Alfiniti targeting HVAC, automotive growth

CHICAGO Alfiniti Inc. plans to add two new aluminum extrusion presses to its Alfiniti Precision Tube subsidiary in Winston, N.C., over the next five years as it looks to continue to expand into the automotive sector, as well as the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) markets, a company executive said.

The Chicoutimi, Quebec-based custom aluminum extrusion and tubing producer in February installed a new, 2,700-tonne, 9-inch extrusion press, along with related equipment, at its Winston site, Alfiniti Precision Tube president Richard “Steve” James said in an interview with AMM.

The total cost of the expansion—which included the press, billet heater and handling systems, all made in China—was slightly more than $3 million, James said. Alfiniti also acquired coilers from a U.S. company, but declined to disclose a figure for that equipment.

The future expansions will be roughly the same as the most recent one, James said.

The new press was ordered in February 2012 from China’s Mingsheng Machinery Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and was delivered in late November, with installation continuing until the company pushed its first billet Feb. 1, James said. Coiling capability will be added in April, he noted.

Roughly 50 percent of the capacity from the new press will be consumed internally for the company’s bench drawn tubes, which are produced for the general industrial market, James said. “Flag poles and weed-whacker handles, those kinds of things,” he said.

At the same time, Alfiniti is looking to expand its presence in the HVAC market, given opportunities for aluminum to replace copper because of the red metal’s higher price, James said.

The company should also benefit from increased automotive demand thanks to both higher build rates and increased aluminum usage in the sector, he added.

“We think there are significant growth opportunities,” James said, forecasting growth of as much as 30 percent over the next two years at the North Carolina facility. The operation’s sales currently stand at some $20 million per year, he said.

Many presses in North America date from the 1950s to the early 1970s and tend to be repaired rather than replaced, James said. “There is nothing wrong with reconditioning those and keeping them in good shape—and they’ll continue to run for a long time—but there have been some technological advances,” he said.

But Alfiniti wouldn’t have been able to afford to expand if it had turned to more conventional equipment suppliers in Germany, Japan or North America rather than an equipment producer in China, James said.

“Sure, you can find cheap pieces of junk equipment (in China), but you can also find some things that are truly world-class,” he said. “What that does is it lets us bring manufacturing back to America.”

What’s remarkable about the Chinese equipment market is that the country “didn’t have an extrusion industry to speak of” as recently as the 1990s, James said. But China’s rapid expansion since then means its equipment makers have advantages that come from both economies of scale and feedback from customers who are ordering several new presses every year. And while Chinese equipment manufacturers might not have been behind many advances in extrusion equipment technology, they have used newer equipment as their template, he added.

Still, while Chinese equipment costs only a fraction of machinery made by more established players, buying and installing it “is not for the faint of heart,” James said, noting such challenges as language difficulties and repeated trips to and from China, as well as a “gnashing of teeth” with banks over financing a deal for equipment from China.

But even if acquiring and installing the equipment was “a zoo,” it has nonetheless been “absolutely superb” since, James said.

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