NEWMAN - A local manufacturing plant plays an instrumental role in turning out precision parts that support business and industry in the United States and beyond.
Through its super-heated furnaces, ground-shaking forges and precision machine shop, Newman Flange & Fitting’s team of employees transforms raw metals into made-to-order components that help keep industry humming along.
The company has been turning out a variety of forged products at its plant in the Newman industrial area since the mid-1970s.
The methods and tools may have changed to a degree through the years, reflected Tom LeBlanc, who has been the company’s general manager for the past four years, but at its heart the craft practiced by Newman Flange & Fitting has remained unchanged.
The blacksmiths on staff do as blacksmiths have always done, LeBlanc pointed out, as they ply their trade to turn out whatever product is needed at the time.
“The concept is the same,” he shared. “We are pounding on metal and making it do what we want it to do.”
Still, LeBlanc reflected, “it is fairly unique. There are not many folks like us in the country any more. Fifty years ago there were probably a lot. There are not many people doing it like this any more.”
The company and its 50-plus employees, some of whom have worked at Newman Flange for decades and most of whom live in Gustine or Newman, manufacture a variety of items, predominantly flanges, rings, bars, cylinders and discs, LeBlanc explained.
The end users of their products are companies in the oil and gas industry, shipyards (military and commercial) and water treatment, to name a few. The company sells product internationally as well as domestically.
Distributors turn to the company to manufacture the specialized parts their clients need, LeBlanc noted, which can range from items a few inches in diameter and weighing little more than a pound to items more than four feet in diameter and tipping the scales at a ton.
“Any time you are connecting two pieces of pipe there have to be connections to make that happen,” LeBlanc pointed out.
Thirty or more different types of material are processed inside the plant, which covers a city block. The crew processes stainless steel, nickel-based alloys and corrosion-resistant alloys in a bustling, well-choreographed routine that transforms raw metal into finished product which meets the most exacting of tolerances.
Each order is documented at every step of the process, which starts with cutting a piece of metal to the required size.
“Each item we make requires a specific amount of material,” said LeBlanc.
Once cut, the block of metal will go into one of the plant’s 11 furnaces, which are heated to temperatures of up to 2,400 degrees. The metal is heated to a precise temperature, which is monitored with use of a heat-sensing gun.
“If you heat it up too much, you can damage the metal completely,” said Joe Silva of Newman, the plant’s senior employee with 40 years of service and the forge shop supervisor.
“Once it’s done, it’s done. You have to get it right the first time,” LeBlanc added.
Once a piece is properly softened by the heat, a forklift operator moves in to quickly grab the metal and take it over to one of the plant’s five massive forges. The largest of the drop hammers can deliver a blow with the force of thousands of pounds.
“The forged product is over-sized. We will take it from there and send it through the testing process to make sure the properties (of the metal) are what they are supposed to be. Then we go to the machine shop for finishing,” LeBlanc told Mattos Newspapers.
Although the quality control standards are rigorous, he added, only 1 percent to 2 percent of the pieces are rejected.
In the machine shop, some pieces are finished with computerized equipment while others go through a manual lathe process which requires a hands-on operator.
Silva and another long-time employee, Charlene Freitas of Gustine, have seen a number of changes through the years.
Silva started as a hammer assistant in an era when the employees did everything by hand.
“Today we have forklifts that grabs them and brings them out,” he said of the super-heated metals.
His job now, Silva said, is to “make sure that we’re doing the right things, using the right materials and heat numbers to make sure that the guys produce what they are supposed to. I’m here to try to make it a little easier for them.”
Safety protocols are tantamount in the plant, Silva added.
“You have to be very careful always. You can never be careful enough,” he said.
Freitas, who has worked at the plant for 31 years, said technology has streamlined the process of tracking and monitoring orders. Now, she said, the information that goes with each order is recorded and stored electronically.
The plant, she added, is certified to meet an international quality standard.
“That is like a stamp of excellence. Our customers know they can trust our quality,” Freitas noted, adding that customers often want only items manufactured by a certified facility.
LeBlanc said the employees are at the heart of the company’s success.
“We’ve got some good folks. It is not the kind of job where you can just take somebody off the street and plug them in,” he acknowledged. “It has to be a certain type of person. It is a challenging environment.”
Newman Flange is a family-owned company and strives to reflect that atmosphere, LeBlanc added. Many of its employees share close ties.
“It really is a two-city company between Gustine and Newman. A lot of people went to school together,” he reflected. “When they come to work here they are working with their neighbor or schoolmate.”