By Mike Vieira | May 30, 2018
Precision machined parts and equipment
Industry: Industrial & Contract
Products: Precision machined parts and fabrication
Vortex Engineering has focused on metal fabrication and welding for both defense and commercial customers. Thanks to a reputation for handling difficult jobs, the prototype manufacturing company became the go-to for defense and commercial giants like Northrop Grumman.
Led by Bice, a 23-year veteran of the Navy, Vortex has grown mainly through its success in taking on difficult tasks that no other company can handle. "The glue that binds the company is its precision fabrication capabilities for the hard-to-do jobs," says Bice. "We frequently become the company of last resort, because no one else will do the jobs that the customer needs. When you build on that type of work, people come to you as a first source, rather than a last resort. That's how we've built our growth."
Specializing in prototype and production units, Vortex has established itself with defense industry giants such as General Atomics, Trandes, and Northrop Grumman. The company's 40 years of experience has also made it a leader in specialties such as coating and casting, membrane manufacturing, and non-destructive inspection and testing.
Vortex's specialized capabilities allowed it to expand into its core segments. "We're broken up into three basic divisions," says Bice. "Vortex Engineering handles our commercial and engineering services, Vortex Testing does our non-destructive testing, and Vortex Fabrication handles the metal fabrication support. Vortex Testing is our newest offering that we started last year, so we're in the growth stages of that. It's probably about 10 percent of our business right now, and I expect it to grow to about 25 percent within a year."
Vortex Fabrication has also experienced growth by manufacturing membranes for the filtration industry. "Our customers would be someone who is making filters for reverse osmosis or other types of filtration," says Bice. "We make the equipment that helps companies who make the membranes for specific filtration needs."
The company's segmentation has paid off by leveling out the ebb and flow of industry projects. "[T]he fabrication side is very much transactional with short-run individual jobs," says Bice. "Rarely do you get a long project. On the membrane filtration side, those projects will take three to six months, and sometimes as much as a year."
With the variety of work and high precision levels, Bice tells us it's hard to find talented workers. "It's a challenge to find the right people because we need fabricators, not just welders. You're bending, you're cutting, you're welding, and we have to go from raw material to a finished product. It takes a fabricator's eye," says Bice.
The company's equipment includes a 220-ton press brake with a 12-foot capacity. It also has a hydraulically controlled guillotine with the capability to shear material a half-inch thick, and six cast-iron Blanchard tables that are laser aligned and slotted for large structures.
Raw materials come from a variety of sources, but the company tries to maintain a chain of local suppliers to provide fast, dependable delivery. One of these is steel that's sourced domestically, thus not affected by recent tariffs. The diversity of work and strategic budget planning makes for consistent cash flow through the normal business cycle, something Bice says he's very conscious about.
Bice's links to the Navy are helping the company branch out and sign new defense customers. "There's an opportunity to create teaming arrangements with companies that may have an array of services, but they don't have metal fabrication or enough to support on what they're trying to do," he says. "I'm looking to establish new, complementary arrangements with companies to help them and us to grow further. One thing that we pride ourselves on, is our ability to team with our customers and provide a solution that they may not realize they needed."
Challenges: Bice admits it's difficult to find more qualified workers in metro San Diego, and he believes this will be a challenge as the company begins to expand further.
"Another challenge is that we're a fairly small shop that requires a higher level of hustle from workers," he adds. "They have to be motivated and work hard. The mix of those things requires a unique individual."
Opportunities: "The biggest opportunity for us is here in the San Diego area," says Bice. "There's room for growth in defense, shipbuilding, and ship repair work. We're working to position our company to take advantage of that in the most effective way. Within the membrane industry, especially reverse osmosis and water filtration, the industry is growing globally. We have customers in India, Germany, Russia, Italy, China, and locally in the U.S. We're one of three U.S. manufacturers making this membrane filtration equipment domestically, so we're in a good position to take advantage of that industry's growth."
Needs: "We're looking to change our goals to be more of a growth business," says Bice.