When employees put their name on a plaque and attach it to the product they manufacture, they are demonstrating their commitment to the product’s quality. “There’s a huge amount of pride and ownership of the product,” Ariel Corp. President Karen Buchwald Wright emphasizes. “People take that very seriously, and it’s really pretty cool.”
Ariel is the worldwide leading manufacturer of separable reciprocating gas compressors, ranging in size from 100 to 10,000 horsepower. These compressors are used in the upstream, midstream and downstream industries. “From the wellhead to the burner tip, Ariel equals compression,” Wright explains.
A typical application for an Ariel compressor would be at the wellhead for gas gathering. More compression would be needed at a central collecting point or gas treatment plant, where multiple wells feed into a higher-pressure sales gas pipeline. Additional larger compressors would be used on the pipeline itself.
At other locations, the natural gas might be placed in underground storage for later use, or possibly re-injected into a formation for enhanced oil recovery. Ariel compressors are driven by a variety of prime movers or drivers, typically natural gas-fired engines, electric motors or gas-fired turbines.
Ariel is also involved in the compressed natural gas (CNG) market. CNG can be used as fuel in internal combustion engines that have been converted for dual fuel (diesel and CNG) or dedicated CNG service. These vehicles use on-board storage tanks containing natural gas that has been compressed to approximately 3,600 pounds per square inch (psi). Ariel compressors are used in a variety of CNG applications. Smaller units are used at the public service-station level for cars, while larger models are used at the fleet level for fueling transit and school buses as well as refuse and delivery trucks.
The boom in shale oil and gas production has resulted in higher demand for Ariel compressors, which are used in the gathering, processing and transportation of the produced gas. With the recent advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques, the shale oil and gas can be produced economically. This type of production is growing, so the reciprocating gas compressor business is experiencing a boom.
Ariel does not sell directly to oil and gas companies but rather through a network of highly skilled distributors. “Our distributors are our channels to the marketplace,” Wright says. “They combine our compressors with drivers, piping, skidding and controls to build the compression package. These completed systems are shipped globally. In light of the growing international marketplace, we’re in the process of developing distribution in virtually every part of the world where oil and gas is plentiful.”
Brazil, Russia, India and China – the BRIC countries – are where most of the opportunities are, Wright remarks. “These are growing economies with a great thirst for energy, and they are actively developing their energy infrastructure,” she asserts. “The opportunities range from gathering systems and oil and gas processing facilities to gas-fired power plants and refineries. The BRIC countries don’t have the energy infrastructure that we’ve had in place for a long time. So what we’re seeing is that those areas are going to develop at a much faster pace than we did here in North America. For this reason, we have Ariel people on the ground in the BRIC countries creating opportunities utilizing our global distribution network.”
A complicating factor in the international market is the high participation by those countries’ governments in their natural resource industries. Wright estimates that 90 percent of the oil and gas in the United States is produced by independent companies, unlike other countries that are dominated by their national oil companies. “It is very different from the United States and makes gauging the true market potential difficult,” she points out. “You’re dealing with government entities that are not telling anyone what their true market size is.”
Compressor manufacturing is complex and cannot be done in a cookie-cutter method, Wright emphasizes. All of Ariel’s compressors are built to order and seldom are any two configured exactly the same. The number of cylinders varies from one to nine or more and there are 19 distinct frames from which to choose.
“Our product line is the most comprehensive in the world,” Wright asserts. “We’re also the largest manufacturer of separable reciprocating gas compressors in the world. We have shipped over 37,000 compressors and 140,000 cylinders since 1966, with nearly 65 percent of these shipped in the last 15 years. We’re also one of the largest manufacturing companies in Ohio, employing in excess of 1,200 people.”
Ariel does not just assemble compressors – it manufactures them from raw materials and rough castings. For example, one of Ariel’s Mount Vernon facilities forges, rough cuts and finish machines crankshafts for the compressors. The company buys all of its forging and castings from domestic foundries, the majority of which are located in Ohio. “We have very long-term partnerships with them – that’s our lifeblood,” Wright says.
“The materials are received and inspected at one end of the plant, and the finished compressors come out the other end – in the middle, a lot of stuff happens,” Wright jokes. “All of our compressors are hand-assembled by teams, just like a Ferrari. The small and midline units use two-man teams, while the large line products are built by teams of three or more. Everything we do here is all about longevity. We don’t really have an expected lifespan for the compressors because many we’ve built in the last 45 years are still in operation. These are capital goods built to last, and will run for decades with the proper care and maintenance.”
Ariel Corp. uses cell manufacturing techniques to produce each component of the compressor, such as the frames, cylinders and small and large turned parts. “The beauty of this system is that the cell basically owns that product, and they determine how it flows, and who’s responsible to do what,” she explains. “They cover for each other – we have 24/7 operations, so it’s a constant transfer of shifts from the day to the night and from the week to the weekend. When the product comes out of the cell, they’re responsible for the quality of that product. Every single person in the facility understands this basic concept and does everything in their power to make sure that the quality is absolutely perfect.”
Each compressor is tested for at least four hours with a special startup oil and then inspected. After the mechanical inspector approves a compressor, he puts a metal nameplate with his name on it, which stays with it for life. “With any of our compressors in the world, one can tell who performed the final inspection,” Wright asserts. The compressors also are stamped with the initials of the person who made it. “There is tremendous ownership and pride in what they do,” she stresses. “They are very highly skilled and proud of the product they help to produce.”
The manufacturing processes at Ariel Corp.’s nine facilities in Ohio – which combined measure in excess of 750,000 square feet – are always being revised. “It never looks the same whenever I go out in the plant,” Wright asserts. “We’re continuously improving material and product flow, updating and substituting something new for the old.”
The company has followed lean manufacturing principles and similar workflow improvement concepts for years. “I would say on average we spend $15 million to $25 million a year on capital improvements,” Wright estimates. Ariel Corp. just added two more facilities to the three in Mount Vernon and four in Akron, Ohio. All of the compressors and their components are manufactured in the United States, she stresses.
Currently, Ariel Corp. is building an automated compressor washing system to prepare the completed units for the final application of paint. This system will dramatically reduce cleaning time and produce a more consistent final finish. All of Ariel’s paint booths are state-of-the-art and were designed by its own in-house engineering, manufacturing and maintenance employees.
“Our maintenance department is staffed by highly skilled computer and electronic technicians,” Wright emphasizes. “They install and maintain the company’s hundred-plus CNC machine tools and keep the well-lit and air-conditioned plants operating at near 100-percent availability.”
Ariel Corp. was founded in 1966 by Wright’s father, Jim Buchwald, who at 83 still participates in the family owned and managed business. “He mentors our young design engineers, which is really great,” Wright notes. Her oldest of four sons will start in the business this year after working for Caterpillar and Compressor Systems Inc. – Australia for the last seven years to learn the industry.
Wright studied wildlife research in college but ended up joining the company in 1980. “I just learned the business through experience,” she explains. “I really wasn’t planning on running it, but it just sort of turned out that way. I worked part-time some of those years while raising four sons.”
She emphasizes that having her sons work elsewhere before coming home to Ariel was done purposely. “One of the things I’ve noticed about family businesses is oftentimes they bring the children in without having them work any other jobs, and they don’t have the credibility, they don’t have experience, and they don’t know what it’s like to be an employee,” she declares. “So all of my sons who will join the business will be working elsewhere first.” That will preserve the company’s total focus on quality and longevity, and its philosophy, which Wright describes as, “It’s not making the sale – it’s what you do after the sale.
“If it says ‘Ariel’ on it and it’s been in the field for 30 years, we’re still going to make sure it will work,” she stresses. “If there’s a problem, we can fix it. It’s our equipment, and we want it to work. That’s a big part of our reputation and why we’re successful, because there’s this huge ownership and pride in the Ariel brand.”