INVESTING IN CERAMICS: Manufacturing Milestone
In today's quick-fix, short-attention-span world, it is hard to believe that anything can stand the test of time. Between remote controls and high-speed Internet connections, we're free to zip along to the next big thing. The worldwide economy is constantly changing, and companies continually come and go as a result. One exception is Bloomfield, N.J.-based CM Furnaces, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
CM Furnaces was founded in 1946 by Seth Combs and James Murphy, who were working in the refractory metal industry. The company originally produced molybdenum and tungsten components, such as coils and filaments, for the electronic tube and lighting industry. CM built its own furnaces to manufacture these components, and in the then tight-knit refractory metal community, interest grew.
"We bought wire and material from the major suppliers in the industry," says Jim Neill, vice president, Sales and Marketing. "At the time, most manufacturers made their own furnaces for internal use, but these companies were getting so busy that they asked us to make furnaces for them."
Over time, as advances were made in the electronics industry, demand for the company's coils and filaments decreased. While CM still produces filaments today, furnaces comprise the majority of the company's sales.
The Furnace BusinessThe company currently produces many types of furnaces for a variety of industries, ranging from glass and ceramics to traditional powder metallurgy and refractory metals, as well as research and development for national labs, universities and large corporations. CM specializes in the high-temperature range of 1000-2200°C (1850-4000°F), and atmospheres of air, hydrogen and inert gases.
CM manufactures many standard furnaces, but custom orders represent approximately 40% of its furnaces business. "Customers come to us with a requirement and specifications that may or may not be firm," says Neill. "We've built over 4000 furnaces to date, so we draw on the depth of our experience gained over 60 years to determine how to best meet our customers' needs."
The company handles all of its engineering in-house, and its laboratory includes over a dozen different types of furnaces. CM processes potential customers' materials in the lab to optimize the firing profile and conditions. Using the same firing parameters, the material is then fired in the pilot plant furnace, which is a small fully-automated production furnace also used for proof-of-concept work. "These test firings give us the information to properly size the furnace for the individual's application," explains Neill.
Industry EvolutionThe world has seen a lot of changes over the past 60 years, and industry is no exception. According to Neill, the do-it-yourself mentality is almost gone today. "Most companies used to make a lot of equipment internally if they were large, but now they no longer have the internal resources or the time," he says. "In addition, they no longer have the expertise. They'd be building a furnace every x number of years, while a company that manufactures the product for a living does it every day."
Another big change is that as companies have downsized, they have reduced the number of their technical personnel. Too stretched for time, manufacturers are not always able to provide detailed specifications. As a result, suppliers need to adopt a partnership attitude, working closely with the manufacturers in specifying and providing the proper equipment. "It used to be that a company would detail exactly what they wanted in a furnace," says Neill. "Not today. However, our seasoned workforce usually knows what they need. There's a great knowledge base here between engineering, R&D, production and sales. We can work with the customer to work out the majority of these requests."
Overcoming ChallengesOver the years, one of CM's biggest challenges has been facing the changing worldwide economy, especially its impact on the capital equipment market. "Capital equipment has fluctuated quite a bit along with the economy," says Neill. "But equipment manufacturers have an added problem, because they always lag the downturn. Projects have been in the works for so long that business doesn't just stop on a dime. Conversely, we really lag coming back out, because the mindset changes. Companies are so used to not spending money that they just don't. The economic peaks and valleys are very hard on capital equipment."
CM battles the fluctuations by taking advantage of the diversity of its product line. "We have a very strong mix between large production capital equipment and laboratory equipment, and we value both equally," explains Neill. "Even though there's a big cost differential between a large system and a lab furnace, you're going to sell more laboratory furnaces because of the price. We constantly go after both of those areas."
Another challenge is the global aspect of today's market. "Products are being made everywhere today, and business is all over the world," says Neill. According to Neill, a global sales force is the answer. "You can't force someone to buy something, but you have to be able to be in front of them, service them when they need it, and respond quickly," he says. "You're not going to sell large pieces of capital equipment over the phone or by e-mail. You have to meet with the customer face-to-face and go through the same process, whether they're on the other side of the world or in the next town."
Response time for all aspects of the business must be faster than ever, and CM gives special attention to its sales force. "You need a staff capable and willing to go everywhere," he says. "We are constantly looking to expand our sales team, because we have to provide enough coverage to be able to get to all of our customers in a timely fashion."
Looking to the FutureThrough the sock hop and disco, beyond hula hoops and pet rocks, CM Furnaces has stood the test of time-and aims to continue into the future. "We are constantly improving the technology of our furnaces with better materials and better designs," says Neill. "We're always working on the automation on our large systems, making improvements whenever we possibly can. And we continually improve the self-diagnostics to help the customer not only operate the furnace, but troubleshoot when a problem occurs."
According to Neill, CM is evaluating its expansion into new markets and additional applications. "We are very proud of the fact that we've reached our 60th anniversary," he says. "Our goal is to celebrate the next 60 years as well. We are planning to be here for the long haul."