Screen Machine Industries, based in tiny Etna, Ohio, has been crushing every job for more than 50 years now, and sprang from surprisingly humble beginnings.
Back in the 1960s, a young Bernard Cohen was crossing Ohio on his way to school in Chicago; something about the Columbus area sparked his entrepreneurial spirit, and in 1966 he formed Ohio Central Steel, a steel fabrication business. The company made its money on structural steel jobs, but eventually it was time for something bigger, and the company began to look for a need for a product they could design, build and sell.
A cold call to a giant industrial distribution, repair and service company resulted in a request for a machine that would form the foundation of today’s Screen Machine Industries (SMI). Can you make us a heavier-duty machine here in the United States like the portable screening plants being produced in Europe? It was a breakthrough there, eliminating the cost of transporting aggregate such as sand, gravel and coal to stationary plants to be processed, but it was a virtually untapped challenge in this country. So here at home, Ohio Central Steel set about to design and build a heavy-duty machine that used a system of screens to sort and separate types and sizes of aggregate.
Today, Screen Machine Industries is a giant in its market, producing a complete line of portable jaw, impact and cone rock crushers, screening plants, trommels and conveyors, and holding more than a dozen patents.
A giant, that is, with a relatively small footprint.
“We’re not a huge company,” said David Stewart, director of marketing. “We have 80 employees, but we don’t work like we’re small – we work like we’re big.”
Every Screen Machine Industries machine begins as Grade 80 American-made steel, a point the company takes pride in. It’s heavier steel than what’s used by the competition, Stewart said, because the machines “get the heck beat out of them every day.” Each piece of steel is first scribed with a part number, then shaped by high-definition plasma cutters, which offer precision cuts with minimal waste. The steel pieces move on to the CNC brake press, where the components are bent to the required angles before fitting and welding. Then it’s on to fabrication, priming and painting with up to three coats of Sherwin Williams paint. The machine is then set onto its tracks, and assembly begins on the engine components, conveyors, feeders, screens and crushers.
What They Make
Impact crushers: Break up limestone and aggregates of soft to medium hardness at a reduction ratio of 15:1. They’re used largely in quarries.
Jaw crushers: Break rocks with a high level of hardness and abrasiveness in a V-shaped crushing chamber. Granite, iron ore and slag can be crushed at a reduction ratio of 5:1.
Cone crushers: Considered secondary crushers, further reducing stone size from that of a jaw crusher.
Scalpers: Also known as box screeners, SMI’s patented Scalpers are designed to be loaded with soil or aggregate-like material right from a wheel loader or excavator to the vibratory shaker screen. The dual decks sift two sizes of material and discharge them in separate piles.
Spyders: These patented track-mounted screening plants can sift or screen material into three or four sizes at the same time. Once sifted, the material is stockpiled by built-in conveyors.
Trommel screens: Also known as trammel drums or drum screeners, these machines accept material at one end of the drum, then tumble it through the drum and through the screen openings or out into an oversize pile.
Track and radial conveyors: These allow material coming from another machine to be stockpiled without constantly repositioning equipment, providing uninterrupted productivity.
How They Work
The culture at Screen Machine Industries is as unique as its products.
It’s an open concept, Stewart said, receptive to questions, suggestions and contributions from all levels.
Each month, the company holds a “town hall” meeting open to every employee.
“Our thought process was, let’s get everybody on board and see how we’re doing. We bare it all. We lay out the financials for everybody at the meeting,” Stewart said. “We have profit sharing, and we post numbers on the boards, so they know at any moment, we have that many points in profit sharing.
Everybody understands that wasted time, wasted material – that all comes out of the bottom line.”
The town hall meetings allow communication to flow both ways, another unique aspect of management at SMI. Typically, Stewart said, meeting content will last 30 minutes, and the following 30 minutes are devoted to questions, suggestions and more.
“People are not shy about saying, ‘Hey, here’s something we can do better,’ or ‘Here’s a way we can save some money,’” he said.
The town hall meeting is also the venue for a new feature SMI has introduced: encouraging employees to call out fellow employees for a job well done. And participation is high. “They get a big round of applause,” Stewart said. The open style of communication the company fosters has a positive impact all the way down the line. “They feel empowered to make suggestions and implement changes, and that’s very rare in a heavy manufacturing environment. Employees tend to think, oh, that’s management’s worry, but here, they’re really into it,” he said.
The culture of openness doesn’t stop with town hall meetings. SMI offers each employee an annual survey that questions them about their jobs, about aspects of management, about what can be done better, about the way decisions are made in the workplace. The survey is completely anonymous, allowing employees to express their opinions freely.
Why all the fuss?
Simple, said Stewart. Happy, engaged employees make better products. “And when you get good people, you want to retain them,” he said.
Across the board, Stewart said, there’s contentment and pride at SMI. “When you ask people what keeps them here (at SMI), you’ll hear, ‘I love seeing something we created roll out the door and do difficult work.’ People take a lot of pride in that. In our industry, American-made is the rarity. Most of our competition is European-based.
“American pride – there is a lot of pride in what we do. It’s important to our customers, too,” he said. “They’re concerned about service, and we’re based in the middle of America. They know that if you buy from us, we can service it.”
That’s not to say SMI doesn’t have a foot overseas. They ship across the globe, to places as far away as Afghanistan, where SMI had a particular impact.
Back in 2009, SMI partnered with the U.S. Air Force to deliver a complete system of screen machine equipment to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan to effectively double the size of the airfield. The system included a JXT jaw crusher, a 4043T impact crusher and a Spyder 516T screening plant. Logistics for shipping and delivery were no simple task, but SMI prevailed, and the equipment’s initial use was to recycle concrete for use in building helipads, runways and roads. Fine material was integrated into concrete mixes, and larger aggregate became the base for roadways.
An SMI team traveled to Kandahar for setup and training, and there they faced myriad challenges – among them, heat in excess of 115 degrees, dust, and intermittent rocket attacks. Team members were assigned armed police escorts for their safety.
Pride in Patents
SMI holds more than a dozen patents on its designs, Stewart said, but two stand out.
The first is the company’s crusher release system, a boon to keeping a machine running without interruption. Large rocks or pieces of concrete can wedge in the crusher machine, causing the operator to have to shut down the machine while the obstruction is cleared. With SMI’s patented release system, the operator can lift the lid six inches while still crushing, clearing the jam without losing a minute of uptime. “We’re the only one who has that,” Stewart said. “It makes a huge difference in the flow of material, and there’s way less downtime. They’re paid by tons per hour, so downtime is expensive. These machines in a busy quarry will run 12 hours a day, six days a week. Uptime is all-important.”
The other notable patent in SMI’s catalog is the smooth start system. Shaker screens vibrate violently at low speed during warm-up and shutdown, which can damage the screen and affect the life of the screen bearings. To solve the problem, SMI engineered a movable eccentric weight, which retracts at low speeds, eliminating the shake at start-up and shutdown. “Over the years, it saves your machine tons of maintenance,” Stewart said.
What’s Coming Up
Innovations just keep coming at SMI.
This year, the company will introduce a new, larger screen machine that will process more tons per hour. In the testing phase now, the new machine is expected to be available this summer, Stewart said.
And in the opposite direction, in March, SMI introduced its mini line, with machines about one quarter the size of the others SMI produces. Unlike their larger counterparts, this line can be pulled by truck and trailer and is already a huge hit in urban areas where larger machines are problematic. This SMI Compact Line is expected to see a lot of work in the urban Northeast, Stewart said.
Also new to the SMI world is a partnership with Diamond Z, a pioneer in the wood grinding industry based in Caldwell, Idaho. Diamond Z offers a broad range of tub, horizontal, and solid waste grinder models designed to suit any application, from composting to construction and demolition, from land clearing to tire disposal, from municipal solid waste to asphalt shingle grinding.
The partnership is a brilliant step for both companies, Stewart said, because their product lines complement each other.
Another opportunity is parts. “Over time, we hope to have a dual warehousing situation for both companies,” Stewart said.
Keep an eye on SMI for more new products and innovations, because, to hear Stewart tell it, the company is always looking for a way to do things better.
“We’ve got eight engineers on staff,” he said. “We’re always looking at everything, saying, ‘What can we change, what can we tweak, what can we improve?’”