At cabinet manufacturer acpi, known in the market as Echelon Cabinetry and Advanta Cabinets, the factory floor is the engine room of the business.
The company, previously known as Armstrong Cabinets, was purchased, rebranded, and reinvented by American Industrial Partners (AIP) in 2012. Naturally, one of the company’s top priorities was maximizing the performance of its production facilities. Wally Cisowski, who was brought in as CFO and COO in 2013, led a $10 million reinvestment effort to improve the company’s Thompsontown, Pennsylvania, manufacturing plant and increase capacity to 6,000 cabinets a day.
As a vertically integrated manufacturer, acpi performs every step in the cabinet construction process, from milling the wood to building the face frames, finishing the doors, and assembling the cabinets. Propane-fueled equipment plays a key role in both the operation of the factory and the production of the cabinets.
“It’s primarily our finishing ovens that use propane,” Cisowski says. “We have propane-fired finishing ovens that basically cure the coatings that we put on the cabinets, the stains, the varnishes.” About 80 percent of the cabinets produced at the plant go through the propane ovens. “You couldn’t run the factory without them,” he says. The facility’s forklifts also use propane, making refueling particularly efficient.
The factory uses propane air-handling units to heat the facility, a common and efficient way to provide space heating in industrial buildings. In an article in HPAC Engineering, Vincent Sakraida, PE, LEED AP, notes that gas air-handling units “have provided efficient, reliable makeup air for many high-exhaust/infiltration industrial applications and facilities, such as paint booths, distribution centers, warehouses, and factories.”
Their energy efficiency is attractive compared with other options, he writes. “An electrical-resistance heater technically may be 100 percent efficient, but its higher electrical-energy cost usually makes it a less attractive option. Heat pumps are energy efficient when the outside-air temperature is above 32 [degrees Fahrenheit], but lose their efficiency as the ambient temperature drops below freezing because they must be supplemented with electrical-resistance heat at those temperatures.”
Cisowski says that with no access to natural gas on the rural site, propane allows acpi to avoid using expensive electric heat for the ovens and space heating. It also allowed the company to avoid the soaring costs of installing infrastructure for compressed natural gas. “The facility fees were just so high, it doesn’t make sense at some point,” he says.
“We’d much rather use propane than have to turn to electricity.”
In addition, propane allowed the company to retain — and reinvest in — its existing Thompsontown location, which has a number of advantages, says acpi president and CEO Larry Denbrock. “We have a total employment there of around 700 people,” he says. “The knowledge that they have is incredibly valuable to use, the experience they have. We would not want to have to go somewhere else and train up a new workforce.” From a distribution standpoint, being adjacent to the core Mid-Atlantic and Northeast markets is also beneficial, he adds. “Lots of high-rises being built, and multifamily new construction and remodeling, and those are core markets to us. It’s helpful to be three hours from Manhattan. We feel like we’re in a very good location.”
While the reliability of propane is vital to the factory’s performance, it’s just one of many factors that have led to a successful transformation. Under Cisowski’s leadership, the company has empowered and engaged its union workforce, invested in a state-of-the-art finishing line and sanding equipment, and repurposed an existing 60,000-square-foot building to manufacture a new frameless cabinet line. The company rebranded its cabinets as Echelon Cabinetry for dealers, distributors, and single-family builders and as Advanta Cabinets for multifamily.
After growing the company about 20 percent this year, Denbrock projects 20 percent annual growth in future years, as well. “The investments we’ve made have provided us with a very good product price point,” he says. “We like to think we provide a lot of value for the dollar in terms of on-trend finishes and accessories for the kitchen.”
And as the factory expands, propane will continue to play a critical role in the stability of the manufacturing operations. “We’d much rather use propane than have to turn to electricity or something like that,” Denbrock says. “It’s good that we have propane as an option, no question about it.”