A series of international events set the stage for a copper tubing factory from Mexico to move to the United States, bringing 250 jobs to Berks County – as well as work for local construction and shipping companies.
Cambridge-Lee Industries LLC in Ontelaunee Township, where about 250 employees already had been manufacturing copper tubing, has built a new 200,000-square foot factory and is installing equipment to make specialty copper tubing that will require another 250 employees by 2016.
All told, it’s an investment of more than $60 million.
“The plant was originally installed in Mexico,” Edward Kerins Jr., chief executive officer for Cambridge-Lee, said of the specialty copper tubing facility.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce began an anti-dumping investigation against Chinese and Mexican companies for allegedly importing and dumping seamless, refined copper pipe and tube on the U.S. market.
“Dumping means you’re selling it in an export market at a lower price than in a domestic market,” Kerins said.
HIGH TARIFFS LED TO RELOCATION
The 2010 findings of the investigation led to tariffs of nearly 30 percent on Chinese and Mexican companies importing high-quality copper tubing used primarily by original equipment manufacturers of air conditioning and refrigeration units and appliances.
“In January 2012, our parent company decided to send the plant [production] here,” Kerins said. “We broke ground the middle of last year . By 2016 we will have added roughly 250 employees – engineers, electricians, machinists and factory machine operators.”
According to Kerins, once the factory is completed, it will be one of only two such plants in the U.S. using the cast-and-roll process to make the specialized copper tubing.
“This cast-and-roll process has better eccentricity all the way around,” Kerins said.
He said the consistent width throughout the pipe diameter is a specific requirement for appliance manufacturers.
“It’s a high-quality type of copper tubing,” Kerins said. “The tubes OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] use to make air conditioning units, like Carrier, Trane, York. They are the people who want this type of tube.”
Two new buildings are joined on one side into an overall L-shaped structure. Cambridge-Lee already manufactures other grades of metal pipe at its adjacent existing facility.
“It cost between $60 million and $65 million – that’s everything, building, equipment, foundation, installation,” Kerins said of the new factory. “We had three contactors bid on the job and they were all local.”
Dolan Construction Inc. of Reading put up the building. Installation of the equipment is being done by employees of Cambridge’s parent company, Groupa IUSA of Mexico, a 72-year-old business that also manufactures and installs communications and electrical power equipment, among other things.
Cambridge uses Penske Logistics in Reading for much of its shipping, Kerins said.
“We had a lot of help with Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach and Jon Scott of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership,” Kerins said. “They were instrumental in expediting the permitting process.”
FIRST SAMPLES IN JULY
The raw copper will arrive in the north side of the building to be melted in the top of the furnace.
“This is where we actually cast it,” Kerins said. “It comes down here and the surface is milled to remove oxidation.”
The hollow, round bars weigh about 2,000 pounds each and are moved down the manufacturing line, where they are carefully machined down from a 4-inch to a 2-inch outside diameter, Kerins said.
The copper is coiled in a huge machine, pulled through drawing machines along roller tracks to spinner blocks to make pipes smaller still. Some must run through aptly named “inner groovers” – machines that cut grooves inside before “level winders” wrap up the final product.
“Some tubes need inner grooves to enhance heat transfer,” Kerins said.
Overseeing operations from atop a raised catwalk structure are the manager’s office, production office, conference room and quality construction office.
Once completed, the production will go from north to south and then east to west through the facility with the first tubing coming off the line in mid-July.
“We have to turn the equipment on – we haven’t melted any copper yet,” Kerins said. “It will be the normal trials and testing. We’ll produce tube samples in July.”
Kerins hopes to be casting the high-quality pipe shortly after the first samples and begin full production in 2016, he said.