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Elkhart Brass sees demand for its products worldwide

Company celebrates 100 years

By GENE STOWE
Tribune Correspondent

More than a century after Elkhart Brass started making firefighting equipment in 1902, the company has revitalized itself with a strong emphasis on innovation that has won high demand for its products around the globe.

The company has doubled its volume in the past five years, focusing on more sophisticated products and dropping more common equipment that has more competition, expanding its engineering department from a half-dozen to 19.

“We hold a large number of patents on the products we develop,” says Don Sjolin, vice-president of marketing and strategic development. “We’re extremely committed to research and development. We want to concentrate on those things we can’t find readily in the marketplace.”

The growth has come without a drastic increase in its employment, now at about 200, but it outsources component making to 20 to 24 nearby facilities: “We support quite a number of local businesses,” Sjolin says.

The company recently announced a consolidation of its handline nozzle production, once split between the Elkhart facility and one in Ohio, at the upgraded Elkhart facility, which has a 10,000-square-foot indoor test facility, a work-stream optimization software and more than a dozen new multi-turret machining centers.

“In the last several years, we have invested in our manufacturing technology and our corporate office — making both all state-of-the-art,” says President and CEO Hans Ashbaugh.

“In the same time frame, we have also made significant investments in key personnel and doubled the size of our professional staff. These investments have helped create more industry-leading product innovations than at any other point in our 100-plus year history.”

Sjolin says the high-quality equipment is in high demand.

“We have a really small company, but it’s known worldwide in our industry. In China, they demand our products,” he says. “The China market itself has really expanded in the last two years,” with demand for fire trucks expected to exceed U.S. demand in a year or two.

About one-third of the products made by Elkhart are used by fire departments, especially high water flow precision nozzles. About one-fifth are products used in fire trucks to get water out, such as valves.

The biggest portion is industrial — mega sprinkler systems that deliver 2,000 gallons per minute compared to 15 to 30 gallons per minute at most in a home system.

“These are systems that are protecting refineries, ports, oil drilling platforms,” Sjolin says. “In industrial systems around the world, they’re very common.”

Equipment also protects industrial chemical facilities, preventing fires, extinguishing fires and even preventing chemical releases with a wall of water to knock down vapor clouds.

Demand for protection from fires that could be started as a result of attack, and not just fires that could start accidentally in a building, increased after 9/11. The company also builds specialized equipment to supply water to sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings from Las Vegas to the Middle East and southeast Asia.

While few of the customers are local, Ashbaugh says the company enjoys its deep roots in Elkhart.

“As part of the Elkhart Brass spirit of innovation, we believe in focusing on opportunities and solutions,” he says. “This economy is an opportunity to harness all the investments we have put in place — in both personnel and property — to grow our business.

Elkhart Brass is deeply rooted in our community through our company and our employees. We plan to continue to be here, in Elkhart, innovating for another 100 years.”

Posted: Apr. 6, 2009