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Connected to quality: U.S. Steel honors Wheeling Machine in Pine Bluff for coupling products.

STEEL PIPE COUPLINGS aren't the kind of products one thinks about much, but a Pine Bluff industry is manufacturing some of the best in the world.

Wheeling Machine Products Co., which has a 130,000-SF plant in the Jefferson Industrial Park, recently received the "APEX" Supplier Quality Award from U.S. Steel Group of USX Corp. in Pittsburgh.

U.S. Steel purchases products from thousands of companies but has recognized only eight suppliers as innovative leaders in their industries since the APEX awards were initiated in 1990.

The plant is part of the Oil Tool Division of Cooper Industries Inc., a $6.2 billion Houston-based operation whose more famous products include Champion spark plugs, Buss fuses and Crescent wrenches.

Wheeling Machine relocated to Pine Bluff 10 years ago from Wheeling, W.Va. Ernie Krause, a woodworker turned machinist, founded the operation in 1918 and developed a niche as a threaded coupling manufacturer shortly after World War I.

Since then, Wheeling Machine has become recognized worldwide as a leader in coupling technology for the petroleum, water well, heating, plumbing and air conditioning markets.

"It is our intent to purchase products and services with minimum variability from suppliers with total quality assurance who provide customer service, technical support and continuous improvement to achieve cost reductions," says Frank Clark, general manager of purchasing and supplier quality for U.S. Steel. "Wheeling Machine Products is such a supplier."

Wheeling Machine, with 110 employees working three shifts, passed a rigorous, 19-step process involving inspection, review and evaluation of total quality management. The APEX program also requires periodic reviews of award winners to ensure quality is maintained.

Accepting the award were Edward A. Long, vice president and general manager of the Cooper Oil Tool Division; Bob West, Wheeling's operations manager; and Bill Wierda, Wheeling's manager of engineering and quality assurance.

In addition to the U.S. Steel award, Wheeling Machine's quality has been recognized through licensing from the American Petroleum Institute.

"It takes a lot of quality for a license from them," says George Uschold, manager of employee relations at Wheeling. "We're audited regularly to make sure we're building world-class quality parts."

Wheeling's Product

Couplings are internally threaded sleeves that join pipes. The average weight of the couplings manufactured by Wheeling is 45 pounds, and they are about a half-inch thick with diameters of one to 20 inches.

Uschold says that when connecting oil or gas lines, which are up to five miles into the ground, the quality of couplings becomes crucial because of the tremendous pressure. The Quality Assurance Department maintains one of the largest thread and gauge testing laboratories in the industry.

Wheeling Machine is highly automated, Uschold says, and the workforce is "very productive and has little turnover." The plant also has an impressive record for safety, with only one lost-time accident in more than four years.

"That's a remarkable performance for a large machinery operation with the weights we deal with," Uschold says.

Uschold says a forecast for Wheeling's growth is difficult because "our planning horizon is not that far out." The oil and natural gas industries are volatile, he says, adding that the manufacturer is hoping for a better oil market and expanded markets in natural gas.

Petroleum and industrial equipment, including the couplings, represent 30 percent of Cooper Industries' operating revenues and 26 percent of the industry's operating earnings.

Other Cooper Plants in State

Cooper has two other plants in Arkansas, but one of them is expected to be sold by fall.

Last month, the company announced plans to sell substantially all of Cooper's interest in its Belden Division in a public offering. That would affect its Clinton (Van Buren County) plant, which has 290 employees and produces electrical products.

Robert Cizik, chairman and chief executive officer for Cooper, says Belden is not considered a core business for the firm and should "grow on its own merit."

Cooper's plant in Dumas, with 250 employees, used to be a Belden operation but is now part of the Cooper automotive wiring division and won't be involved in the sale, a Cooper spokesman says.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Steel Group; Wheeling Machine Products Co.; Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Author:Hankins, Jeff
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 5, 1993
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