High Steel Structures LLC Endorses New Technology
and Processes While Some Things Never Change
Many tourists frequently travel to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to experience an unusual trip back in time. Lancaster County is home to an Amish community of over 80,000 who first immigrated from Southern Germany and Switzerland in the 1720's to avoid religious persecution. The Amish have maintained, to a great extent, their tradition of experiencing life like it was in the 1700's without electricity, TV, internet, tractors, automobiles, etc. When you drive through the rural farmland of the county, you see many horse drawn buggies and plows like it was in prior centuries. With the exception of the asphalt road surface, it's truly like taking a trip back to the 1700's.
Over time other religious groups like the Mennonites, who are traditionally less conservative, became part of Lancaster County. The less conservative lifestyle of the Mennonites permitted them to move away from traditional farming that is still prevalent in the county and into industry to secure a more stable living.
In 1931 Sanford High, who was a Mennonite in Lancaster County, decided to leave farming as potatoes were only yielding 30 cents a bushel. At that time Sanford, with his brother Ben and a $7,500 loan, purchased what was called King Welding Company where the name was later changed to High Welding Company. One can easily envision the business challenges that faced them making this purchase on the heels of the market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed. The strong work ethics of the Europeans that immigrated to the county and their traditional manual and diverse skill set has played an important role in the success of the company over the years. While the Amish may have avoided new technology, the High family has always been at the leading edge pushing the envelope to develop new methods and technology.
Welding was relatively new in the 1930's so the High brothers performed all sorts of diverse jobs initially to remain gainfully employed. It did not take long for High Welding Company to start down its real career path, as in 1933 they pioneered the use of welded angles and stiffeners on a local bridge. In subsequent years, Sanford High became instrumental in the development of welded bridge girders as a replacement for riveted girders. During the next two decades High Welding worked structural steel projects for schools and other building structures, however, bridge repair was always part of their job focus.
In the late 50's High Welding Company started to come into its own and developed a major focus on bridge repair and construction. Because of automated welding equipment, they were able to economically produce welded girders. Later Sanford High participated with the State of Maryland to develop the heat shrink process for curved girders. This process was later written into the Maryland State Highway Specifications that were then adopted by many other states.
In the 60's the High family, started to diversify their investments into other ventures such as High Realty Company who started developing buildings for lease to other businesses. Applying the same dedication to quality and service as it does in the steel bridge industry, the High real estate portfolio has grown into a major economic engine for the family enterprise with diverse holdings in office, industrial, retail, multifamily, and hospitality sectors.
Today, High Industries is a diverse organization which includes High Steel Structures LLC, High Concrete Group LLC, High Steel Service Center LLC, High Construction Company, High Transit LLC, and High Structural Erectors LLC. The High Family Council remains committed to ensuring that the values and philosophy established by the prior generations continue to underpin the unique culture of its companies. And the High family also continues to exhibit these values outwardly as corporate citizens where they operations are located, and generous philanthropists focused on creating bridges to opportunity for all in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with John O'Quinn, President of High Steel Structures, to learn more about their bridge business. John explained that with the plants located in Lancaster and Williamsport, Pennsylvania, High Steel Structures routinely supplies product across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. For select projects, such as the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston, SC or the Plattsmouth Bridge for BNSF in Plattsmouth, NE, High Steel Structures can effectively support customers anywhere in the United States. With their state of the art facilities and industry leading use of technology, they are structured to accommodate many job tasks simultaneously including large complex projects.
The Tappan Zee Bridge represents the most significant project that High Steel Structures has contracted to date with over 50,000 tons fabricated, painted and delivered on time to meet the demanding construction schedule.
The following summarizes some of the interesting data concerning the size of this contract.
In 2010 High Steel Structures LLC installed the first FICEP Gantry Drill and then a second unit for your Williamsport facility in 2014. How have these CNC lines changed the way you fabricate girders today?
This CNC girder drill totally revolutionized how we fabricate girders. It feeds off our detailing technology and processes to accurately and rapidly drill all of the holes needed for girder connections. That saves us time and money compared to other processes available.
You have seen a lot of changes in the bridge business in your career. What are the most significant developments?
The use of CNC fabrication lines in conjunction with today's drilling technology. It used to take a minute or two to drill a hole where today it takes just seconds, and we are drilling holes in all three surfaces simultaneously. And the CNC controls place those holes more accurately than traditional methods.
How do you see steel bridges competing with concrete bridges?
Steel has many unique advantages, and you have to look at all the factors when you compare one to the other. The most commonly recognized advantages of steel compared to concrete bridges is the ability to economically produce curved structures and very long spans. But steel also is very important where the geometry of the structure limits the height of girders or requires non-standard framing configurations. Erectors can generally use smaller cranes, or "pair" steel girders together into combined picks because they are lighter than comparable concrete members.
Presently you have various plate fabrication lines. How can you compare your FICEP Gemini to your other lines?
More is always better, as with our Gemini, we have two independent drill spindles each with its own sub axis so we utilize both spindles even when the holes are not in the same axis. Bottom line, it is twice as productive and we achieve all this in the same floor space which is of major importance to us.
Recently there has been a lot of conversation about an infrastructure bill to upgrade the current condition of our bridges, roadways and airports. When it comes to the bridge side, how do you feel the funding should be generated?
Many individual states have increased their gas tax on a regular basis over the years to keep up with the increasing cost to maintain roads and bridges, but the federal government has not increased the gas tax since 1993! It should have been increased years ago when we were paying $2 per gallon so it would not have been viewed so negatively, but we cannot ignore this need any longer. There also needs to be a mechanism to index the tax each year to the rate of inflation, as many of the states do presently, to eliminate future political debates.
With the increase utilization of hybrids and electric vehicles, we also need to look at some type of use tax to be generated from these vehicles that do not run on liquid fossil fuels. All vehicles carrying passengers and freight across our highways and bridges must pay their fair share to support the cost of America's transportation infrastructure.
Presently, you have 4 FICEP CNC lines. What, in your opinion, is the greatest positive that you have experienced with this technology?
Accuracy and productivity! We live in a very demanding industry when it comes to the required accuracy, and with the FICEP CNC technology, we are able to eliminate these concerns. We compete every day for market share, not just with other steel bridge fabricators but also with alternatives such as concrete. We are constantly driven to reduce our cost, and FICEP is a key element in this journey.
Recently, we have witnessed some consolidation in the industry and changes of ownership. Do you see this as a continuing trend?
This is a capital-intensive business and selling an existing firm to an investment group is one way to recover the value of a founder's many years of dedication. This has created some of the larger firms, which is in contrast to family-owned High Steel Structures, which has become one of the largest bridge fabricators from organic growth. On the other side, I do not see the disappearance of the many smaller firms as they deal with the needs of their local market.
In today's business environment we see many examples of firms that lose their family roots and ultimately become publically owned. It is refreshing to see the continued dedication and focus of the High family to diversify and grow all their existing businesses without losing their understanding of how and why they are so successful. Founder Sanford High used to tell his employees, "Give good measure", which is a theme that is still prevalent today throughout all the High companies!