Unbeknownst to many, Nebraska has more miles of rivers than any other state in the country. At the confluence of two of its biggest is Columbus, Neb., located in the eastern part of the state. Thanks to the bounty afforded by the two rivers, Columbus has a rich history founded on western expansion and agriculture. Later, manufacturing surged due to an abundance of low-cost hydroelectric power.
Some of the largest manufacturing companies in the area include Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland and Behlen Mfg. Co., the latter of which has been operating in Columbus since 1936. Founded by Walt Behlen, the company started small, making steel-toe caps for wooden shoes and a metal device to secure the lids of egg shipping cases. In the 1940s, Walt’s brothers, Mike and Gib, joined the business and expanded the product mix, introducing corncribs that incorporated galvanized steel rods in their design.
Thirty years later, without a succession plan, the brothers sold their successful business to Wickes Corp., which owned it until 1984 when a group of four gentlemen, TR Raimondo, Steve McGill, Bob Theilen and Dick Casey, purchased it through a leveraged management buyout. Since then, it has been locally owned and operated – a 35-year celebration of the rich history of Columbus and its residents.
Although the company is still grounded in the local entrepreneurial spirit of its original owners, Behlen doesn’t quite look like it once did. Today, it boasts an 850,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility at its headquarters in Columbus, three major business units, more than 950 partners in progress (employees) and an impressive mix of equipment to fabricate the many products that it sells locally and worldwide.
The company’s largest business unit is Behlen Country, which produces stock tanks for cattle, gates for farms and hobby farmers, and cattle handling equipment like the type found at local Tractor Supply stores. Second in line is Behlen Buildings, which constructs everything from farm buildings and car dealerships to soccer complexes and airplane hangars and even churches. The International Diversified Products unit makes and sells grain bins as well as stitching presses for steel service centers and steel mills, among other products.
“Unlike the company’s other three business units, the company’s Custom Fabrication unit, which is part of the International Diversified Products business unit, does not sell an end product,” says Heather Macholan, general manager of Custom Fabrication. “Instead, the company partners with customers to produce products that they may not be able to fabricate themselves.”
Serving a range of industries, including telecommunications, transportation, construction, agricultural and commercial turf care, the business unit has fabricated more than 1,000 different components for customers in quantities ranging from one-offs to orders in the thousands.
To deliver on its customers’ requests, the unit’s equipment mix includes some of the most sophisticated machines on the market, including flat-bed fiber and CO2 laser cutters, robotic welders and high-definition plasma systems. The equipment list also includes two tube and pipe laser cutting systems from BLM Group USA Corp.
Preparing to grow
Throughout the years, the Behlen reputation has been based on the high quality the company delivers to customers. Phil Raimondo, chairman and CEO of Behlen, says, however, that customer retention goes beyond quality.
“We work really hard to make sure that we’re taking care of customer needs,” Raimondo says. “We believe that quality also includes on-time, complete delivery that’s right the first time. Although it’s hard to anticipate customer needs, we’ve found that forging close relationships is the key to being ready for their needs going into the future.”
A prime example of the company’s commitment to customer needs is its investment in new equipment. In 2012, Behlen purchased an LT8 Lasertube CO2 laser cutter from BLM Group based on one of its customer’s growing demands.
Because of the amount of tube and pipe that needed to be processed for the orders, Behlen had to saw some of it and also outsource some of it for laser processing. The team at Behlen quickly recognized that customer needs were growing and that they would need to bring those operations in-house.
“The LT8 may have been a little bit more that we needed at the time, but we knew the customer was growing, and so were we,” Macholan explains. “We looked at other tube and pipe laser cutting machine manufacturers, but ultimately chose BLM because of the technology, features and service they offered. Other manufacturers in our area also had BLM equipment, so we knew that if we had issues that there was someone that serviced our area.”
When it came time to invest in a second machine, the LT7 Lasertube fiber laser cutter, BLM was again the clear choice. In addition to a reduction in consumables, a reduction of required maintenance and the increased cutting speeds offered with fiber laser technology, company staff was already familiar with the brand.
“We needed additional capacity and, in some cuts, we were able to reduce processing times by 50 percent,” Macholan says. “We also chose the fiber machine based on having capabilities similar to our CO2 tube cutter. It’s an incredibly sophisticated machine, but it was a simple transition from the CO2 for our operators and maintenance team.”
In terms of its sophistication, the LT7 offers the utmost in 3-D cutting and automation. For the team at Behlen, the machine’s front loader and auto-focus are the largest advantages of the LT7 over the LT8.
With the machine’s tube loader, operators can work independently, loading one or several bars on the fly. Profiles can be loaded from the front or rear side of the machine and finished parts are separated from scrap once the cut has been completed. From there, the LT7 reconfigures itself for the next production cycle. This includes the loader, rear spindle, front bezel and intermediate supporters all reorienting for the next cutting job without the need for operator intervention.
The laser cutting head also delivers sophisticated operations, including auto-focus and auto-tilt for enhanced 3-D capabilities, which are a must at Behlen, considering the large amount of beveled edges the company cuts into stock material. The LT7’s auto-focus, referred to as Active Focus, delivers dynamic control of the cutting head’s focus position despite changes of material and wall thickness. BLM’s Active Piercing is also pivotal for increasing productivity when processing thick-walled tubes.
Additional features include Active Marking, which allows for easy marking and etching, and Active Scan, which compensates for errors that may emerge from irregularly shaped or bowed tubes. The technology prevents positioning errors even if a tube is misshaped or seemingly not rigid enough for processing.
All of these features enable Behlen to increase throughput and accuracy, ultimately allowing it to react quickly to customer requests of any kind. Macholan considers this essential in a time when many of the company’s customers are seeing unprecedented growth.
“Some of the biggest challenges we experience include delivering on quick turnover times,” she explains. “A good example is in the telecommunications industry, which is growing at a huge rate due to the 5G movement. Given the rate at which some of our customers’ businesses are growing, we could never service them in a timely manner by manually sawing material or outsourcing it the way we did in the past.”
Beyond the in-house benefits afforded by the new fiber laser, Behlen customers are also taking advantage of the engineering benefits that may be realized. New ideas are already being considered by many of the company’s customers, including those in the telecommunications industry.
“They’re thinking outside of the box,” Macholan says. “The fiber laser is opening their eyes to new ways of approaching engineering and design. It’s even inspired the use of new materials. With the push for 5G, there is the possibility of adding more tubes to the design in place of historically used materials, such as angle iron.”
Truly, an investment in any equipment that services the needs of today as well as tomorrow is a smart move for any business. But for a business that has been in operation for as long as Behlen, it helps to secure its success for many years if not decades to come.