Wickmac Keeps It Low Key, Focuses on Growth

NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- There are no signs outside to even hint at the existence of a company. Were it not for the several cars and trucks parked in a gravel side lot, you’d swear that the nondescript building at 511 Sampson St. here. is vacant.

Open the doors and inside you get a peek into what epitomizes the raw backbone of the region’s manufacturing sector: a small business that eschews splash, instead focusing on -- and poised for -- growth.

Every square inch of the 10,000 square feet of the Wickmac Machine building is put to good use, says owner and President Ryan McClenahan. Computer-numerically controlled, or CNC, machines hum with activity and are packed tightly inside the plant, while production seems to flow without a hitch as its 14 employees operate lathes, milling equipment, grinders and welders’ torches.

“I’m comfortable for now,” smiles McClenahan when asked if he’s considering a move to a bigger place. “I have another building down the street and I’m in the process of filling that up now.”

About 20 Mazak CNC milling and turning machines line the Wickmac production floor, not to mention additional surface grinding equipment, welding stations and boring mills.

The latest piece of equipment is a large, CNC vertical lathe. It stands about 15 feet high and was purchased by the company in March.

“It’s a nice piece,” McClenahan states, an investment to the tune of $420,000. “It’s a machine that sets you apart from a lot of the other shops,” he says, and is capable of machining components up to 40 inches in diameter.

Wickmac machines and fabricates components used mostly in the steel industry and by the plastics extrusion industry, McClenahan says, and business has grown each year the company has been in business.

“Every year it grows,” he reports. “We grew the business by 25%  between 2012 and 2013.”

Much of the revenue those sales brought in was reinvested in equipment, including the brand-new Mazak lathe and two other Mazak-brand CNC machines.

“I’ve got a hold on another one to buy this week,” McClenahan says. While about half of the company’s investment is in machines, the other half needs to be devoted to the tooling needed to craft the necessary parts.

Wickmac is one of those “accidental” businesses that somehow found its way on a consistent growth track, the company’s owner relates. His fascination for machining began as a hobby: McClenahan spent considerable time with his father and grandfather as they restored antique tractors and motors.

“My grandfather, my dad and I always collected antiques,” he says. “Sometimes, when you’re dealing with old tractors and hit-and-miss gas engines, you don’t buy parts at Advance Auto. You either have to find someone who makes replacement parts or make them yourself.”

McClenahan opted to make the parts himself and bought a lathe he set up in his father’s garage.

Then, in 2001, after the market tumbled, McClenahan scooped up a CNC mill from a company going out of business with money his parents set aside so he could attend college. “We bought the CNC mill and stuffed that in the garage and I started moonlighting in the evenings.”

Before long, McClenahan took on more work, machining different parts for various uses. “Then, you buy a second machine, then a third one. And it snowballs to 20.”

The most interesting part about the business is that there is a different product going out the door every week, McClenahan says. “We’re a pretty well-equipped job shop.”

On this particular afternoon in May, Wickmac has orders for 6,000 small parts while simultaneously manufacturing larger, single components for the steel industry.

“We do a lot of work for the steel mills, a lot of work for the plastics business,” he says. “It’s real strong.”

The company manufactures components such as bearing blocks, containers, plastics-injection equipment, custom bolts, custom nuts, pipe transfer equipment, and long shafts. “Anything a steel mill tears up,” McClenahan says.

At one station, employee Ted Pekarchick is working on a winch housing used at shipyards on the coasts. “We’ve sold them all over, to Newport News [Va.] and other military shipyards,” Pekarchick says.

While efforts to incorporate additive manufacturing into the production process is all the rage here, Wickmac is decidedly a company that makes good use of old-fashioned subtractive manufacturing.

“We bring a lot of the steel rounds in. I buy from a lot of the steel suppliers and tell them I need, say, four pieces at 20-inch round, 20-inch long,” he says.

The material is shipped in and then machined at one or more of the company’s CNC turning lathes, which are programmed to match the customer’s specifications. Then, the part could be milled, ground, welded and polished before it’s shipped to a customer.

Unlike additive manufacturing, which employs a process that essentially “builds” a component through 3-D printing, subtractive manufacturing is a process that forms a product from, for example, a solid block of material, in this case, metal alloy. As such, the process leaves behind metal shavings that ultimately are sold for scrap and recycled.

“Our roll-offs every two weeks contain between 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of shavings that are left over” from company operations, McClenahan says.

Critical to his business is finding qualified CNC machinists with job shop experience, he says. Wickmac employs two welders, eight machinists, and four machine operators, but it is difficult to find the right employee for this type of work.

The challenge for many of these smaller companies is that they lack the resources to train new employees, and therefore are more reliant on trying to find seasoned machinists, welders and fabricators, says Eric Karmecy of the West Central Job Partnership and a member of the Oh-Penn Manufacturing Collaborative.

“A lot of them don’t have the resources or the capacity to be on the front lines,” Karmecy says. The Oh-Penn Collaborative is an effort among regional manufacturers, workforce-development organizations and educators to establish programs that would help build a pipeline of workers to meet the needs of industry.

And it’s small producers such as Wickmac that can benefit the most because they make up a large portion of the region’s manufacturing sector, Karmecy reports.

“We have, in the five counties, about 1,200 manufacturers,” he says. “About half of those businesses employ 20 people or less,” while another 200 to 300 of these manufacturers employ fewer than 100.

Karmecy says the organization needs to attract more of these smaller shops to help build a more powerful coalition that can also raise the skill level of the area workforce.

“There’s a lot they can gain through participating,” Karmecy notes. “We’d like to hear about their challenges, which appear to be the same challenges we’re all facing.”

That foremost challenge is finding the right people for a small job shop like Wickmac, McClenahan says. “It’s our biggest obstacle,” he observes. “In a job-shop environment, you never know what’s coming along. These guys are bouncing around on different types of stuff, different alloy, every day, all day. Those guys are hard to find.”

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the MidMay edition of The Business Journal.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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