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The complete picture: How energy innovation reaches every corner of Metlab

Ninety-two years: that’s how long Metlab — the heat treatment company based in metropolitan Philadelphia — has been in business. Metlab began operations in 1928 as a manufacturer of struts for WWII-era aircrafts. Today they specialize in heat treatment of parts and serve over 7,000 clients, who trust Metlab to treat parts ranging from under 1 pound in weight to over 25 tons.

Metlab runs on great equipment and great people. Their 125,000 square foot facility is home to 30 furnaces, the largest of which is 15 feet in diameter and 12 feet tall — among the largest of its kind in North America. Forty-one employees keep the facility’s operations humming at a brisk pace, and on any given month, Metlab completes work for at least 1,000 clients.

That’s quite a journey given the company’s humble beginnings almost a century ago; and Metlab has been able to improve and grow their business by embracing innovation and smart energy use at every opportunity.

 

Consuming Responsibly

Perhaps not surprisingly, the powerful furnaces used by Metlab consume substantial amounts of energy, and energy is the company’s single largest expense. All but two of Metlab’s furnaces run on natural gas, and according to President Mark Podob, getting up to 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit — the required temperature for certain treatments — demands a lot of gas.

In fact, natural gas is so critical to Metlab that Podob remembers a cross-town competitor going out of business in the wake of the 2014 polar vortex, which caused gas prices to spike to $125 per dekatherm. Protecting your bottom line from price spikes is all the more critical when your business uses as much energy as Metlab does.

Metlab has trusted Direct Energy Business with all of their energy needs for nearly 10 years, and currently has their natural gas price locked in until 2023. While getting a low price is necessary, budget certainty is paramount to Metlab’s procurement strategy.

"What's really important is that we know how much our natural gas will cost so we can properly do our pricing and have cost control," Podob explains. "It is so much better being with Direct Energy Business for all our energy needs. The price we pay is terrific and the service is phenomenal. It's been a great relationship."

Additionally, Metlab makes a point of investing in technology to cut down on energy use. Installing recuperators — which recycle exhaust gas back into burner gas, increasing the proportion of gas that is ultimately combusted — on two furnaces cost the company $75,000 per furnace about ten years ago. With help from a Department of Energy grant, Metlab made the investment, forecasting a payback period of roughly three years. This proved an underestimation, as the recuperators actually paid for themselves in a mere six months, significantly reducing the facility’s natural gas consumption and creating long-term cost savings.

 

Multilayered Motivations

The attitude toward energy use at Metlab includes more than just bottom-line calculations. While there is a clear business case for implementing energy-efficient features, the company sees smart energy use as a key to making Metlab a better place to work.

A recent six-figure investment in efficient light fixtures and LED lighting is forecasted to pay for itself in two years, but Podob argues that another critical benefit is creating a brighter, better-lit workplace. Furthermore, given that many workers at the facility are well-versed in furnace technology and know how much energy it takes to run the equipment, Metlab’s energy-saving investments are a signal to them that the company thinks of itself as a place where people can feel proud to work.

Metlab employees take pride in challenging themselves as craftspeople. In addition to treating parts for military helicopters, naval vessels and aircraft carriers, Metlab operates a six-foot diameter, 16-foot deep furnace where they perform treatments on parts for oil wells and drilling rigs. But they work with small parts, too, and certain projects requiring highly precise treatments have tested the company’s expertise. Hobbyists hoping to restore vintage automobiles and aircrafts have approached Metlab with springs and other components in need of careful heat treatment; the company has even applied black oxide treatment to a suit of armor. There’s no project too niche, too complex or too unwieldy for Podob and company. Metlab has the equipment and know-how to heat treat almost any part imaginable.

 

heat treatment

 

A New Generation

Metlab know-how extends to workforce development. The company trains and cultivates employees to become an integral part of the operation, including those without significant experience in the field.

Metlab also hosts educational facility tours and offers internships and full-time opportunities to future engineers. Podob believes hands-on learning helps students connect classroom studies with real-world engineering to discover what it takes to bring products and parts to life.

The company manufactures and heat treats car components, like gears and axles, at no charge for Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) students. SAE clubs all over the country look to Metlab for help designing and building their competition vehicles. The company has donated services and engineering consultation to students from Georgia Tech, Rowan University, Drexel, Temple, UPenn and the U.S. Naval Academy.

Podob says, "We are always open to helping students learn and be a part of the manufacturing process for their projects. We like to do that; we like to give back."

 

Beyond Energy

Metlab’s community-oriented philosophy extends to eco-responsibility and thoughtfully considering their entire operation. For example, Metlab previously used city water to cool their furnaces to the tune of about $12,000+ per month. Their new re-circulation system has cut water consumption and costs by more than two-thirds.

For Podob, it’s a matter of "getting the timing right" with respect to innovations and improvements. If ideas like water re-circulation, better lighting or recuperators for the furnaces will reduce Metlab’s environmental impact while also making financial sense, Podob considers it "a no-brainer."

In addition to the long-term fiscal benefits, energy efficiency and smart procurement create value for the company’s culture. When a company does its part to protect the environment by using resources responsibly, the effect is accumulative; it becomes a better organization to do business with, a better place to work, and sets an example for others. It’s not easy to stay at the forefront of an industry after almost 100 years of business, but with the right attitude and openness to change, Metlab has set themselves up for a bright, productive future.

"I come to work every day and I look forward to being here," Podob reflects. "Every day is a challenge and every day is different. We can do a job tomorrow and I may not see that again for five years; and then on Monday a different project will come in that I haven't seen for five years. As a job shop, we’re always working on something new and fresh."

 

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