For much of its life, BGF Industries, Inc., has thought of itself simply as a weaver — the signature discipline of America’s textile industry that it helped to evolve and advance through most of the last century.
The fact that it employs nearly 800 people and operates six facilities in three states says a lot about the $150 million firm’s ability to innovate over the years, and yet its latest chapter might well be its most innovative.
“Back then — 30 years ago — the idea that we would someday be developing materials for mufflers would have been impossible for our people to imagine. They would think that we were insane,” says Bobby Hull, a manager of corporate quality assurance at BGF, who just celebrated 35 years with the firm whose technical fibers are found in everything from aircraft fuselages to bulletproof vests.
Recently, as part of a presentation, Hull decided to track the different uses of a certain style of fiberglass that BGF had originally developed for circuit board manufacturers —one of BGF’s largest customer segments. Or at least it was before Chinese manufacturing firms pretty much snatched up most of the business at the start of the last decade.
“We knew that there was going to be an offshore loss. We expected it to happen over 5 years, but we lost it all in 2,” explains Hull, who described the woven fiber used in electronics boards as the onetime “bread and butter” of the company.
“Now this one particular style of fiber glass has evolved to where it is being used in the production of wind turbine energy, satellites, oil exploration, and golf clubs. There’s even a guy in California using it in his nail salons as fingernail tips,” says Hull, who, while pleased by BGF’s ability to uncover new end markets, remains somewhat more circumspect when it comes to the subject of growth and quality.
“The demand for me to keep track of the quality requirements of that one product has snowballed. But what we know is that people out there can sometimes be far more creative then we are, so we have to be vigilant and make darn sure that we have our nose in their business,” says Hull, who a little over 5 years ago helped to revamp the firm’s quality control systems.
With its laboratories generating reams of quality-related data daily, the burden of analyzing the data for its 2,000+-item product line became next to impossible, according to Hull. The executive’s answer was to begin producing 10,000 or more control charts each night, from which he then pulls out quality trends or developments by using analytics software from SAS of Cary, North Carolina. The system then outputs a type of report for each individual market, allowing the firm’s engineers to review the trends and identify trouble spots each morning.
Hull spent eight of his 35 years with BGF inside the IT department, and his experience with information systems now appears to be dovetailing nicely with his quality assurance credentials. The IT veteran likes to list examples of how different members of his team are using SAS analytics and other technologies to ensure the quality of BGF’s offerings.
“I’ve got a process engineer who has developed a whole suite of apps that help him to make decisions about the quality of raw materials, so this allows us to refine what we’re doing in the labs to a very fine degree,” he explains, before returning to the other subject that occupies his days.
“The challenge for us — and our competitors — is to innovate out of our paradigm. We’re not saying that we’re not in textiles. We’re saying that we’re manufacturers. We got into fabrics, then we got into nonwovens, and then metal,” says Hull.
Still, the BGF veteran can’t resist viewing growth through the lens of quality.
“We’re looking at some growth opportunities now, and what happens is that people are so eager to grow that they forget to bring the quality piece into mix early. You need to have the quality control guy up front, because what was acceptable 10 years ago is no longer acceptable today,” Hull adds.