When I was conducting research for “Apparatus Purchasing: Booster Tanks” (Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, July 2012), Bill Bruns, vice president of sales and marketing for United Plastic Fabricating, Inc. (UPF), provided insight into the inner workings of that polypropylene tank manufacturer. It was an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the concept, beginning, growth, corporate policy, and people of UPF and acted as the impetus for this article. The company’s Web site has information on its facilities complete with photos of the buildings, smiling employees, product specifications, and sales information. This article just gives you an insight into “what makes them tick.”
|(1) Sales and Marketing Manager Andrew Lingel
points to UPF’s compression tester-a hydraulic
crusher used to test weld strength. (Photos by author
unless otherwise noted.)
I paid UPF’s North Andover, Massachusetts, location an afterhours visit. This location serves as the company’s corporate headquarters, is the location of the design and engineering group, and is the smallest of three manufacturing facilities. Interviewed were Joe Lingel, president and chief executive officer; Bill Bruns, vice president of marketing and sales; Mike Ashley, vice president of engineering; Louis Trapasso, director of quality and materials; and Andrew Lingel, sales and marketing manager. The group is a relaxed, down-to-earth, but extremely professional organization where each player is passionate about the work and committed to UPF’s printed quality policy: “Continually Improve Everything We Do. Give Our Customers Exactly What They Expect.” In 27 years, UPF has gone from an inspiration-seeking a solution to solve a problem-to building two-thirds of the booster tanks for the North American fire service.
NFPA 1901 and Tank Design
Except for the visible fill towers, most line firefighters give little thought to booster tanks and less thought to the behind-the-scenes complexities involved in their design and fabrication. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, Chapter 18 Water Tanks is mainly directed at tank construction and the manufacturers. Purchasers’ concerns usually rest with capacity, the type of tank level indicator desired, whether there’s a direct tank fill line, and occasionally flow rates. Purchasers may not realize the impact those and other purchasing “choices” may have on a tank’s design and engineering.
Often, fire departments opt for multiple rear discharges and suctions that can be either sleeved or notched into a tank, integral foam cells, and slide-in storage for ladders or suction sleeves. Or, they specify particular hosebed heights that mandate odd-shaped tanks. Those choices can impact some of a tank’s design criteria such as whether a containment or dynamic method of baffling is used; the spacing, size, and location of longitudinal and transverse baffles; as well as size and location of piping connections, diffusers, vents, and overflows.
|(2) Quality Assurance documentation follows
each product regardless of size or complexity, as
shown with each of these poly tool boxes.
Bruns points out that this is when UPF’s engineering and design teams excel. They respond to and work hand-in-hand with end users (the fire departments), the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and their dealers. He states, “We thrive on meeting the demands and needs of the emergency services, particularly in the cases where an OEM may not have the capabilities or resources to address complex tank designs. They may not employ specific tank designers or engineers. We give them the freedom to come up with a concept, and our staff does everything else.” Joe Lingel adds that previously apparatus bodies were built around each apparatus manufacturer’s standardized tank configurations and that today’s technology has resulted in tanks becoming an integral component in the design of fire apparatus bodies.
Polypropylene, invented in the 1950s, was first used commercially in Italy in the late 1950s. In 1982, Lingel, a member of the Lynnfield (MA) Fire Department, and Alan Burnham, the department mechanic, pondered replacing the rusted booster tank on their 1961 FWD pumper. A replacement tank was designed, and they had the first polypropylene tank built by a small manufacturer of polypropylene industrial products, which was located in the area. It worked. Shortly thereafter, Burnham and Lingel cofounded UPF, and in 1986, UPF was incorporated with the first factory opened in North Andover, Massachusetts. They formed the corporation exclusively to build nonmetallic polypropylene water tanks for fire apparatus.
Burnham later cofounded the National Association of Emergency Vehicle Technicians (NAEVT), an organization that, according to its Web site, is ” … dedicated to improving the quality of emergency vehicle service and repair,” a philosophy I believe closely parallels that of UPF.
|(3) Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) includes the use of
computer software to control machine tools and related
machinery such as this CNC overhead router.
What transpired afterward appears to be phenomenal growth and expansion. In 1989, the company opened a second facility in Ocala, Florida. A new 38,000-square-foot corporate headquarters with a designated design and engineering center followed in North Andover. In 1991, UPF built a third facility in Wisconsin-a state home to numerous fire apparatus manufacturers. The Florida plant doubled in size in 2000. The Wisconsin facility has expanded twice in 10 years and eventually relocated to a 103,000-square-foot-facility in 2005. Today UPF has more than 180,000 square feet of facility space in use. According to Bruns, the timing and geographical locations for expansion were in response to the growth and increased sales in those areas. He adds, “Moving close to these customers would save on shipping costs and better serve them with faster turnaround.”
Trapasso spent 40 years in quality control in the aerospace industry. He brought that experience and expertise to UPF, ensuring quality control is a continuing corporate program that all employees are committed to. His commitment to quality can be described as intense. Manufactured products, regardless of size or complexity, strictly adhere to ISO 9001-2008 standards, and UPF’s manufacturing processes are continually monitored to maintain those standards.
|(4) This tilting scale enables real life burping of air from tanks,
allowing accurate certification of tank capacity.
Examples include using a hydraulic compression tester to test the strength of polypropylene welds, the welding machines themselves, and the individual fabricators. Andrew Lingel, who previously was a quality control analyst, states that periodic documented testing of weld strength serves multiple purposes. Testing validates the proficiency of each fabricator and each piece of welding equipment by comparing weld strength tests with prior documented data for both staff and machines. The company monitors expertise and competence in product and performance continuously. Additionally, comparative testing verifies new welding equipment with recorded data of existing machines. And, UPF also uses it to evaluate the training of new employees in the polypropylene welding process.
CAM and Engineering
Ashley explains that UPF has fully embraced computer aided manufacturing (CAM) to maintain the quality and consistency of manufactured parts from its three separate locations. “It allows us to reduce engineering time and manufacture at a lower cost,” he says. “We have a fully integrated Web-based system. Consequently, UPF can produce identically consistent products at all three of our manufacturing facilities.”
|(5) Continuously updated, this electronic board shows the
geographical location and status of all warranty and service calls.
My interpretation of CAM is that it is using computer software to control functions including machine tools and related machinery in manufacturing product. It should not be confused with the more common computer numerical control (CNC) procedure that solely addresses the manufacturing of specific products where machining is computer-controlled with each manufactured part assigned an identifying control number.
The CAM process incorporates the CNC procedure. CAM can expand computerized “assistance” into many facets of a business.
In simple “tailboard terminology,” CAM can be considered a super software program that can incorporate individualized software programs controlling operations such as inventory, production, scheduling, shipping, and planning into an efficient system that can be continually upgraded. CAM does not eliminate the need for skilled professionals in administration and manufacturing. It can, however, increase their individual proficiency and the efficiency of an entire operation.
“Our expertise is in the dynamics of moving and holding water,” says Ashley. “We design and manufacture containment vessels to transport up to 5,000 gallons of liquid and statically hold up to 30,000 gallons. And, we participate in concurrent engineering with apparatus manufacturers in a CAD format.” As an example, Ashley notes that when working with multiple partners on a prototype ARFF unit, “a CAD model was used to simulate the fluid flow characteristics in the tank using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software.” The fully integrated Web-based system allows UPF’s design and engineering staff to work simultaneously and in exact synchronization with apparatus manufacturers’ engineering staffs when required.
Bruns notes that one of the qualities UPF offers is the ability to adjust its business style to the customers it serves. They can work very closely with partners when applicable while there are other OEMs that require little interface.
|(6) This module for cylindrical storage is
noncorrosive and easy to maintain and
eliminates metal against metal contact.
Each is custom-designed to meet
customers’ specific storage requirements.
The quality assurance documentation is
just visible in the lower left-hand opening.
Bruns states that 10 percent of sales are outside of the fire service. He goes on to say that with the large number of firefighters who work in other industries now aware of UPF’s capabilities, they are contacting UPF to determine if certain products can be made out of polypropylene. By nature of the product being noncorrosive, there are many nonfire service opportunities for expansion. Joe Lingel points out that the fire side was the beginning and still constitutes the majority of UPF’s business.
Although a limited number of truck bodies have been manufactured for the fire service, UPF looks at bodies outside of the fire service market as an opportunity for growth-as most of its customers are body builders who purchase tanks from UPF. Bruns says most of the industrial and commercial body work has been firefighter-influenced, very customized, and usually for environments with extreme exposure to both the elements, such as 24/7 UV; corrosive materials, such as waste water; and atmospheres. Although there are markets for polypropylene fabrication in almost every industry where weight and corrosion are an issue, UPF’s forte is tanks and accessories for the fire service.
One unique market for UPF is manufacturing washing tubs for the dog grooming business-a collaborative effort with the company that holds several patents for polypropylene dog wash tubs. The market for pet grooming in the United States is enormous, and sales have increased accordingly as the tubs are being marketed in more parts of the United States.
Warranty and Service
According to Bruns, there is a lifetime warranty on UPF’s booster tanks, and UPF’s field service department ensures there is customer satisfaction. Despite more than 77,000 tanks in service, only six field technicians are needed worldwide. There is an electronic status board in the field service department’s office that tracks the status of every service call from initial contact to completion.
|(7) Shown here is a CNC cut tank kit, containing pieces of a tank,
before being welded together.
Sales and Marketing
Ashley says, “Domestic sales are the bulk of our business. However, there has been a growing trend in exporting component parts for the industrial market. We have containment vessels in China, Russia, and Japan.” Joe Lingel adds that UPF is becoming more of a global player with the increase in commercial and industrial business. Bruns adds that many contributions, suggestions, and influences on products come from the end users, OEMs, their dealers, and fire apparatus service centers. They’ve included sacrificial and replaceable apparatus rub rails, emergency medical service (EMS) compartments, and other apparatus appurtenances such as tank integral and standalone slide-in storage modules for ladders.
Bruns has decades of experience in the fire service industry, including many with apparatus manufacturers. He says, “We do true custom fabrication following in the footsteps of custom fire apparatus manufacturers. If you want a quantity of mass-produced forks, we can’t help you. But, if you want a custom fork, we’re the people to do it. If someone can make it out of metal, chances are we can make it out of plastic, and it will be lighter in weight and resistant to corrosion.”
|(8) This wrecker body is typical of noncorrosive service bodies
that may exposed to the elements 24/7. (Photo courtesy of UPF.)
About the future, Joe Lingel asserts that there is a pent-up demand for product in the fire service after being down a bit. Although both Joe Lingel and Ashley comment on the increase in innovations outside of the fire service, both reiterate that the fire side was the beginning and still constitutes the majority of their business. I believe the company is living up to its corporate policy to continually improve everything it does and give its customers exactly what they expect.
BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.