Have it your way 4-20-98

April 20, 1998

8 Min Read
Have it your way 4-20-98

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 Editor

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 any quantity."

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 or end.

"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 content."

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 manufacturer's perspective."

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 says.

"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 says.

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 business."

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 tape.

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, Lance says.

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."

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