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Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022
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ULTRA CLEAN

By THOM SENZEE Contributing Reporter Ultra-clean stainless steel has been the bread-and-butter material for Chatsworth-based Fluid Line Technology Corp. for 19 years, but global competition has the firm taking a fresh look at its core business. “In the beginning, 19 years ago, customers wouldn’t buy anything but U.S.-made,” said company president and cofounder, Pete Marcilese. “But today there is a changeover. A lot of components are now made overseas, whether from Europe, or China, India, or Taiwan.” For the most part, Marcilese says, those countries and others now have the technology necessary to make the super-hygienic componentry needed by customers ranging from biotechnology firms to conventional pharmaceutical makers for the development, testing and production of medicines. Still, one factor is keeping the foreign competition at bay, at least for now. “Customers,at least our customers,need their orders yesterday,” Marcilese says. “And when you’re dealing with Taiwan, China, Europe, there’s no such thing as ‘you can have it tomorrow.'” Marcilese, who left a larger firm two decades ago to form Fluid Line with a colleague, describes his business in simple terms. “We manufacture custom-fabricated pieces,piping components, or tubing components for mostly the pharmaceutical, biotech and biopharma industries.” he says. “And because of logistics, we’ve been able to stay in business in spite of being in a high-cost labor market.” One of the company’s cornerstone business practices is rigorous tracking of where orders go, even though its sales are handled almost exclusively by distributors. Those efforts fall under the purview of marketing director, Vincent “Mitch” Mitchell, who believes in taking the company’s product line on the road to international trade shows, where, he says, customers gravitate to the Fluid Line exhibits. “Although there is kind of a gap between us and many of the customers, it’s incumbent on us to know where our products go,” Mitchell said. “So we keep a pretty big database of where everything goes and who has it.” All of Fluid Line’s metal-tubing products are ISO 9000-compliant, which means everything from materials to manufacturing processes are certified to meet a broad range of precise industry standards. “Initially these products were made in Europe,Italy, to be exact,but they didn’t conform to U.S. standards for surface finish and surface cleanness, so we began making them here,” Marcilese said. But a changing philosophy about cleaning the custom fabrications Fluid Line produces may mean storm clouds are on the horizon. “We have discussed the idea of single-use products,” Mitchell said. “The cost of the cleaning regiment for the tubing that is used in pharma can be very high. A lot of companies are now talking about one-use, disposable fluid line products.” Marcilese says new plastic materials may make it possible to create a new line of disposable tubing products for their biotech and pharmaceutical customers. But it’s not yet clear if Fluid Line Technology’s customization business would crossover into plastics. For now, the company sees no sign of a slowdown as it continues producing its line of ultra-clean, ultra-polished, advanced-materials tubing. It goes back to the adage, “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” “We have been profitable almost from the beginning,” says Marcilese, who was born in Argentina. “The challenge is to stay that way. People see the cost disparity between our product and the non-custom stuff from overseas and they say ‘why? It’s only 12 bolts.'” But, says Mitch Mitchell, customers soon realize the savings attained in the labor-intensive cleaning process required for pharmaceutical fluid lines, in which all biological material must be eliminated. “It takes longer the more joints and connections they have,” Mitchell explains. “The more customization you have, the fewer connections, and of course less cleaning costs.” Fluid Line’s labor costs range from $12 to $23 per hour for welders and polishers, plus benefits such as vacation pay and health insurance (the company pays half for employees, and allows family members to be added for an extra premium per person). “We also pay 100 percent of the employees’ pensions,” Marcilese said. He says training of experienced welders takes about five to six months before they are up to speed with the specific requirements of Fluid Line’s manufacturing processes. “The way things are welded today bears almost no resemblance to 19 years ago,” he said. “But it’s the ongoing training they get used to; they get used to seeing different pieces of which they will only ever make one.” The company has no current expansion plans, but is capable of doubling production in its current space should the need arise. “Occasionally we do have a need to bump it up, and we just work overtime,” Mitchell said. SPOTLIGHT: Fluid Line Technology Corp. Year Founded: 1989 Revenues in 2004: $2.5 million Revenues in 2007: $4 million Employees in 2004: 20 to 22 Employees in 2007: 20 to 22

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