PRL Spreads Its Wings
Click here to see this story as it appears in the April 2017 issue of Modern Casting.
About 200 feet down a hill from the corporate headquarters of PRL Inc. sits the historic Cornwall Iron Furnace. Designated a National Historic Landmark, Cornwall Iron Furnace helped provide arms to the Revolutionary War effort, contributing to the eventual independence of our country and battle to break free from the yoke of the British empire.
The site of the old building is a reminder of how important manufacturing was to the birth of this nation. It’s also a reminder of how important it remains today to keeping the United States safe and secure, and that’s something PRL does not take lightly.
“We’re proud of the role we play in ensuring our nation’s security, so we all take it very seriously,” said Janis Herschkowitz, president, PRL. “Our mission is to provide exceptional quality components to give our customers peace of mind. They do take pride in its safety and quality. That supersedes all else. That’s a given. Secondarily, our mission is to meet our customers’ expectation and provide that quality that our customers demand.”
PRL Inc. owns and oversees four separate facilities near the Cornwall, Pennsylvania corporate offices. It produces components mostly for the defense and nuclear industries, though it does also have commercial clients.
And those clients get help from numerous places.
There’s Regal Cast Inc., the predominantly ferrous nobake metalcasting facility that has a pouring capacity of 2-12,000 lbs. Nearby is PRL Industries Inc., a facility that performs non-destructive evaluation, including magnetic particle, liquid penetrant, hydrostatic, dimensional and radiographic testing, as well as upgrading through the grinding, welding and heat treating of high-specifications castings, forgings and fabrications. As for machining, PRL owns LTC Inc., which one facilities in Cornwall and a second just a stone’s throw away in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The Cornwall facility machines parts up to 10,000 lbs., while in Lebanon, LTC makes use of CNC technology for machining and assembly of high-tolerance components up to 2,000 lbs.
“I think one thing is that from PRL’s strategic standpoint we’ve never tried to be the jack of all trades, so we’ve tried to develop and improve upon our niche of high-specification castings,” Herschkowitz said.
PRL takes pride in the diversity it provides to its customers. If a customer wants, they can have the various companies cast, test and upgrade, and then machine a part. Or, a customer can request one service for a part that’s been cast elsewhere. The four wings of the business aren’t captive, though they predominately work on components from their sister companies.
In short, the structure could lead to confusion and errors. But it doesn’t, and Herschkowitz knows why. When she talks about her staff, she knowingly borrows a slogan the PGA Tour has used to promote its players.
“These guys are good,” she said, smiling proudly.
“We’re blessed to have such a dedicated and skilled group of co-workers and they are the ones responsible for making PRL what it is today.”
Going in Backwards
PRL was not originally in the metalcasting business. It had already established the testing and upgrade facility and acquired the machining plants. In 1989, Janis Herschkowitz took over as the company’s president after her father, Erwin, died. In that same year, she established Regal Cast, allowing PRL to become fully integrated and provide fully upgraded, finished machined castings to go along with its other offerings.
Today, Herschkowitz laughs when she’s reminded how PRL went about building and diversifying somewhat backwards. Usually, metalcasting is not added to an established organization but instead serves as the foundation.
That is not what happened with PRL, but an early decision paved the way for a strong casting operation.
When Regal Cast was established, the company installed an Argon Oxygen Decarburization (AOD) vessel. The AOD refines metal, and PRL believes that Regal Cast is the smallest metalcaster in the world that has one of these vessels.
That nugget aside, the AOD gives Regal Cast distinct advantages. The AOD cleans and optimizes the metal, allowing larger castings to be poured. Regal Cast can melt up to 18,200 lbs. with the vessel at its largest capacity.
“The largest capacity vessel we have now is a 7-metric ton vessel. That has grown over the years. We have several 5-ton vessels also,” said Greg Raudenbush, director of technical operations, Regal Cast. “The advantage of the AOD is being able to refine your material and be able to re-use your returns, clean those up, utilize those again, and to build your bath to the size that you need in order to pour larger castings.”
Recently, Regal Cast added a new PLC server to the AOD system. What that does is help the operator of the AOD better understand how to control gases and make metal additions based on chemistries after the lab analysis, and assists with controlling slag chemistries. Regal Cast’s slags are calcium oxide, aluminum oxide and magnesium oxide, which is intentional to build a slag layer over the top of the molten metal.
“It just helps the operator control those things better,” Raudenbush said of the PLC.
Independent But Together
Regal Cast is just one part of what PRL does. But just because it pours metal does not mean it stays away from the rest of the business. Interactions are frequent.
“We have good people. Without them we would not be where we are today,” Raudenbush said. “The way I look at things is I like to break a complex process down into simple steps, and doing those very well. Everything else takes care of itself.”
Raudenbush makes it sound easy, and maybe it is for PRL. That ease, however, would not be possible if not for communication.
Workers from each facility meet every week, and meetings about specific customers are common. The communication lines are never closed, and they run from one facility to the next.
“It is complicated,” said Christopher Hess, the plant manager for the LTC machine shop in Cornwall, which is steps from the corporate office. “We keep the communication lines open and bring things up as soon as we see an issue, and just to make sure everybody’s on the same page we circulate reports. Every facility does a weekly report that gets circulated around through email. Certainly it’s a challenge but we’re doing it.”
Technology is helping.
“The thing we’ve started to utilize all the way down to the shop floor are tablets. Tablets have become very big,” Raudenbush said. “They run into a casting issue at PRL and the shop foreman snaps a picture, boom, we can have that picture in seconds. It’s instantaneous feedback from the shop level as opposed to taking weeks or a month. It’s the same day that we can be reactive quickly and then actually start to get proactive on that same part.”
That quick response helps in all sectors of the company, each of them facing their own challenges. Hess, for example, deals with government contracts with 18-month lead-ins. He has to hold dates for those products, while working on other commitments. Dan Bailor, the plant manager at LTC in Lebanon, has to keep his plant nimble enough to machine castings that weigh anywhere from 2-2,000 lbs. quickly.
“As far as handling, those are two largely different sizes and they have to be handled differently,” Bailor said. “The expertise that we have here, we have the ability to go from the castings that weigh ounces to the castings that weigh a ton.”
Over at PRL Industries, Level III, RT manager Randall A. Jacobs’ department is responsible for the X-ray inspection of components, ones that were and were not produced by a sister facility. In addition to the industry standard film system, PRL utilizes computed radiography (CR), in which a phosphorus imaging plate is used to capture the image undergoing radiography.
“It is a tremendous asset for us to use computed radiography when we can,” Jacobs said. “Not only does it save us on consumables, because imaging plates are reusable, but it also helps reduce turnaround time, and relay important information directly to the foundry.”
Herschkowitz’s description of the culture isn’t a surprise. It matches what Raudenbush and his colleagues said.
“I would describe our corporate culture as highly specialized. Because we have the different locations, Regal Cast can focus on pouring the highest-quality casting they can. PRL Industries can focus on non-destructive testing and upgrading the components properly to the numerous different specifications, and the machine shops can focus on machining to the exact dimensions,” she said. “Having said that, the key to the success is that they’re not silos. There’s interaction between them.
“They can specialize on what they do best but we also have a team atmosphere where they can all discuss what needs to be discussed to make it work.”