salesman. A few years later, after spending a short time with another Connecticut-based sheet metal fabricator, he decided to strike out on his own with a high school friend, David W. Reier, as his partner. Initially the company operated out of a barn and shop in nearby Higganum, Connecticut. In the early 1960s, the company relocated to Middletown, where the company has been ever since. Its current location has been enlarged three times over the years to accommodate the company’s continuing growth.
Customers turn to Bull Metal for a variety of reasons. According to sales manager Larry Malone, some need products that are not within their ability to manufacture themselves. Others see an advantage in outsourcing to experts able to deliver on a more cost-effective basis. Today, Bull Metal offers fabrication services that include custom sheet metal, rigid wire, and light gauge tubing products, as well as services involving other materials. Approximately 70 percent of projects involve sheet metal and most of the remaining 30 percent involve rigid wire and tubing. Sheet metals used in fabrication include cold rolled steel (CRS), aluminum, stainless steel, and galvanized steel.
The basic operations at Bull Metal are built around a wide range of tooling and equipment, including CNC shears, punch or turret presses, brake presses, precision ground tooling, resistance spot welders, MIG welders, TIG welders, powder coating booths, a screen printing machine, and many other pieces of equipment typically involved in fabricating sheet metal enclosures and racks.
Dimensionally, most parts measure less than four feet in any one direction. However, notes Malone, “We make many parts as long as six or seven feet, depending on what the other two dimensions are, and we can always work with customers to redesign parts that are too large for us to handle, into component parts that better matched to our equipment and handling capabilities.” This can often prove advantageous to customers because the smaller components are easier to store and ship can be designed for easy final assembly.
“We identify potential issues, such as this, early in our discussion with customers and look for ways to create win-win results,” says Malone. Another advantage of redesigning toward smaller components is that material waste is often reduced, which can sometimes deliver further cost savings, he says.
Depending on the complexity and the tolerances of a job, production in sheet metal may begin using one of the various power presses at Bull to blank the component parts. Design and desired characteristics determine if it could also be programed to run on one of the company’s turret presses. If the production volume warrants it, job-specific tooling can also be created so that work can be run through one of the company’s higher volume coil lines, which makes product from bulk coils of sheet metal. “Exactly how a job will be run is determined with the customer when the job is quoted,” says Malone.
For instance, he explained, turret presses can blank multiple parts out of large sheets. Both hard tooled and turret press flat blanks are held to very close tolerances—which is critical to many of the products Bull Metal manufactures. The characteristics of those turret press blanks are programed into the machine. The brake press operation then gives the part its shape. Computer controlled back gages maintain formed dimensional tolerances, and bends of almost any angle can be made to the material. “Even with computer control, our skilled operators are important to maintaining quality bends, as well as overall efficiency throughout the process,” he says.
Similar processes apply to products built from tubing. Most wire and tubing fabrication is related to point-of-purchase displays for customers; though the company also manufactures several kinds of carts from light gauge tubing for industrial use.
Broadly, items manufactured by Bull Metal Products can be divided into two groups – fully custom products, designed and manufactured to specifications, and semi-custom products developed by Bull and adaptable and customizable to the needs of specific customers.
In the latter category, Bull manufactures and stocks a large selection of metal cabinets, primarily oriented toward organizing and storing small parts. Many companies that distribute or manufacture small parts, such as fasteners and electrical components, find the convenience, quality, and reliability of Bull Metal cabinets, which can be provided with logos and other distinct features, is preferable to designing their own from the ground up.
In fact, Bull’s line of “stock” cabinet products can become real assets to customers when they are screen printed and custom painted, helping their products to stand out from the crowd, noted national account-marketing manager Lee Iacucci.
Of course, a standard product may not be the right fit for every situation. And that’s where Bull shines, with the ability to design cabinets to customer requirements or deliver products to a customer-supplied design, he said.
Panels and enclosures are another specialty for Bull Metal Products. Some of the custom sheet metal items Bull Metal has produced include annunciator panels, security/alarm system cabinets, access control enclosures, communication equipment cabinets, equipment control boxes, housings, shrouds, and chassis assemblies for all types of electro-mechanical controls and apparatus.
For example, one customer approached Bull Metal about a custom steel rack-mount style security cabinet for use in a building security application. The design measures 19 inches in length, 18.50 inches in width, and 6.687 inches in height.
“Based on our 60 years of experience, we have fabricated all types of electro-mechanical enclosures, including many custom rack mounted designs such as this,” says Malone. This particular product was fabricated from 18 gauge cold rolled steel (CRS). The raw CRS sheets were sheared to size; the blanks were then punched out on a CNC turret press and the individual components were formed using a brake press, and then spot-welded together where required. PEM® studs and nuts were pressed in place using a PEMSERTER® press, and the completed enclosure was finished with the application of a black textured powder coating. Many other enclosures of varying size and complexity have been delivered to a wide range of customers.
Quality and Performance
At Bull Metals, Lean “Kaizen” Manufacturing methods are a way of life. For instance, a company Kaizen Team recently tackled the challenge of creating a “Large Box Cell” that would help reduce inventory, control defects, and improve operational efficiencies. The goal of setting up cells in a manufacturing facility, such as Bull Metal, is to speed production and reduce waste while permitting multiple products to be manufactured in the same area.
Of course, the ultimate beneficiary is the customer. The large cell at Bull eventually included two eight-foot brake presses, five welders, and a conveyor. In actual operation, the cell has reduced the number of steps operators need to complete jobs, freeing employees to be engaged more creatively while also greatly reducing work in processes.
A related aspect of Lean Manufacturing at Bull Metal is the Kanban, “just-in-time” supply agreements offered to customers, which can help them reduce operational expenses and reduce the costs associated with maintaining excess inventory. “It is another way we provide our customers with the confidence to rely on us as trusted suppliers that will not leave them in an out-of-stock situation,” says Iacucci.
Unifying and strengthening the company’s approach to quality, the entire Bull Metal facility operates under ISO 9001-2008 certification, which demonstrates that all key processes are carefully documented and repeatable, and therefore can contribute to ensuring quality.
“The implementation of the ISO 9001:2008 standard was a lengthy and valuable process that has encouraged everyone in the company to contribute to the continual improvement of our quality management system (QMS),” says Malone. While many of the management systems and frameworks needed for ISO 9001 were already in place, the process of being audited ensured that they were complete, up-to-date, and well understood by everyone in the company. In fact, while a consultant was brought in to provide assistance in designing and completing procedures and work instructions to underscore the full involvement of the whole company in the process, an employee became the designated ISO coordinator and helped drive the process within the company.
“It just makes good business sense,” says Malone. “Our design and production staff is also familiar with a wide range of quality standards. For instance, we regularly produce custom metal cabinets and electrical enclosures designed for interior or exterior usage and able to meet most NEMA or UL standards,” he adds.
Bull Metal has an engineering staff to supplement the experienced shop floor personnel and provide extra capabilities in design, engineering, and tooling, manufacturing processes and manufacturing equipment. “Design and development of new products and components is done with a team of experienced personnel that includes sales, engineering, production management, and the quality manager,” explains Iacucci.
Bull Metal’s design services can help an OEM or product manufacturer bring their product to market faster and more cost-effectively. “Typically, customers give us input regarding their requirements, and the end use they have in mind, and we develop a product to meet those requirements,” says Malone. If a customer decides to move ahead, Bull Metal can provide prototypes for fit, function, and hands-on evaluation.
“Our broad metal working capabilities allow us great flexibility to meet a wide range of customer specifications and needs, and our designs take into account the most cost effective manufacturing processes and materials, always ensuring the structural integrity required of the finished product,” says Malone. Bull Metal can work from detailed, customer supplied engineering drawings, electronic files and specifications, as well as the proverbial “back-of-the-napkin” sketch. “We can meet the customer where they are comfortable – working directly to their detailed design or providing our own engineering and production expertise to turn a rough concept into a working component design,” he says.
A Distinctive Style of Business
According to Malone, Bull Metal Products is different from other metal fabrication companies in several key ways. “While many companies can produce the components and end products that we provide to our customers, we are not only experts in our field, but we are extremely easy to deal with,” says Malone. In initial design and the development stage, Bull has the experience to make “valid cost saving suggestions” that not only take into account the work involved in manufacturing the component, but also consider what the customer may have to do in final assembly of all components to make the finished product—and even during service in the field, he explained. “We also maintain regular communication with our customers to make sure expectations are understood and fulfilled,” Malone says. Whether it is an expedited need, an on-the-fly detail change to the part, production status, or a request for simple paperwork regarding an order or shipment, the Bull staff will respond “in friendly and efficient manner,” he says.