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PT&P History: The First Thirty-Five Years

Index | Acknowledgements | Milestones | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Read More

Chapter 2: Developing a Business: 1979-81

Innovation and customer service enabled PT&P to carve out a niche in the pipe support industry.
The development of the "Big Ton" provides an interesting illustration of this. Andre Hydel of
Total Petroleum contacted PT&P and asked for a way to support a large vessel that would be
both stable and economical. Ben Tatum and Randy Bailey responded by designing the big ton,
essentially a table atop muscle springs. Total Petroleum was so pleased with the design that
they gave more business  to PT&P and found other uses for the Big Ton.

"Well, I think the story of the bolted design for variable spring hangers is a very significant milestone and so that's a story that needs to be told. Even after the idea hit [Durga Agrawal], it probably took him a while to implement it. And then, it took him a while to realize that it wasn't just a quality improvement, it was a way to build a different kind of manufacturing system which had a real competitive edge." Ben Rhodes, Vice President of Piping Technology & Products, is among the many PT&P officials who believe that Durga Agrawal's bolted design spring hanger has been one of the most important factors in the company's overall success. Agrawal's revolutionary new design substantially improved the quality and durability of the product, but more importantly, his concept of using interchangeable parts and mass production techniques gave PT&P a competitive edge that the company's rivals found very difficult to overcome. The bolted design spring hanger turned out to be Agrawal's ace-in-the-hole during company's formative years. It allowed him to produce this crucial, high-demand product at a much lower cost than his competitors. Consequently, as PT&P became better known to the major engineering and construction companies, Agrawal's team was able to submit competitive bids and win many of the most lucrative contracts during the late 1970s and early 1980s. These jobs made PT&P a contributor to some of the most prestigious and significant construction projects of the era.

While increasing the flow of business brought a corresponding increase in the company's revenues, it also brought a wave of growing pains that challenged the resourcefulness of the entire staff. The rapid pace of business rarely left enough time to sit down and work out a growth strategy. PT&P's strategic growth plan essentially was to keep booking orders and deal with the exigencies individually as they came along.

While they may not have developed a formal growth plan, Agrawal and his team refused to be overwhelmed by the tasks and challenges of a very competitive marketplace. In this way, more by process than by design, PT&P grew into a major supplier of pipe supports and related products. All of this did not just happen, of course, but in meeting the challenges and crises that ultimately face most small businesses, PT&P took advantage of the booming economy to augment its share of the market and in the process, reinvented itself as a viable business organization.

The first crucial step was to create a niche for the company in the piping industry. For PT&P, this meant finding ways to improve the quality of key products and provide faster and better service to customers than the competition. Second, the company had to hire additional personnel, both in the shop and in the front office, qualified people who could organize the various functions of the business and keep the company growing and maturing as a reliable manufacturer of pipe supports and products. Third, PT&P had to purchase equipment to expand its manufacturing capabilities.

An early version of the Bolted Spring Hanger

All of these developmental steps took place more or less simultaneously. One of the first and clearly most significant steps involved the development of a new kind of engineered spring hanger. This product helped PT&P in its quest to carve out a specialized niche and compete effectively with older more established firms. The bolted spring hanger became one of the company's most important products and a mainstay of the PT&P catalog. As the name suggests, a spring hanger is a device used to suspend piping, to hang it from steel beams in a manufacturing plant, refinery, or other location. Each spring support is individually calibrated to the various pipe loads and movements specified. During the early 1970s, spring hangers were "like gold" to piping engineers, in part because of their vital role in the piping system, but also because they took a painfully long time to manufacture. Orders for spring hangers required a "lead time" of as long as six to eight weeks, because they had to be customized to meet the buyers' specifications and then individually manufactured. This meant that customers had to place orders weeks ahead of the time they were needed so that the installation of the piping could go ahead on schedule. Delays caused by tardy delivery of spring hangers meant that the piping could not be installed and this often caused entire projects to fall behind schedule.

The manufacturing and assembly processes were difficult and very labor intensive. Frequently, special coil springs had to be ordered to meet specifications that required certain sizes and spring rates. In addition, other materials for the rest of the spring hanger assembly had to be purchased and brought in. To fight corrosion, purchase orders usually specified a hot dip galvanizing treatment for spring hangers. That meant that that the canister or can had to be built, sent out to be galvanized, and then returned to the shop for final assembly. This too was a time consuming and tedious process. To install the coil spring inside the can, the spring  had to be compressed in a hydraulic press with a load ranging from 50 to 50,000 pounds. A welder would actually weld the end of the can shut while the spring coil was held compressed. But this process created a new problem. Although it was not apparent during the assembly, by welding the pieces after they had been galvanized, the welder actually burned the galvanizing off, which made it susceptible to corrosion again. Randy Bailey noted that, "When you welded it shut after it was galvanized, it always corroded later. It always rusted at that spot…everybody did it that way." The welding created another problem that could not be seen by quality control personnel. The coil springs were coated with neoprene to prevent corrosion and the subsequent failure of the spring hanger. The welding process frequently melted or otherwise damaged the thin neoprene coating on the springs inside the canisters.

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