Skills of workforce praised at Kennametal Fallon plants
Strong muscles still count for something at the two Kennametal Inc. plants in Fallon but the manufacturing skill of a veteran workforce counts for even more.
The Fallon facilities play a cornerstone role in the never-ending effort of Kennametal to protect the competitive advantages that allow it to get premium prices for products that otherwise might be viewed as simple commodities.
And a top executive of the company headquartered at Latrobe, Pa., says the experience of a skilled workforce has proven to be one of the facilities’ strengths.
Kennametal, a publicly held company that posted $1.88 billion in sales in 2010, produces tungsten alloys that harden everything from snowplow blades to mining equipment to the drill bits used in oil exploration.
That advanced materials business accounts for about 40 percent of Kennametal’s revenues (tools made with tungsten cutting edges account for the rest), and the Fallon facilities produce some of the most advanced of those advanced materials.
Kennametal built its first processing plant in Fallon in 1951 to take advantage of a deposit of scheelite a mineral containing tungsten that it mined southeast of Fallon. It added a second plant along U.S. 95 north of town in 1969.
Although the company stopped mining scheelite at the mine in Mineral County more than 50 years ago, it continues to bring tungsten powder from sources around the world to facilities at Fallon for processing.
Once the powder arrives, it’s mixed with aluminum and iron, then fired in a kiln at 4,000 degrees. The patented process produces batches of tungsten crystals that then are crushed, cleaned and shipped to makers of cutting tools.
It’s often hot, difficult work for Kennametal’s 100 employees in the Fallon area.
“You have to be strong,” says Plant Manager Michael Botsford as he points to 60-pound kettles of tungsten powder mixture that workers lift into place.
And safety is paramount it accounts for about one in four sentences that Botsford speaks in an environment that includes 4,000-degree temperatures and massive grinding and crushing systems.
But skill counts for as much as brawn in the plants’ success, says Phil Weihl, a Kennametal vice president with responsibility for the company’s supply chain and logistics.
More than a quarter of the plants’ employees have worked for the company for at least 20 years, and Weihl says their skill at the process is among the reasons that the operations stay in northern Nevada even though Kennametal long ago stopped mining scheelite in the state.
“We have a lot of a lot of knowledge at Fallon,” he says.
The skills range from chemical analysis of tungsten powders from mines around the world to care in mixing ingredients to the ability to move quickly while loading heavy bags of tungsten powder mix onto the long conveyor that leads into a kiln that’s about the size of a railroad boxcar.
Even more important, Weihl says, the experienced manufacturing team at Kennametal’s Fallon facilities continues to get better at what it does.
In the past year alone, they’ve managed to take $700,000 out of the facilities’ costs through improved manufacturing techniques.
And that plays out in benefits beyond direct costs of manufacturing.
Weihl says, for instance, that improved yields from the manufacturing process allow the company to hold lower levels of inventory, further reducing its costs.
While the demand for tungsten-hardened cutting equipment used in the construction industry slumped badly during the recession, Weihl says energy, mining and aerospace markets are rebounding.
That’s good news for the Fallon plants.
“I would expect that there will be continued growth, given the markets that these products go into,” Weihl says.
Allan Swan, President of Panasonic Energy of Northern Nevada, was the speaker for the 2019 UNR College of Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series Nov. 20. He addressed a crowd of roughly 185 about the “Next 100 Years” of the company.