It was only a year ago that we spoke with Vice President and General Manager Arie Bregman, but a lot has taken place since. Tariffs are being imposed on the industry, and the move to automation is gathering strength.
DFT – an acronym for Durabla Fluid Technology – was founded in 1911 as the Durabla Company by a German immigrant in the New York City area. The company made gaskets and seals, which back then, were made from leather and other materials including rubber. Rubber, at that time, was a modern material.
“The Durabla Company had a method for making these gaskets more durable and capable at higher temperatures. The industrial revolution that was going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was demanding higher temperature capability materials. That was the genesis of the Durabla Company,” says Arie.
In 1943, the U.S. government asked Durabla Manufacturing Company to develop valves that could handle liquid nitrogen, which it did, and in the early fifties, when the information was declassified, it was revealed that those valves were used in the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons.
The evolution of DFT continued through the following decades. The company was mainly a U.S and Canadian operation and began moving into international markets in the eighties. Now it has sales on every continent except Antarctica.
The last year has seen some interesting developments. It is adding a new addition to its control valve product line. “Other things we are doing on the manufacturing front include 3D printing and factory automation. These are stimulated by two different needs,” says Arie.
Three-dimensional (3D) printing is necessary to stay on the leading edge of manufacturing. The technology has not advanced enough to print metals and have the resulting components in compliance with codes and standards, but Arie believes that day is coming. DFT is using 3D printing to make some of the prototype valves as well as some low production volume moulds for some of its products.
If DFT receives a unique commission that requires a single piece to be made in an exotic material, 3D printing plays a role in this too. The company prints a mold and sends it to the foundry, which can produce a casting. This has given DFT a competitive advantage for a host of different applications.
“A lot of companies are tinkering with 3D printing, and some are trying to advance the state of the art for metal printing. We are bound by codes and standards that haven’t fully vetted for the viability of those materials,” says Arie.
High oil prices have stimulated spending, which is good for the economy in general, and DFT has been a beneficiary of that with a healthy influx of business. “We expected some growth and have been almost overwhelmed by it being much greater than expected. It stretched our supply lines pretty hard,” says Arie.
DFT has suppliers around the world that send it raw materials or semi-finished parts. Much of that is done with annual contracts and seven to eight percent growth had been anticipated. However, the resulting orders were twice that and product shortages have been a concern since. DFT has always prided itself in having the best lead times in the industry, and these issues are affecting competitors as well.
New tariffs are another topic of concern, but DFT is addressing this on several fronts. Tariffs on steel and structural steel had a small impact on the raw materials it uses. Then, a few weeks ago, the administration announced a new level of tariff which had an impact on valve castings, valve parts, and fully assembled valves. “Not sure if these tariffs will be rolled out, but it was a surprise to have escalated so quickly into a second level. Tariffs mean higher costs for everyone that eventually get passed along to customers for our products,” says Arie.
For expansion projects, structural steel, piping, and valves going up in cost may cause a dampening or an end to growth. This could mean companies will stop hiring. In more extreme cases it could mean a loss of jobs.
The U.S. government is soliciting opinions and comments from individual companies as well as from trade associations through the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) website. The pertinent trade association for DFT is the Valve Manufacturers Association of America (VMA). “We are pushing on both fronts as an individual company as well as part of a larger organization to get our voice heard. These tariffs are not a good idea,” says Arie.
The baby boomer generation that once filled factories is now retiring, and companies like DFT are having difficulty hiring machinists and assemblers, making factory automation an increasingly popular option. Finding skilled CNC machinists has been a problem for the last ten to fifteen years, but now the company is faced with difficulties in hiring even at entry-level positions in the factory. It has become an imperative for DFT to look at how some processes can be automated, having one person in charge of three or four machines.
“The investment in automation is hurting us. We have small tax incentives as the government has reduced the corporate tax level to free up cash that can be invested in the business. It is likely that companies will be taking that cash and investing in the automation process,” says Arie.
DFT will be hiring graduates from technical schools and putting them in its factories to assist in the development of these automated processes. “As time marches forward, I think we can be very competitive worldwide through this old paradigm shift that we are at the beginning of right now.”
Manufacturing as an occupation can be very exciting and rewarding. Arie wants to see more emphasis in U.S. public education curriculum on trades such as CNC machinists, electricians, hydraulic technicians, and welders.
“Those kinds of trades pay very well, and perhaps it is time we look at the return on the investment in a four-year college degree. There is a great need for people to consider AS level technical degrees vs. Bachelor level degrees,” says Arie. “If they have interests and like doing things with their hands, there is a lot of potential reward in following a different path.”
Arie thinks the future is very bright despite the changes. U.S. manufacturing needs some protection for intellectual property, specifically with China, and believes this can be achieved. “U.S. innovation has to be protected in all the world’s market areas, just as other countries want theirs protected. What’s fair is fair, and if we can, through whatever means necessary, forge an agreement where that becomes intellectual property and is respected across borders, then I think we have a very positive outlook going forward.”