[ By ROD ZOOK ]
HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Last Wednesday was National Manufacturing Day. It was a chance for local and national companies to show off what they offer. It was also a chance to show what they are looking for in an ever-shrinking workforce.
One of those companies is Superior Boiler Works. The company is in a unique situation compared to most manufacturers. That’s because Superior Boiler Works still relies heavily on non-computer controlled welding. Many of the components on the products the company makes are hand welded. The need for such skilled labor is great.
“It’s very important,” Mokhtar Matallah with Superior said. “It’s very hard to find skilled people nowadays. We’ve got a lot of people that we spend time training and then they move on to other places.”
Matallah says the company is continuously working with Hutchinson Community College to find the necessary welders for the various jobs.
The making of boilers is a long and complex task. Taking a solid sheet of steel and fabricating it into a finished product takes dozens of steps. The first is to build the pressure vessel, which is the main part of the boiler. That is done with a rolling machine that can roll a steel plate in a matter of minutes.
Next to it in the plant, an automated plasma cutter is cutting various components for various orders. Each boiler has its own order book that gives full details and instructions on how it will be built. Each step is signed off by the welder or worker performing the task. Each boiler is stamped with the employee’s mark.
From there, each boiler moves to initial assembly. Each has its own unique design. That is why the company must hand weld numerous components, from connections to holding points to pipe fittings. Such work can’t be done by a computer or automated system because no tow orders are alike, according to Matallah.
Once the vessel components are assembled, the entire vessel is put in a giant oven and heated to 1,100 degrees. This evens out the stress points throughout the entire vessel. “When you’re welding and forming (steel) there are residual stresses that are harmful,” Matallah said. “This gets rid of the stress.”
Once the vessel is finished, it moves across the street for its final assembly and painting. The boiler’s controls and valves are installed and the boiler is painted either in traditional Superior Blue or whatever the customer orders. All of the components in this area come from vendors.
The area has its own shop where any part can be made, including one-of-a-kind parts as needed. The area even has its own wood shop to build the shipping crates needed to transport orders. The shop has carts to transport parts and pieces that will be assembled in the main plant. Each has a number matching the vessel across the street.
Each boiler can take up to 12 weeks to complete and can weigh up to 60 tons. They are shipped all over the world. Superior has a strong order list, but is fighting to find the skilled labor it needs to fulfill those orders — a problem many in the industrial sector are facing.