Happy 120th, Columbia Steel! Part 3: Becoming a Global Leader
One hundred and twenty years ago, a group of Portland investors planted the seeds for a business that would last well beyond their lifetimes. Back in 1901, the idea that Columbia Steel Casting would endure for more than a century was probably unimaginable. However, hardworking employees, committed leadership and some good fortune ensures Columbia remains a place where great people manufacture exceptional products every single day.
Our 120th anniversary has us reviewing key historical moments. In the last installment, we picked up our story in the roaring ’20s and moved through the three turbulent decades that followed. We ended in the late 1950s with a devastating fire that almost destroyed the company and the promise of a new plant location that would enable Columbia to become the company it is today.
1960 – 1969: A New Location Brings New Growth
By the end of the 1960s, Columbia turned its eyes towards the future as the company began building a new plant on North Bloss Avenue in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood. The move couldn’t have come at a better time. After more than 50 years of heavy use, the company’s existing location was inhibiting future growth. The situation was made even more urgent by the Labor Day fire of 1957 that almost forced the company to close its doors. With careful design, Columbia President Hobart “Bud” Bird believed the company could handle growing volume and compete in the modern age.
The Move to St. Johns Brings New Environmental Awareness
Columbia Steel acted as its own general contractor during the construction process, with Gil Buck working as project coordinator. This arrangement allowed the company to keep close tabs on construction expenses so that costs would not soar out of control. By 1962, Gil had brought the construction phase to a close on time and on budget. The gigantic job of moving the foundry operation to its new location began. Workers poured the last mold at the 9th and Johnson location on March 30th, 1962.
The first mold was poured at the new site just 30 days later — remarkable considering the furnaces had to be dismantled, moved and rebuilt at the new site. The new foundry included an improved air quality system, which created a safer working environment. We maintained our commitment to worker-friendly sand and binder systems while the industry experimented with more harmful binders.
Customer-Focused Product Development
During the 60s, Columbia’s outside sales network expanded to include the entire Western United States. As the company’s sales team spoke with potential customers, they began to see significant opportunities for customized product development. To take advantage of every new opportunity, product engineers began traveling with company sales representatives to discuss specialized parts. By listening to their customers’ high-impact needs, Columbia produced parts that lasted longer and worked more efficiently than original equipment manufacturer alternatives.
This customer-focused approach paid off as Columbia replacement parts proved to be the best, with increased demand leading to a significant upturn in business. Employees credit the company’s growth to several factors, including stable ownership focused on reinvestment and long-term performance and very skilled technical, engineering and production staff.
1970 – 1979: New Alloys Lead to New Markets
The seventies were a decade of increased sophistication at Columbia. The growth that came in the ’60s had placed the company as a leader in many product areas. Not content to rest on their laurels, company leaders led a diversification effort to avoid the ups and downs of cyclical industries. However, breaking into new markets required more intensive research and experimentation with new alloys to meet changing customer needs.
New Alloy Development
Early in the decade, the company started testing high-strength martensitic steels. This process eventually led to the H line of steels, which combined great strength and surface abrasion resistance and enabled Columbia to compete for new business.
More advanced alloys required more advanced metallurgical testing. By 1974, the company installed its first spectrophotometer to analyze new martensitic steels. By 1979, the company had added a Baird Spectrometer linked to a computer, which allowed rapid control of metallurgy and sped the production process. This equipment also added the ability to perform a full range of quality assurance procedures, allowing the company to sell reliability as a defining feature.
New Processes Support Columbia’s Environmental Leadership
Columbia expanded the melt shop in 1975, adding 10-ton and 3-ton top charge furnaces. The new equipment produced a higher quality manganese steel and could also use spent manganese castings as charge material, which reduced waste. Columbia continued looking for new opportunities to reduce waste and pollution, and in 1975, Oregon Governor Bob Straub presented Columbia with a state award for environmental leadership.
With a new line of stronger alloys in place, Columbia began to enter new markets where customers were eager to purchase more reliable replacement parts. The company delivered its first shredder parts for metal recycling in 1973 after Columbia staff conducted in-depth research into the industry and developed new processes to manufacture more durable parts.
A year later, Columbia installed the Group 8 semi-automatic molding line to better serve the shredder market. Borrowing from the wood product industry, a hydraulic grappler was developed to handle casting, along with a hydraulic hammer to break off risers. These innovations soon became standard practice in foundries around the world.
Surface coal mining was also a growing industry as America attempted to meet increasing energy needs. Columbia saw strong possibilities for improved parts for mining shovels and large draglines. The company used its new H alloy to develop these parts. By the end of the decade, Columbia had expanded its reach in the aggregate and mining markets with design improvements for nearly every major cone crusher brand. The presence in multiple industries helped the company become one of the country’s leading specialty steel manufacturers.
1980 – 1989: New Products Drive Growth
America entered an economic downturn in 1981 that proved the need for more innovative product design and alloy formulation. Columbia responded by creating new and revised products which prioritized performance and cost-effectiveness.
The new south foundry expansion made it possible to build larger products for big mining operations working around the world. In 1965, the largest gyratory rock crusher mantle Columbia made was 12,000 pounds and 67 inches tall. By 1981, Columbia could manufacture crusher mantles that weighed 40,000 pounds and stood 95 inches tall. These changes gave Columbia a worldwide reputation for improving wear parts and making change-outs easier.
Columbia also invested heavily in developing new high-strength products. In 1982, Columbia introduced its Wearathon Dragline Chain. The design team discovered that most chain wear was coming from the point of contact where the links met. The new Wearathon design increased each chain’s contact area to give them greater life.
In 1986, Columbia introduced its premium manganese steel called Xtralloy®, which proved highly successful in aggregate and mining crushers. Columbia moved the bar even further in 1988 by launching its Xtend Process® bi-metallic overlay process, which reduced wear rates on high-strength steel parts to even lower levels.
Columbia Faces a New Century
By the end of the ’80s, Columbia Steel Casting had developed a worldwide reputation for its high-quality replacement wear parts and commitment to solving its customer’s biggest challenges. Those core company values would remain intact as the company entered the 90’s and faced new challenges in its second century.