Heavy metal with a human touch
Heavy industry doesn't come much heavier in Portland than Gunderson.
The long, grey factory alongside the Willamette in Northwest Portland has been churning out machinery for 98 years now, from trailers to barges to railcars. And while the plant itself may look traditional — workers eat their lunches in the parking lot, taking a break from the clanking and droning of the work that goes on — Gunderson is dynamic. The company is doing its best to keep up with the times.
For a start, it has robots.
In the raw, noisy plant, most of the welding is being done by hunched figures in masks that have respirators to clear away the fumes. As project manager Fred LaCapra pointed out, 17 different languages are spoken in the factory.
However, up the line there is a robotic cutter on a beam. It works its way down a long sheet of steel, cutting out panels as a dressmaker might cut fabric.
In another area, four yellow robotic arms are perched over a long piece of metal which is the side of a railcar. Three of them are welding away, with barely a spark coming from their bright white glow. The fourth slowly moves its tip around the pieces it is about to weld, inch by inch. LaCapra explains that it is checking that everything is in the right place before it starts.
"Welding robots can track seams now using voltage," Mark Eitzen, senior VP and General Manager of Gunderson, told the Business Tribune enthusiastically, sitting in a conference room at the Front Avenue location as freight trains trundled by.
"It's like your cell phone, the technology just keeps getting smarter and cheaper. A robotic arm now costs $120,000 to $150,000. The fully burdened cost of an employee, well you're looking at $70,000 to $80,000. And a robot can work all day and night."
The smart robots can measure changes in the voltage to sense when a seam is getting wider, and put out more power accordingly to make the weld work. They can weld an S curve using sensors rather than programming.
It's what a human does as learned behavior, but perhaps without the same reliability.
Robots versus humans
Automation isn't just robots. They are used for stacking piles of steel. There is a 12-foot wide AccuPress metal press which goes up to five tons. "Clearly having a robot's hands in that environment is better than having human hands," he says.
The barge and railcar businesses have been very late to automation compared to the automotive industry.
"We started our automation journey about five years ago," says Eitzen. He says it not just about reducing headcount. "We were really starting to invest in the automation side to lower our costs and improve our competitive position."
Automation has gone farthest with the stack cars, or the double stacks, which hold two containers, one on top of the other.
"Before tank cars, that was our bread and butter," he says.
Robot welders make small parts for the double stacks, and they weld the sides. By December, robots will also be building the end units or bolsters, instead of the company buying them from Mexico or China.
So, part of automation is about bringing jobs back home to the U.S. — although they are mostly jobs for robots and the few people who run them. Like Nike's knitted shoe manufacturing, it means laying off people overseas and replacing them with machines on American soil.
The human-robot symbiosis is perched delicately at Gunderson.
Asked if there is maximum number of robots and minimum number of human welders, Eitzen says "Probably, but we're a long ways off."
He adds that it takes welders to run a robot properly. They can check the work, they know how molten steel is supposed to lay.
"It helps having a welding background, and knowing the parameters. It's better than hiring someone off the street with a computer science degree and teaching them how to weld."
Humans seem to have the edge with quality and motivation, but robots are catching up. The older welding robots had to have everything exactly in place or they would mess up. Newer ones are smart enough to adjust.
However, he stresses, "Welders are artists, and working with their hands is an art form. They think of themselves that way. They have pride in their work, making things that last for 50 years."
But as he said, robots can work 24/7.
"We look for where we can improve safety and get the most bang for our buck."
The steel plate that becomes the hull of an oil tanker barge or a rail car enters the plant on flatbed trucks or on railcars themselves. (Tracks still run through the property, just as they do in part of Northwest Portland.) Most of it comes from Evraz up the road, the former Oregon Steel Mills. Gunderson sells its scrap back to Schnitzer Steel, which sells it back to Evraz to make into ingots and wire.
What the workers do — human and robot alike — is not that different from what a tailor does, or a kid making a craft from popsicle sticks and hot glue. They cut metal sheets into small pieces and stick them together, forming curves and ridges and bigger parts. The barges are made in sections and a giant double crane maneuvers them into place on the dock where they are finally joined together, again by welds and rivets, and launched sideways into the river. One barge went out on Aug. 21, at the 4 p.m. high tide, without much ceremony and no media attention.
Gunderson makes around six barges a year. Articulated tug-barges are barges where the tug fits into a notch at the stern. While a barge being towed can usually do 8 to 9 knots, a ship does about 20 knots. An ATB can do 16 knots. The capital cost is two thirds that of a ship, and the operating costs are even lower.
This is the kind of barge that Zidell Marine was making in the South Waterfront until it closed in May. Eitzen says the end of Zidell didn't make much difference to Gunderson. Zidell was only making one barge per year, and they had a size limit because of the size of their building.
"They were always a friendly competitor," says Jack Isselmann, spokesperson for the Greenbrier Companies, based in Lake Oswego. "We're hiring some of their people now." Many of Zidell's three dozen long-term barge builders took severance and had the summer off.
"They've taken a break but a lot contacted us. The fishing's been good, God bless 'em," he says.
Hiring experienced workers is a rare bonus. Portland just doesn't have the pool of talent of the mid-west and gulf states. So they do their own training.
Gunderson can train a welder in eight to 12 weeks and get them started on the floor. They don't need community college certificates. "Some math is good, we teach them to read blueprints," says Eitzen. "They don't need to come in with skills, we teach them."
"Reading a clock is one of the more important skills," adds Isselmann. "Being able to get here on time."
Welders are no longer all burly men.
"We don't want people lifting heavy things. There's a limit of 50 pounds. And we do a lot of recruiting with Oregon Tradeswomen."
They also visited 60 high schools this year to interest kids in joining the firm. Those chosen could work after school at Gunderson, when they might have been at McDonald's. They were paid, trained, and got a $500 bonus for graduating and $500 for taking a permanent job.
Seventy of the 200 people they hired this year came through the school program.
Marine versus rail
While marine is going gangbusters, the rail car industry is "soft" right now, according to Eitzen. North America is one large geography. Trains can cross from Canada to Mexico on the same gauge with great efficiency. In much of the rest of the world, including Europe, gauges vary, trains have to be constantly switched, and most freight goes by road. Europe requires about 2,000 new rail cars per year. North America was building 70,000 to 80,000 at its peak three years ago. Now that's down to 30,000 to 40,000.
Greenbrier builds rail cars in Poland and ships them by barge to Saudi Arabia, but emerging markets are small and competitive. China and Russia have their own giant rail networks and tend to buy local, but China is trying to get a foothold in the U.S.
The glory days of energy cars (or tank cars) were just a few years ago when fracking peaked. Every tank car needed two hopper cars for the sand used in fracking. The tank market slumped with energy prices, but then a new opportunity arose.
"After the terrible tragedy in Quebec in 2013 we knew we had to assert leadership," says Isselmann, referring to the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster of 2013 when a runaway oil train exploded and killed 47 people and sent a tsunami of burning oil through the downtown sewers.
"The design of tank cars had been the scene of internecine debate, so we decided it was time to push through and get regulations adopted."
The Greenbrier Companies' chief engineer Greg Saxton is a member of the American Association of Railroads committee on tank cars.
"We make a lot of contributions to the advancement of the industry," says Isselmann.
The mandated new tank car design has thicker steel, a jacket and protections for the upper and lower fittings so they don't sheer off in a crash. Of course, Greenbrier and Gunderson get to make thousands of tank cars to fill the new need as the old tanks are phased out.
This leadership may or may not have been a factor when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is trying to diversify its economy and has built a freight rail network on American standards, ordered 1,200 rail cars.
"Whether the Saudis observed that, I don't know, but I like to think in staking out a leadership position we established a reputation for safety and quality that was attractive to them."
Crude oil and ethanol travel in general purpose tank cars. The Saudis, who have huge mineral deposits, want them for molten sulphur.
Gunderson's engineering team is based along Front Avenue too. Another of its hits was the Multi-Max car. Auto transporters used to have either two or three shelves for carrying different height cars. The Multi-Max has shelves that can be moved, making them convertible.
"That's been a nice market for us as auto sales have done well," says Eitzen.
Gunderson makes a line of FDA approved, food-grade refrigerated cars, which are mostly used for moving west coast beer and wine east. These take longer to make and are more complex than a painted steel frame. The gleaming white boxes receive special attention in the smokey plant. All cars receive a final inspection and grade and the purchase signs for them on the lot outside. After that they trundle off.
Rail cars typically last 50 years, with an overhaul after 20 years.
Eitzen says they track the market by looking at velocity, which suggests whether more or fewer cars are needed.
As for a job, he recommends it. "It's hard work, it's outdoors, labor intensive. This is not a hospital environment, but it's better than the factories in the Gulf (of Mexico)."
Why is that?
"We have standards, we're a global company, a socially responsible company. We're based in Portland, Oregon so we do things the right way."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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