CHAMPION - Ohio Star Forge President and CEO William Orbach knows firsthand how hard it is to imagine a billion of anything.
So when the Champion corporation was approaching the manufacture of its billionth part, his head was spinning.
"It's an absolutely incredible number, and one we are very proud of," Orbach said of the milestone that was achieved at precisely 9:48 a.m. Wednesday inside the company's new 33,000-square-foot addition and on a brand new forging machine.
Production of the very special three-pound transmission part made for one of the "Big 3" domestic automakers was marked with celebration and memorial photos taken of operators Jamie Walker of Hartford and Slash Trimble of Warren. The event will be recognized again during an employee luncheon this week.
Thursday, Trimble and Walker were back on the deck of the massive Hatebur Hotmatic Amp 70 XL machine, alternating between the controls and visual inspection of the glowing orange forgings as they clunked through the machine at a speed of about one per second.
During the 25 years it took to hit the milestone, the speed of production increased dramatically. Company officials pointed out it took 16 years to hit a half-billion forgings, but only nine more years to manufacture the second half-billion.
Tribune Chronicle photos / R. Michael Semple
Slash Trimble of Warren, a forge operator at Ohio Star Forge Co., visually inspects a forge that was the same type as the billionth forge produced at the manufacturing plant recently.
"I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it," Orbach said with a chuckle inside the conference room of the plant that operates on a 14-acre swath of land that formerly housed part of Copperweld Steel. On the large table before him were samples of about two-dozen parts forged on the plant's five machines.
Raw materials for the forgings come in the form of 30-foot, hot-rolled steel bars that are heated to about 2,000 degrees, cut and forged into various shapes for use mostly in the automotive industry. The company has grown from its early days of manufacturing only ball bearings.
Today, other Ohio Star Forge products are used in industrial, agricultural and energy sectors, including the oil and gas industry, bridge and building construction and on things like wind mills and cell towers.
The billionth forging came about a month after the company dedicated its new machinery and $20 million investment that included the purchase of five acres of land, construction of a 33,000-square-foot building addition and the European-built machine, all in the matter of about six months.
The commitment from Japanese parent company Daido Steel allows Ohio Star Forge to significantly increase production and to forge larger products.
"To be sitting here six months after we broke ground is incredible," Orbach said, sharing credit with everyone from the parent company to individual employees in what he called a team effort.
"It was a large investment for Daido and it was a huge investment for Ohio Star Forge," Orbach said. "We did it because we did the market studies that showed the need was there. They chose to put it here because the domestic market is here. The domestic automotive market is growing. Besides that, it was because Ohio Star Forge had already established a presence. We had the skills and the network."
That includes, Orbach said, the dedication and hard work of the company's 104 employees, up from 26 at its 1988 startup. The addition of another 25 or so workers is expected in the next year as the company works through a test period and ramps up production on the new machine. The United Steel Workers shop is operated by three full-time shifts.
Growth here was not always steady, though. The company, like most industry, suffered the effects in recent years of reduced orders brought on by a struggling automotive industry and tough economy. It was in the late 2000s that the company pared down operations to just one shift of workers operating two forging machines two weeks a month.
"We don't want to put our people through that again," Orbach said. "We have to protect the business."
And that, Orbach said, will be done with quality parts and good customer service in expanded markets.
Carl Paglia, Ohio Star Forge's director of sales and business development, agreed, noting the importance of diversification.
"Now we have room to grow," Paglia said, as he stood in the plant's new addition. "I think as the time comes, we will investigate different opportunities to see what's the best way to grow and continue to diversify. Now we are at the point where we are asking, 'Where's the new market? Where's our niche?'"
"We try to be the best we can be in all aspects price, quality, cost, delivery. Those things have helped us grow," Orbach said. "I don't want to be the largest, but we are really working towards being the best."