April 20, 1998 Design News
Have it your way
Compact Air Products Inc.
lets customers design the air cylinders they want
by Christine M. Ferrara, New Products
According to the famous quote by Henry Ford, people
at the turn of the century could have any color car
they wanted--as long as it was black.
Compact Air Products Inc., Westminster, SC, offers
the custom cylinder specifiers of today more choices.
Founded in 1976 in the back of company president Larry
Yuda's garage, the company was founded on the principle
of building a cylinder that was not low cost, but was
more functional, so the customer would not have to modify
the product to use it, or design around it, according
to vice president and SOB (son of boss, as he's called
by the company's workers), Lance Yuda.
"Most companies have a catalog full of standard
parts--take it or leave it," Lance says. "Everybody
wants little things changed, and we are willing to modify
our standard products quickly and cost-effectively in
For example, he says, with the Compactr flat-profile
pneumatic cylinder package, users can have Compact Air
mount and port on any surface, or on multiple surfaces.
Compact Air can place air inlets where specified by
the customer, and tunnel the cylinder from any point
"The parts are never 100% custom," Lance
says. "Application-specific cylinders are always
designed with standard content. The goal is that we
don't want to design something that uses zero standard
Products are not designed to be mass-produced, but
to be modular and flexible, so the company produces
small batches of parts, Lance adds.
"A lot of our competitors are people who were
in the cylinder business that started their own cylinder
company," Lance says. "Our background is from
the user's perspective rather than another cylinder
Underground beginnings. Compact Air
founder Larry Yuda worked for a large conglomerate,
and started designing part time in his basement. He
was laid off from his company, and had the capital to
finance Compact Air. The beginning was difficult, he
"At first, I was down in the basement basically
out of money. Then, one day the phone rang, and it's
never stopped," Larry says.
Larry says he originally visualized a company of 100
employees and two or three patents. He never dreamed
that his company would show a continuous growth of 20
to 25% a year, or that it would amass 25 patents.
"My dad is a very simple guy," Lance says.
"He could easily be the janitor here if you didn't
know him. He's created an incredible high-tech company,
and you would never know it by looking at him."
Along with Larry, Larry's wife, his three children,
and their spouses all work for the company. "It's
a family business," Lance says. "We're on
a first-name basis with every employee on the floor.
We're very close to our work force."
Compact Air has 200-plus workers in its employ. That's
quite a change from the beginning. For the first four
years, Larry and his son Lance were the company's only
employees. Larry adds that 60% of his employees have
been with the company between five and 15 years.
Compact Air has also seen growth in its physical size.
Every three to four years since 1979, it has broken
ground on a new expansion. The company currently resides
in a 120,000 sq ft building. "The potential for
continual growth is tremendous, especially with new
products," Larry says. "We come out with a
new product every three to five months."
Larry says one of his biggest problems is controlling
the rapid growth. "We don't want to grow too fast,"
he says. "Then we run into problems. I don't finance
my inventory. On that, we pay as we go, which is pretty
odd in the business world. But, I have to stay mindful
of the fact that I do finance new equipment and buildings."
In the company's 20th year in business,
Larry's son Lance took over the schooling of the company's
sales representatives, and the company grew 60%. The
company is going through a 115% size expansion, Larry
Sprinters. "It's a fast-moving
company," Larry says. "From day one, I've
catered to the rush without charging expedite fees."
He still works six days a week. "Not only is it
my love, it's my hobby," he says.
Larry says the company's growth seems endless. "We've
had our ups and downs, but we have a base of 6,000 to
10,000 customers, and not one of them is 10% of our
The company's claim to fame, Larry says, is its ability
to do specials quickly. "I believe in heavy inventory,"
Larry says. "The phone rings, and we say, 'We've
got it, what do you want?'"
The company's basic products are in their catalog,
with notations that modifications are welcome. Lance
says that 40 to 50% of what Compact Air sells is not
in its catalog.
"Our goal is that if we get a request for a modified
product, we have it not only responded to but quoted
in less than 24 hours," Lance says.
To help produce this fast turnaround time, Compact
Air has 30,000 examples, or precedences, of how they
have modified products to suit particular needs in the
past. The company has scanned all those files onto a
network software system. They are listed by cross-reference
in many different ways. This system allows technical
sales representatives the freedom to respond within
24 hours to most customers' requests. The company can
quote a custom actuator and not get bogged down in red
Lance adds that 10 to 15% of inquiries have no precedence.
These are sent to engineering, but because engineering
does not have to answer inquiries that do have a precedence,
the company can still usually quote on no-precedence
jobs in two days.
The attitude of the company's employees reflects this
fast pace. Larry says the general consensus is "don't
get a job that's going to take longer than three days
to do, we'll get bored. They're mad if they don't get
the new challenge."
Quick studies. Lance says that he
looks for engineers who are energetic and quick on their
feet. Two kinds of working environments exist at Compact
Air, he says. The first is product design, where members
are more traditional engineers who design the base product
and may ponder a problem for weeks at a time before
solving it. The product designers are told to create
cylinders that are easily modifiable and can be made
more than one way.
The second half is the company's modified products
group, which modifies the design group's products to
customer specifications. The modified products group
handles up to five different projects a day. Engineering
gets two days to get the production blueprints ready
and on the floor. The plant floor gets four days to
manufacture the product and get it ready for finishing.
Outside anodizing or plating services take place in
one to two days, then the custom part comes back and
gets assembled, Lance says.
Sometimes, Lance says, the company identifies an opportunity
to produce a custom cylinder in 48 hours, which is something
Compact Air does about once a month. "A company
can say to us, 'we need something today, we can't wait
your two weeks.' You can walk into that opportunity
where they have the competitor's product designed in
already, but it's not exactly what they want."
The window of opportunity is often very small.
A similar split of styles and methods resides on the
manufacturing floor. The production shop has the goal
of reducing cost by 1% every time they run the same
part, so this group tends to be conservative and traditional,
The modified products group, on the other hand, breaks
the rules occasionally to get the part out faster. "We
have a process to bypass the system called the green
tag system," Lance says. "The rules are there
for a reason; that's how we make money. However, we
have an environment where we don't have to get the president
of the company's signature on it to get it done."
This hearkens back to Larry's attitude when he started
the company. "When I worked for this big conglomerate,
I could never do it fast enough," he says. "There
must be hundreds of engineers out there facing the same
problem. I just said that if Compact Air could save
them once, I'd have a customer for life."