Why First Responders Can Count on Vertically Integrated American Manufacturers
This article was first published in the January 2023 edition of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.
By Jim Stopa
A quick internet search will tell you that the average vehicle is composed of approximately 30,000 parts, sourced from thousands of suppliers around the globe.
One can only imagine how that number grows exponentially when factoring in the complexity and added content on fire apparatus and other vehicles that support first responders. This market relies on a robust supply base, and many who support this industry proudly manufacture throughout the United States.
Some of the more successful manufacturers believe the key to endurance in this unpredictable market is the use of vertical integration. The ability for a supplier or manufacturer to vertically integrate its processes guarantees efficiency in production and cuts down on delays in delivery and transportation. Those who rely heavily on assembled components from overseas and outside suppliers are finding it difficult to maintain their product pipelines.
VERTICAL INTEGRATION IS CRITICAL
As a New England-based manufacturing company with 70 years in the business and facilities encompassing more than one million square feet, Whelen Engineering is a fitting example of how vertical integration enables a more stable production process and increases reliability for customers. Whelen recognized years ago that vertical integration is more than just a part of a good business model; it is critical to success. Its strategic planning allows it to circumvent the unpredictability of the supply chain with relative ease, especially when compared with manufacturers that choose offshore processes.
“With our heavy vertical integration of engineering and manufacturing capabilities, we are able to completely control the priority of work that needs to be done across all departments to maintain and support the production of our products,” says James Whelen, senior vice president of engineering at Whelen. “Over the past year, our engineering team has modified or redesigned over 60 electrical hardware designs including changes to bills of materials, printed circuit board (PCB) schematics and layouts, and embedded code (firmware). Our in-house testing facilities and capabilities ensure we are not compromising on quality and standards, despite having to react quickly and make design changes due to the supply chain challenge,” he says. Whelen’s ability to control its destiny despite all the obstacles and shortcomings of the current supply base makes a critical difference.
IT’S ALL ABOUT RELIABILITY
When comparing suppliers, one must consider their reliability, especially considering the challenges that still exist in the supply chain today. It is important to look for a supplier that has the experience and resources to navigate difficulties and deliver the goods. When supply bases break down like they have over the past several years, manufacturers like Whelen use their vast in-house resources to ensure product pipelines remain stable for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other customers. This ability to adapt and overcome daily challenges allows control of all sides of engineering and manufacturing. Adjustments are made as necessary to continue the flow of shipments, and products get where they are needed the most.
LION, another American manufacturer focusing on vertical integration, was also able to adapt during the pandemic to continue making gear that emergency service providers, civilian responders, and militaries need to stay safe in the line of duty. “The supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 caused increased lead times and backorders of equipment required for first responders,” says Adam Hall, LION’s vice president of American sales. “Being able to reduce the impact of these shortages by being proactive in expanding our manufacturing facility and increasing workforce with increased wages and incentives was critical in enabling us to continue shipping turnout gear to the fire service.”
By being both the designer and manufacturer and not just the assembler, manufacturers like LION and Whelen can pivot and make enhancements internally to continue building products with only slight delays or interruptions to customers. Within vertically integrated companies, the operations, purchasing, and engineering teams are in constant communication, helping to make certain that production pipelines stay robust.
This tight communication among internal departments means that if purchasing determines there is a future supply chain problem with a specific part, for example, the engineering department will immediately work to find (or make) a similar part. If the component does not fit perfectly into a design, an engineering change will occur, and the necessary adjustments will be made. The redesign, qualifying, and testing of the new part is all done within the engineering department, while the manufacturing department works simultaneously to update processes and develop production testing. In a vertically integrated environment, this all happens seamlessly with little or no interruption to delivery schedules.
In Whelen’s case, by making nearly all its product components internally, it avoids many of the pitfalls that other manufacturers face. By manufacturing everything from sheet metal parts to plastic injection molded parts, electronic circuit assemblies, and printed circuit boards on site and by performing powder coating, hard coating, and vacuum metallization in-house as well, it controls the process and eliminates many of the variables that cause backlogs and delays for suppliers who rely on outsourcing to manufacture their products.
DON’T OVERLOOK SERVICE AND SUPPORT
And while the focus on new builds and new products is of paramount importance, one should not overlook the service and support a manufacturer provides after the sale. As the industry continues to sort out supply challenges and many face the end of life (EOL) of certain products, service and support continue to be of critical importance. First responders still need to keep their older apparatus on the road despite part shortages, product EOLs, and supply chain delays. In this industry, lives depend on it.
Some manufacturers recognize this fact and have plans in place to meet the demands of their customers. If an apparatus is out of service, first responders need a partner that is sensitive to their needs and able to guide them to the right solution. Some manufacturers in our industry will do that by using regional manufacturer representatives who can quickly solve customer problems without needing help from a factory that is across the country or overseas. They will have the resources, staff, and knowledge base to face challenges head on, as shown by the success those manufacturers are still achieving in today’s challenging marketplace. By choosing a flexible and vertically integrated supplier, first responders are ensuring they can keep their apparatus on the road today and in the future. They’re also helping to secure employment for a proud American workforce.
JIM STOPA worked for 48 years at Whelen Engineering, starting as an electronic technician and climbing the ladder to become an associate electrical engineer, senior electrical engineer, then chief electronic design engineer and electrical department manager, retiring in January 2022. He is credited with 22 patents and is an active participant in many standards groups, such as Society of Automotive Engineers, National Fire Protection Association, Ambulance Manufacturers Division, Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association, and Fire Department Safety Officers Association. Today, he works as a part-time consultant, writes white-paper articles, and speaks at technical conventions, educating the industry about emergency warning technologies.