When New Hampshire Industries was looking to expand and consolidate its operations, the manufacturer found an ideal location in Claremont — a 137,000-square-foot building off River Road that was less than 10 years old and had never been occupied.
The company, which makes steel and plastic pulleys for the consumer, commercial and agricultural equipment markets, along with sprockets and stamped and machined parts, was founded in Lebanon in the 1960s and also had a manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. About a year ago, it began moving to the new manufacturing space, which gives the company about 50,000 more square feet than it had at its two locations in Lebanon and Wisconsin.
Since the move, which the company expects to be completed by year’s end, NHI has added 30 jobs, bringing the employee count to 100. Company CFO John Seaver said 30 more jobs are expected to be added in the next six months as the entire operation is consolidated in Claremont.
“We are controlling everything here, from engineering to production, as well as controlling costs,” company President John Batten said. “This building gave us the option to consolidate. We have three design engineers, a full manufacturing engineering group, we have a full tool room. So it is pretty turnkey from start to finish.”
NHI’s largest customer group is the U.S. outdoor power equipment market, including lawn mower and tractor companies. It also supplies companies that make forklifts and other material handling equipment, and elevator companies, which use pulleys to open and close the doors and to take up slack on the cables in the shaft.
“Any industry where you have the need for a belt on something round that needs to turn,” Seaver said.
Batten said the company is working to diversify so it is not solely reliant on the outdoor power equipment market, which is “very seasonal and very volatile” and tightly linked to the equally volatile housing market.
“Forklifts, elevators and agricultural markets will allow us to diversify our risk and give us more opportunity to grow,” he said.
On the production floor at the new facility, operators run a variety of complex machines. The machines can, among other operations, stamp out pulley halves from coils of steel, inject melted plastic around bearings to create a pulley, weld pulley halves together and cut steel bar with precise tolerances for shaping small hubs for pulley centers.
Each type of pulley is customized for the belt profile it is used with. Production processes and material flows depend on which of the two main pulley types are being built: idler or drive.
Batten, who has been with NHI for 24 years, said nearly 90 percent of the company’s production is idler pulleys, which were the company’s first product. Generally, idler pulleys are used to guide or apply tension to a belt that, for example, drives the blade on a lawn mower. Idler pulleys are welded or riveted together from two pulley halves with a bearing in the center.
“The sole reason it is called an idler is because it just idles,” Batten said. “The bearing lets it spin freely. That is the main purpose.”
NHI eventually began to produce heavier-duty idlers. “The larger size pulleys go in a lot of the commercial mowers landscapers use,” Batten said. “Same purpose, just bigger size, heavier duty.”
In the 1990s, NHI began producing drive pulleys, which function at the other end of the drive system.
“If you have a pulley coming off the engine on the bottom of a mower … that pulley that’s mounted to the shaft actually drives the belt,” Batten said. “That is what creates the drive of the blades or the wheels or whatever you are driving off it. So the drive and idlers fit together in the system and that is why we got into that.”
The company’s drive pulleys are made from one solid piece of steel by a machine that performs a “split form process,” Batten said.
Alex Moskalenko has been a product engineer with NHI for a little over a year. Part of his job is responding to specific design requests.
“We’ll get calls from customers who will want to know if we can do this. We’ll say give us a sketch, we’ll look at it. If we can accommodate (we will). If we can’t, we’ll suggest maybe another approach, maybe to enhance the design or make the design easier to make,” Moskalenko said.
He said the company’s advantage over larger manufacturers and foreign producers is its ability to respond to requests faster and its smaller production runs. (Chinese companies, for example, handle a lot of the high-volume pulley lines that are used in the automotive industry, where NHI does not have a presence.)
“A customer can come in and say, ‘Hey Alex, we need this or would like to try this.’ We call in a sample order,” Moskalenko said. “What makes NHI different is, if you call up and say ‘I’d like to change this diameter, I’d like to put this in,’ I’ll do some research, make a print, send it, you approve it, and then we can make 10 to 15 pieces working with the employees on the production floor. … I think that goes a long way. With a really big company, that is next to impossible.”
Making an Idler Pulley
Batten described NHI’s manufacturing operation as “complex” but only in the sense of the variation of what is made, not in the steps. “We do the same thing over and over but it is different sizes and shapes of the same types of products.”
The NHI production floor is set up to minimize movement of parts needed to turn raw steel or plastic pellets into finished products.
The first step in making an idler pulley begins at one end of the plant, where operators run coils of steel through large stamping presses. There are two presses now, but three more are being added over the next several months.
“There are different tonnage presses for different size material and different tooling,” Batten said.
“The steel comes in, in coils of steel — different shapes and sizes — like a spool of thread and is fed through these coil presses. There is a progressive die and an operation that (continues to shape) the die until it comes out as a pulley half,” Batten said. “There are people that run the machines but the machines themselves do all the work. Operator technicians watch the process to make sure nothing gets jammed or caught.”
The stamped half pulleys are next moved to the main production area and placed in bins directly across an aisle from the machine that will assemble the pulley, Batten said.
“This is our high-volume assembly area. There are eight machines and about 90 percent of our sales go through these processes,” Batten said.
“Each machine has a specific product that goes into it. All of the machines along this aisle essentially perform the same function but for varying sizes of bearings and pulleys.”
At the first machine, the identical sized stamped halves, about five inches in diameter, are dumped into a large bin at the front of the machine and are pulled onto an inclined conveyor belt. At the top of the belts, the half pulleys move onto two other moving belts that bring them down to rotating turntables. At the first table, the halves are dropped onto one of six short posts. As the machine rotates, the pulley half matches up with another revolving tool with bearings. A bearing is pressed into the pulley half, and that part continues rotating on the table until it is picked up by a tool, turned over and dropped onto the other half of the pulley, which is on a third turning table.
The machine is capable of separating the pulley halves so they move onto the rotating tools with the correct side facing up. Additionally, before the second half is put on the rotating table and pressed to complete the pulley, small pockets that look like dimples are punched into the metal as it comes off the conveyor belt. When the completed pulley is pulled off the second machine, it is welded at the dimples by the last machine, completing the process.
The pulley is not quite complete. From here, “bores” of different sizes, depending on the application for the customer, are machined by NHI and pressed in the middle of the pulley.
“The bores on idlers take a bolt,” Batten said. “From the same base pulley you might have 10 different part numbers that take a different adaptor in it. But the pulley is the same, the bearing is the same. You just press in a different size bore after.”
Some pulleys are painted and, once completed, they’re readied for shipment.
Injection Molding a Pulley
At the far end of the production area is the injection molding equipment that makes idler pulleys out of a plastic nylon. It differs from the steel pulley production in that the process requires just a few steps.
“Here we are dealing with about four part numbers,” Batten said.
Small plastics pellets get sucked from big balers through hoses above the machine and into a hopper where they are melted by both by mechanical and heat processes
Once the plastic is melted to the right consistency, it takes about 40 seconds to create the pulleys, four at a time. The operator opens a door on the machine and places four bearings on posts positioned horizontally.
“Those cavities, around the bearings, are the reverse shape of the pulley,” Batten said.
The door is closed and the injection of the plastic starts.
“You have four pulleys that are being molded,” Batten said. “All you have to start is the bearing and it starts to inject that plastic all around the bearing. And then tool pulls away.
“This is the shortest supply chain we have. Plastic comes in there, parts get molded here and they go into finished goods. It is a very lean material flow.”
Making a Bore Adaptor
A third piece of the manufacturing process is the machining of hubs, or bore adaptors, that are welded into the center of a drive pulley to accept a shaft, or pressed into an idler pulley that uses a bolt through the center.
The hubs and bore adaptors are machined from bars of steel of different diameters that are fed horizontally into machines that have different cutting tools to shave, cut and shape the steel, in addition to drilling a hole in the center for a shaft or bolt. “So it is the same thing as the coils,” Batten said. “There are different (outside diameters), different types of steel but all pretty much the same.”
“We start with a 12-foot bar that goes in at one end,” machine operator Dave Smith said. “The tool comes in and takes a profile of the part. … Different tools come in to make the hub in about 12 seconds. It can do six operations at once.”
Batten said the benefit is that all those tools are doing work at same time.
“That is a hub that goes in the center of split steel pulley.” Batten said, as the part is cut loose from the machine and drops into a bin.
Everything that is made on here is called a bore adaptor. So it adapts the bore to whatever the customer is using.
NHI’s automated processes, a full engineering department and quick turnaround times for the customer are the advantages the company uses to remain competitive with foreign producers that have lower labor costs.
“That is the supply chain the customers want,” Batten said. “We are flexible. We can ramp up or ramp down quickly to make new products. That is not the China supply chain.”