At the center of a dizzying assemblage of company divisions is a laser cutter that is key to all production
David A. Belforte
Following the map, I started to pull into the driveway of what I thought was the parking lot for Van Noorden. But I hit the brakes when I saw the sign read E.C. Hilliard. Somewhat relieved I noted a smaller sign for Van Noorden. Thinking the companies shared a facility in this beautiful campus-style industrial park, I entered the reception area and asked to see the President of Van Noorden, Bill Cantor, who, it turns out, is also the president of E. C. Hilliard. I soon learned that Van Noorden is one of several businesses grouped under the E. C. Hilliard umbrella.
I had heard of E.C. Hilliard, a 102-year-old business, before, in fact through Cantor who I lunched with at a TRUMPF open house a couple of years ago. I know the company as a full-service job shop, located in Franklin, MA, featuring laser cutting, metal fabricating, and welding services.
The Triangle Icon is anchored by a 50-ft tower. A pair of intersecting wings represents the Wright Brothers and the notion of flight. The 120-ft elliptical ring represents the length of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
The reason for my interest in Van Noorden was a news item I saw about the company’s part in the fabrication and installation of a 40-ton sculpture (below). The sculpture, which is located at the entrance to the Raleigh/Durham, NC, airport, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight. When I accessed the company’s website I found that it specializes in large sculpture work and that its list of installations is most impressive.
Sensing a possible laser cutting connection, I contacted Cantor and learned that indeed the Wright Bothers sculpture was composed of 1000 pieces of laser cut HR20, hot rolled steel that had been installed by Van Noorden Architectural Erectors Corp.
Van Noorden has a long history in metalworking. The company was founded in 1873 by a Dutch immigrant who sensed a demand for skilled metalworking services after the devastating “Great Fire of Boston” wiped out a quarter-mile radius in the center of the city. By 1880 the company was well established in the Boston area as an ironworker, employing an increasing number of immigrants, a company policy that remains today. Over the years the company graduated from handheld fabricating tools to belt-driven power shears and press brakes to CNC machines and eventually to a 3.2kW CO2 laser.
Etched on the glass panels of the Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial (Arlington, VA) are the names of 1528 journalists who died on the job. Van Noorden laser cut the metal components and erected the memorial
Trading on its expertise in fabricating copper roofing, cornices, cupolas, and skylights, Van Noorden took on increasingly more complex contracts, including the copper-clad elevated railway in Boston, the gold dome of the Massachusetts State house, skylights for the Museum of Fine Arts, and more recently parking garages for the MBTA in Boston, ornamental metal work and elevator enclosures for New England shopping malls, and a glass cube structure for American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Meanwhile, E.C. Hilliard, founded in Newton, MA, as a heating and plumbing business by Edward Charles Hilliard, had morphed into a machinery parts manufacturer with sheet metal fabricating capabilities. This company, hit hard by the 1967 economic recession in the regional electronics and textile industries, put itself up for sale and Bill Cantor, whose family had sold Van Noorden in 1968, bought E.C. Hilliard in 1972 when it had five employees and $125,000 in revenues.
A series of acquisitions followed; Star Steel Company-a manufacturer of prefabricated aluminum door frames-in 1972, Medford Metal Products-a heavy plate fabricator-in 1974, and in 1977, Allcraft Corporation-a fuel and water tank manufacturer. In 1973 the Van Noorden Company was started as a division to manufacture jail cells, reviving the old company name.
Back at Van Noorden, Bill Cantor’s sister Susana Brown moved into sales developing that company’s line of detention and jail cell products. In 1992 the company got its largest order to date for stainless-steel doors and light fixtures for the Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor. The following year it began to fabricate ornamental stainless-steel railings for the architectural market.
In 1993 Van Noorden bought Helio Precision, a Bedford, MA, manufacturer of military parts and precision sheet metal fabrications. In 1996 E.C Hilliard bought its current building in Franklin and the following year it added Alden Metal Products of Brockton, MA, a company with turret punching capability.
Have you got all this? I sure didn’t, and with confusion about how the company was structured I finally asked Bill Cantor for an organizational chart so I could sort it out for readers. Let me try to explain how it all fits together.
The stainless-steel Musical Arches in St. Louis were fabricated using laser.
E.C. Hilliard Corporation, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003, is the parent company to which E. C. Hilliard Division, Van Noorden Division, and Van Noorden Architectural Erectors report. Under the E. C. Hilliard Division are the following: ECH Precision Metal Fabrication-which provides custom metal fabrications for customers in a variety of industries, Helio Precision-a manufacturer of aircraft military parts for DOD contractors, and Allcraft Co.-a manufacturer of high-quality stainless-steel marine water heaters.
In the Van Noorden Division are the following: Van Noorden Architectural Metalwork-constructors of custom crafted architectural, ornamental, and structural metal products, Van Noorden Gate Systems-manufacturers and installers of custom security gates and fence-related products, and Van Noorden Historical Restorations-which restores and refurbishes metal fencing and other historical metalwork and Van Noorden Architectural Erectors Corp. The latter is a union ironworker erecting business that does the field installation of the architectural work for Van Noorden and other companies at locations across the country.
What ties all of these companies together in the 50,000-sq.-ft. plant is a highly skilled metalworking workforce operating a variety of forming and fabricating equipment and performing welding, assembly services, and finishing of all common metals.
Beauty, aesthetics, art, and craftsmanship have been applied to gates for hundreds of years. These custom gates for the White House now also boast laser technology in their manufacture.
As you walk the plant with Bill Cantor he points to the seven-year-old Bystronic 3.5kW Bystar laser cutter, which he says is the key to all the production that flows through this shop. The way it works is that any metalwork required by a division is plugged into the production schedule just as though it was generated by an outside customer. Production planning does try to group like materials and thicknesses so that cutting for any given sheet can be optimized, but this is a job shop and sometimes the demand is for quantities of one. Thus the flexibility of the laser cutter bears fruit.
Compounding all of the above is the input of outside customers who bring fabricating requirements to E.C. Hilliard, usually on a tight turn-around schedule. Frankly this observer sees all of this as a scheduling nightmare, but the company’s planners know how to cope and schedules are rarely violated, while all internal and external customers remain satisfied.
The most intriguing metalwork, and that which brought me to the company, comes from the Architectural Division. Bill Cantor leafs through a picture book of past jobs to show the variety of metals, shapes, sizes, and shear construction complexity they generate. The Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial in Arlington Virginia, shown on the cover, is one example. Others are the custom gates for the White House in Washington, D.C., a portico for the Seaport Hotel on Boston’s waterfront, and two world globes that flank the airplane entrance ramps at Delta Airlines’ Kennedy Airport terminal. All of these use stainless steel in a variety of shapes and sizes that form works of art. These are just a few examples of the multitude of one-of-a-kind architectural masterpieces that the company has installed around the country by its Erector Division.
Van Noorden is a fascinating part of E. C. Hilliard and one that must be fraught with concerns for cost overruns. But the company has survived profitably for more than 100 years so it must be doing something right! It hardly seems a business that is related to the more mundane sheet metal working, but at E.C. Hilliard it’s looked at as just another customer. And E.C. Hilliard is very much a customer oriented company.