A History of Wheelabrator

Tony Harris, June 1, 1964

The Wheelabrator Corporation is an industrial complex whose production facilities extend from the Midwest to the Northeast and Canada, to the continents of Europe and Asia; and whose goods are sold throughout the free world.

The nucleus of this international organization lies in the name itself: Wheelabrator -- a word synonymous with an industrial machine long recognized as a superior cleaning device for metals, metal parts, plastics and rubber which, in turn, become innumerable articles designed for basic and better living.

The Wheelabrator is a rapid, economical, highly adaptable and efficient way of removing surface impurities by means of throwing metal shot or grit against the object being cleaned -- a method more compactly described as airless blast cleaning. Wheelabrator pioneered and for over thirty years has been a leading producer of airless blast cleaning equipment: the Wheelabrator device.

The Wheelabrator Division builds the equipment which cleans and strengthens the metals used in the construction of homes, factories, offices, the bridges we cross, the trains we ride, the planes we fly.

Wheelabrator supplies the machines that smoothes plastic electric plugs on household irons, assures the galvanizing being bonded to food choppers, and that the ball bearings on a child's skates roll freely.

The Early Years
The origin and growth of the company follow a pattern closely identified with the historical growth of American business: first, the enterprise of one man; next, the formation of a small organization; then, a continuous sequence of  internal growth and external expansion through mergers with companies in related or compatible fields.

Wheelabrator goes back over half a century to 1908, when a young auto salesman, Verne E. Minich, began leasing, then selling a newly developed mechanical sand-cutting device to foundries. Previously molding sand had to be laboriously condition by hand.

Two years later, Minich's first small company, Homogeneous Sand Mixer Co., of Piqua, Ohio was dissolved, reappearing as the Sand Mixing Machine Co., with a broader scope of activities. Selling became but one part of a total effort that now emphasized research and development.

In addition to a line of sandcutters, the company introduced other products, including small anti-pressure sandblasting machines. The impetus to industry generated by World War I, particularly to producers of raw materials, was felt by Minich's company. Foundries increased their need for products such as those manufactured by the Sand Mixing Machine Co.

In 1919, Minich merged his company with Rich Foundry Equipment Co., of Chicago, bringing in a line of core machines and dust collectors; a year later, with Buch Foundry Equipment Co., of York, Pennsylvania, manufacturers of flasks, flask bars, jackets, molding machine and pattern mounts.

Move to Mishawaka
That same year, 1920, the company again changed its name, to the American Foundry Equipment Co. Its major manufacturing facilities were moved, first from Cleveland to Chicago, and then, on January 1, 1926, consolidated in one location, an 83-acre site in Mishawaka, Indiana, near South Bend. The Mishawaka plant, in 1964, is still the principal manufacturing facility and world headquarters of Wheelabrator.

The optimism and energy characteristic of American life throughout the 1920's is reflected in the continued rise of the American Foundry Equipment Co., during those years.

Many product "firsts" came out of the company's research division, among them, the first Tumblast, an endless belt conveyor with a tumbling principle applied to sand-blast machines; and the "humane" sand-blast room, which removed workers from the physically harmful, sand-laden atmosphere in which they had previously worked. Existing products were modified, new lines introduced. The modest Homogeneous Sand Mixer Co., had become a good-sized business.

Engineering breakthrough
It was to become bigger -- even in the teeth of the depression years. In 1930, American Foundry began adapting centrifugal blasting to the needs of the foundry industry. In the three years that followed, when many companies were cutting back, some drastically, American Foundry poured money and manpower into a development that looked beyond the limitations of the present, to risk a substantial investment in the industrial potential of the future. And it paid off.

In 1933, the company introduced the first practical airless blast cleaning machine -- The Wheelabrator. The savings it promised to industry were obvious. The controlled blasting wheel action was capable of cleaning in one-fifth the time needed by machines using compressed air, at only one-sixteenth of the power those machines required.

It was a classic example of more results for less cost: a touchstone for the economic strength and stability of an industrial society.

Once the basic Wheelabrator had been proven, adaptations followed quickly: the Wheelabrator Monorail Cabinet, in 1934 . . . . the Multi-Table, in 1935 . . . . in 1939, the Wheelabrator Swing Table . . . a year later, the Continous Tumblast.

With the diversified Wheelabrator on the market, industries far removed from foundries -- the company's mainstay since 1908 -- began using the new cleaning device. The Wheelabrator proved applicable to an amazing variety of tasks -- removing forging and annealing scale, removing welding spatter on fabricated parts, cleaning and preparing metal surfaces for plating, galvanizing, enameling, rubberizing, and other coatings, together with a multitude of other blast cleaning operations, all achieved with high efficiency and unusual economy.

Many industries served
Today, foundries account for less than 30% of Wheelabrator's sales. The company's markets now range far and wide, encompassing such industries as automotive, aviation, machine tool, appliances, plastics, steel processing, rubber and railroad, to name a few. Products cleaned by Wheelabrator vary in size from two-inch plastic electric plugs to railroad cars.

World War II saw the introduction of another unique adaptation of the Wheelabrator wheel -- this one, the shot peening process.

Shot peening by centrifugal blasting, called "Wheelapeening", is used to hammer strength into springs, axles, pins, crankshafts, and many other parts subjected to high stresses and strains. The increase in the fatigue life of parts treated this way is often more than 1,000 percent. As an example, during World War II it was found that a certain pin, vital to securing the track to an Army tank, snapped under great stress. By Wheelapeening these pins, their life was greatly extended, and proved a lifesaver.

Abrasives developed
By 1946 the company had successfully developed steel shot -- an entirely new rendering of the kind of cleaning abrasive basic to the Wheelabrator process.

Steel abrasives, hard enough to provide fast-cleaning action yet tough enough to resist breakdown, reduce consumption and minimize machine wear, are produced with exclusive processes and under meticulous controls.

The addition of a steel shot manufacturing capability enabled Wheelabrator to become a strong factor in airless blast cleaning as a total operation -- production not only of the essential cleaning materials, steel abrasives, but also of the equipment in which they are used.

Companion product line
Meanwhile, the dust collection line, brought into Minich's company in 1919 with the acquisition of the Rich Company, was keeping pace with the growth and development of the company's blast cleaning products.

The potential of a companion air filtration line was apparent even then, as a way of alleviating dirt and dust in foundries, caused by the sand-blasting techniques common to that period. The "humane" sand blasting room, mentioned above, was one such innovation.

The necessity for dust and fume control has risen sharply over the years. Industrial plants are larger, their operations more complex; and air pollution problems ever more serious as towns became industrialized cities, and cities, in turn, broadened their perimeters to become congested metropolises.

Here again, the growth of the American industrial scene opened up a new field of endeavor for the company, enabling it to be a part of that growth at the same time it was profiting from it.

Wheelabrator's air filtration systems, once limited to the foundry, now bring air pollution control to the processing of chemicals, agricultural chemicals, foods, pharmaceuticals, carbon black used in rubber manufacture, and many other products.

The development of the company's ultra-filtration system, which removes even the most minute particles from atmospheric air, provides super-clean air for instrument rooms, control rooms, motor rooms, laboratories and other areas, where even the microscopic dust present in ordinary air cannot be tolerated; purifies the air breathed by workers in factories; and lessens air contamination within surrounding communities. Smoke control, by filtering coat dust, has improved many a company's community relations (and may one day help end "Smog").

Wheelabrator has solved the air pollution control problems of many industries. Its patented Dustube method, roughly paralleling that of a vacuum cleaner, collects industrial dust and fume particles in giant cloth tubes, the air by which they are carried filtering out of the bag fresh and clean. Periodically, the residual dust is shaken out for disposal or reclamation.

Dacron, Orlon, Nylon and fiberglass, in addition to cotton and wool, are some of the filtration materials from which filter bags are made. In many instances the dust collected is valuable. A case in point is the manufacture of penicillin, during which dust is raised. Without the Dustube, this valuable dust drug would be lost; with it in operation, the dust is recovered and returned to the laboratory.

Airless blast cleaning equipment and abrasives; air pollution control equipment: these, then, are Wheelabrator's traditional product lines.

Post war years
The internal expansion of the company, through continuous research and development, has kept stride with the requirements of the industries it serves. External growth has also been a significant factor, during the early years and following the close of the second world war.

On June 29, 1945, The Equity Corporation acquired 87% of the stock of American Foundry Equipment Company.

With the additional financial resources this transaction provided, the company began to move forward at an even more accelerated pace. That same year the name of the corporation was changed to the American Wheelabrator and Equipment Co., identifying it directly with its principal product.

In 1954, Equity exchanged its holdings in Wheelabrator for stock of Bell Aircraft Corporation, predecessor to Bell Intercontinental Corporation. Ten years later, by its combination with Twin Industries, Wheelabrator evolved into a separate corporate entity.

In 1958 and 1959, Wheelabrator acquired two companies, Crandall Engineering Corp., of Vicksburg, Michigan, and Lord Chemical and Equipment Co., of York, Pennsylvania. The operations of these companies were, in time, transferred to Wheelabrator's Mishawaka plant, combined, and redesigned the Lord Chemical and Equipment Division.

Under the trade name Lorco, this operation builds vibratory, barrel and wet-blast finishing machines, answering the need of companies requiring precision finishing of exterior and shielded surfaces of all types of metals and alloys. Wheelabrator now became the first in the field to cover all phases of metal finishing, from abrasive blasting to precision finishing.

In the fall of 1961, W. W. Criswell Co., of Riverton, New Jersey, a manufacturer of air filtration media, was acquired as a division. In addition to its direct sales, Criswell supplies cloth filter bags for Wheelabrator air pollution control systems. Another move which placed within the company all phases of manufacturing required to produce a completely finished product.

The export market
During the 1930's, Wheelabrator's exports ran around one or two percent of total sales. This business was handled primarily on the basis of unsolicited inquiries, sales being conducted for the most part by correspondence. In 1953, with the post-war European market rapidly assuming boom proportions, the company initiated an aggressive overseas marketing program.

Over the next ten years, exports increased 500 percent, and today account for over 10 percent of sales. Wheelabrator was one of the first U.S. manufacturers to receive the E for Export Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

This has been achieved by a series of planned and interrelated steps. To start with, Wheelabrator's sales force was augmented by representatives told to open wide the doors of the world's markets to Wheelabrator products. At the same time, foreign licensee arrangements were concluded with companies in Switzerland, England, and Brazil -- to cover the European continent, the British Isles, and Latin America. A licensee was also obtained for Australia.

The orders began to come in. A steady momentum gradually built up. While sales to customers in Europe reflected, of course, the demands of a highly industrialized continent, other parts of the world were heard from.

In 1957, a company in Mexico bought the largest capacity Wheelabrator sold anywhere up to that time; the following year, five equally as big were ordered by a number of Japanese producers of steel. U.S. companies located abroad also bought a product whose reputation they already knew and respected.

The company held the first of what became a regular series of customer training schools -- providing a thorough indoctrination into minimum-cost operation and maintenance of Wheelabrator equipment. This initial program was attended by customer representatives from Latin America and France, who joined their U.S. colleagues in Mishawaka for the 2-day session.

Phase 2: overseas facilities
Towards the end of the 1950's, the European Common Market was making itself felt as a potent economic force. Then began the second phase of the company's thrust overseas: the physical location of Wheelabrator operations in foreign countries.

The company's first facility outside the United States was in Canada. In 1957, Wheelabrator acquired a warehouse in Toronto to support its sales program in that country.

That warehouse has now become the Wheelabrator Corporation of Canada Limited, a 5-acre plant, assembling certain of the company's blast-cleaning equipment, and fabricating air pollution control systems. Some of the latter are used in ventilating underground rock crushing and mining operations.

Another warehouse, this one in Rotterdam, Holland, was leased early in 1960 to expedite deliveries of a mounting European business. However, it was clear the Mishawaka plant of Wheelabrator, already operating at capacity, could not handle indefinitely all domestic and foreign orders, without eventually falling behind on scheduled delivery dates.

An overseas expansion that went beyond simple storage facilities was urgently needed. The European continent was the obvious starting point. The country eventually chosen was France.

In February 1961 Wheelabrator entered into an agreement with the Societe des Hauts-Fourneaux et Forges d'Allevard, a leading French manufacturer of foundry equipment, which brought into being Société Wheelabrator-Allevard, 51% of which is owned by Wheelabrator, 49% by Société d'Allevard. The newly elected executives selected Le Cheylas, in southern France, as the site on which to construct the most modern steel abrasive facility in Europe.

On November 10 of that same year, the first "heat" or molten metal was poured, and pilot production started. The plant at Le Cheylas was recently expanded to produce air pollution control equipment.

During 1963 Wheelabrator acquired interests in operations in two more countries, Switzerland and, across the world, in Japan.

Negotiations were concluded with a prominent Swiss manufacturer, George Fischer, Ltd., giving Wheelabrator 40% ownership of Graber & Wening AG previously a wholly-owned Fischer subsidiary. Located in Neftenbach, Switzerland, Graber & Wening builds specially designed Wheelabrator equipment which, with the abrasives manufactured by Société Wheelabrator-Allevard, permits complete European production of the company's major product lines, and guarantees fast delivery across Europe and Scandinavia.

In Nagoya, Japan, Wheelabrator successfully completed its second transaction of the year. Sintokogio, Ltd., an established manufacturer of heavy equipment, had for several years been producing under license Wheelabrator blast cleaning equipment. Out of this association a joint enterprise developed, Sintobrator, Ltd., with Wheelabrator owning 40% of the new company, and Sintokogio 60%.


Plans were drawn up for a new plant, and in the fall of 1963 full production started of a complete line of Wheelabrator steel abrasives and vibratory finishing equipment, in addition to component parts for original equipment and replacement service for airless blast machines manufactured by Sintokogio. Japan, which ranks third behind the United States and West Germany in free world steel production, has long sought more modern methods to reduce costs. Sintobrator is now helping do that job.

Lastly -- in January, 1964 -- is Wheelabrator's projected entry into the Indian market. An agreement was signed -- between Tilghman's Ltd., a British manufacturer of heavy machinery, New Standard Engineering Co., of India, and Wheelabrator; a name picked -- Indabrator, Ltd.,; and a plant site chosen -- Goregaon, near Bombay. If all goes to schedule, before 1964 is over Wheelabrator blast cleaning equipment and dust and fume control systems, will be on their way for delivery to Indian industries.

Of additional interest is the fact that stock in Indabrator, Ltd., will be offered on the Indian Stock Exchange, making this particular investment one of which the citizens of the country can directly share, and from which they will in due course benefit.

A continuing history
With a vital, viable organization such as Wheelabrator, the making and reporting of history never ends. As these words are being written, activities are taking place on three continents that concern The Wheelabrator Corporation. An executive decision in Indiana, and order received in France, a shipment made in Japan, a building going up in India -- one industry accomplishing many things that, in sum, represent strength, stability, and growth. This is the way it should be; for any company history that says all that there is to say and then writes "Finish", would be a negative kind of recapitulation, indeed.

The company has progressed far from its modest beginnings over fifty years ago -- leasing sand-cutting machines. The product pioneered by Wheelabrator -- the airless blast cleaning machine that bears its name -- now accounts for over 65% of the national market, and is the holder of 75 patents.

Now for the first in its history, Wheelabrator has become the name of a publically-owned company whose shares are traded on the American Stock Exchange -- the first new company to be listed with the Exchange in 1964. This came about when the assets of Wheelabrator and Balcrank were combined with those of Twin Industries Corporation, and Twin's name changed to The Wheelabrator Corporation.

This combination of Wheelabrator's extensive product lines, Balcrank Division's line of service station lubrication equipment and supplies, industrial pumps and machine tool accessories, and Twin Industrie's manufacturing capabilities in the fields of major aircraft assemblies and ground support equipment, has resulted in a company that today is an established part of the industrial scene of the entire free world.

It took $30,000 dollars of borrowed money to get Wheelabrator going in 1908. In 1963, the combined sales of all elements of the company exceeds $50 million dollars.

This, then is The Wheelabrator Corporation: a story to be continued . . .

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Wheelabrator History

Jack Champaigne of Electronics Inc. is editor of this historical perspective of Wheelabrator. Please contact Jack with any questions or contributions.

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