It’s all about what you know
Process-equipment markets aren’t dominated by their major suppliers the way some other markets are. Take industrial automation or software for example. There, vendors consolidate into a handful of global players not long after new product lines are launched.
In the mechanically driven markets, however, small and mid-size providers continually find relevant market niches, most especially today by combining products and services to deliver solutions.
We saw numerous examples at the Chem Show held late last year at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. One is Flo-Tite Valves & Controls of Lumberton, N.C., a supplier of ball valves and actuators, both standard and custom. Its president and CEO, Martin Gibbons, believes there are at least a couple of reasons for the success of his company and other small and mid-size suppliers.
“The biggest makers of commodity goods have a difficult time doing anything custom or special,” says Gibbons. “The new breed of engineer, while highly trained in some areas, doesn’t have the same level of expertise in some basic areas as those retiring.”
Flo-Tite makes its money by being a one-stop shop for highly engineered valve applications, stocking inventories of full-port, standard- and reduced-bore, and multi-port ball valves, and pneumatic and electric actuators; and by providing services.
The ball valve is, presumably, a known quantity in industry. As one engineer put it recently in an online forum, they are widely used because they have the lowest pressure drop and when fully closed are not liable to leak. They are less widely used in throttling applications because of low-flow non-linearity.
But Flo-Tite knows that ball valves are applied to control. High-pressure metal-seated control valves are part of its business, as are the aforementioned actuators, automated valve packages, direct mounting of actuators on valves, and universal mounting kits.
The company also recently introduced a media containment unit that provides a secondary set of graphite stem packing, live-loaded, for automatic compensation of temperature and pressure fluctuation, and extended seal life. This solution was recognized with Processing’s Breakthrough Product award.
As proof of its success, Flo-Tite cites its rapid growth. “In early 2013, we moved into a 127,000 square foot headquarters, warehouse and automation center,” says Gibbons. “With additional machining capacity we have the ability to modify and automate valves. We have distributors in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico and across Central and South America. And we have added more than a dozen employees in the last year.”
The idea that what consumers want is not a product but rather a solution is not a new one. The notion translates well to business-to-business markets. For goods makers, provision of services can deliver healthier returns than a simple product sale, as well as fostering repeat business.
Still it was striking at the Chem Show the extent to which this trend has become pervasive. In fact, the availability of a trained workforce has become a big factor in locating — or not locating — chemical industry capacity expansions in North America.