Indiana serial entrepreneur takes a second swing at the aluminum extrusion business
By Marshall V. King
SYRACUSE, Indiana — Steve Brenneman didn’t like how he and his company were being treated.
The entrepreneur had started Aluminum Trailer Company with the premise of making trailers from extruded aluminum.
“Extrusion is the heart of ATC. It is why ATC exists because instead of using a steel frame, we made it out of aluminum. And so, this is the heart of our business,” he said.
The Nappanee, Indiana based-firm uses about six million pounds of aluminum that has been pushed through a dye to create tubes and other shapes every year.
Brenneman pushed his company toward lean manufacturing. That meant he wanted frequent deliveries to minimize the need for purchasing large quantities of inventory and then storing it.
Brenneman wanted the supplier to help. “They just wanted to ship us truckloads,” he said.
The supplier begrudgingly did help and started delivering more often. ATC went from receiving weekly or monthly deliveries to daily deliveries. But Brenneman wanted to do more to solve the problem.
“I don’t think it’s fair that Ford, General Motors, and Boeing get white glove treatment from extruders (while smaller firms do not),” he said.
He saw room for someone to both produce excellent material and deliver it regularly to the customer. That’s the strategy of the serial entrepreneur’s new company, Aluminum Insights.
In the mid-2000s, Brenneman co-owned an aluminum extrusion press. When the economic downturn hit, he lost it.
With new partners and investors, Brenneman is starting Aluminum Insights to supply not just ATC, but also other customers with product and great service.
Brenneman learned trailer manufacturing in the late 1990s and saw an opportunity to utilize aluminum rather than steel. In 1999, he started ATC to create lighter, stronger trailers.
A year later, he and his brothers bought Nappanee Window to create products for the recreational vehicle company.
In 2006, he bought an aluminum extrusion press to serve ATC, but mostly the recreational vehicle industry. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, Elkhart County was hit hard and Brenneman was over-extended.
He hadn’t planned ahead. In the Elkhart County economy, doing so is a rare trait. The extrusion press that he had was sold for a fraction of its worth.
A good CEO had steered ATC through the recession. In 2009, Brenneman went back to ATC as president and CEO. He left that role in 2018, though he remains the firm’s largest shareholder.
Brenneman worked briefly in development for a local non-profit focused on education, but left in August 2020 to focus on entrepreneurship. At age 50, he says his mission is to start companies.
That mission has led him to start two other new firms besides Aluminum Insights.
Invign was established in the last several years to manufacture doors and windows. Crew Seating is working toward creating boat furniture. In both instances, Brenneman worked with two other men to set up a company and start operating to feed a market.
In 2019, he had begun work to create an aluminum extrusion company. Jeff Miller, who had worked as general manager of farm equipment manufacturer Chore-Time, and Niles Graber Miller, who had cofounded Menno Tea and worked as a manufacturing and tech consultant, joined Brenneman.
They began supplying customers with aluminum others produced at a plant in Goshen while their new plant in Syracuse, Indiana came together.
That took more time than expected. The land in an innovation park was full of clay. After groundbreaking, rain and snow turned it into something with a gravy-like consistency. The ground was eventually removed and replaced as a 75,000-square-foot building came together.
They designed the building from scratch, working to include lean manufacturing principles to assure efficiency and minimize waste.
The three men weren’t sure how they would find enough funding to get going but moved ahead with selecting an equipment manufacturer. They chose one of two firms in Italy that could have provided a giant press to turn aluminum logs into tubing, rail, and other parts.
Presezzi Extrusion Group responded to not getting the contract for the press by offering to become a partner with Aluminum Insights and help with the more than $20 million investment needed to get going.
The new facility and its press, which supporters of MEDA’s Michiana hub toured in mid-July, is state-of-the-art, but one that Brenneman and his partners can also describe simply. “It really is just a Play-Doh Fun Factory with a lot more heat and a lot more pressure,” Brenneman told the group as he showed a photo of the children’s toy.
The company’s founders believe in aluminum’s business potential as a material. It is lightweight and needs a small percentage of energy to repurpose it for a new use. It is recyclable, reusable and fundamental to building a closed-loop economy, they said.
Elkhart County in northern Indiana has 12 extruders that produce and deliver aluminum. By Brenneman’s estimate, 350 million pounds of aluminum a year are converted from billets, or long logs of solid metal, into parts for other uses.
The recreational vehicle industry uses a lot of aluminum. If you look at a 100-mile radius around Elkhart County, where Aluminum Insights is headquartered, roughly a billion pounds are used in industries. The area is a hub for aluminum extrusion.
Brenneman believes what sets Aluminum Insights apart from other extruders is the firm’s operational and customer service approach. After the Great Recession, he also believes in planning and diversification.
The new company isn’t supplying the volatile RV industry. “We’re not selling to RV because of volatility in that market,” he said. “I had an extrusion press before and I lost it in the downturn because I was too dependent on RV.”
Aluminum Insights is providing product to five core customers, including ATC and producers of boats, fencing, stairs, railings, and industrial products.
Its aluminum, which is sourced from Ohio and Kentucky, is nearly all recycled metal. It arrives in logs eight inches in diameter and weighing 1,100 pounds. The logs, called billets, are heated to 1,000 degrees, and go into a press that can push them through steel dies with more than 50,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.
The pieces that come out the other side of the die can be up to 200 feet long and then cut into lengths that the customer uses. What the machine produces is directly linked to what the customer needs.
After a piece of extruded aluminum comes out of the press, a clamp pulls both ends to stretch it two to three percent, which helps straighten it and align the fibers.
The pieces are cut and moved toward carts and racks. If the product is going to be bent, it’s packed for the customer and hardens over time.
If it’s staying straight, the part is baked in a large oven at 350 degrees for three to four hours.
Eventually, Aluminum Insights could have a second press and more automation to move finished products and the scrap from the process, but the focus now is on getting as much production as possible from the initial press and using people to move items as needed.
When the press is fully operational, it can produce 4,000 pounds of finished material an hour, which would be three truckloads of billets a day.
The extrusion process takes a lot of energy. Northern Indiana Public Service Co., the regional power utility, worked with Alumi- num Insights to offer rebates and power, yet much of the needed power comes from a 500 kw/hr solar system on the roof that can power most of the daytime production. The payback on that system, at the utility’s current rates, could be 1.5 years, said Brenneman.
Brenneman knows what it’s like to be a customer who wants more, so Aluminum Insights is implementing a system they call “the easy button.” In Europe, customers can hail cabs by pressing a button that sends a cellular phone signal.
Using the same button boxes, co-founder Graber Miller created a system that lets someone pulling a bundle of aluminum in a factory alert the Aluminum Insights that more is needed. That creates an order ticket and delivery from Aluminum Insights.
Aside from the planning and innovation, the founders want to have a plan for every employee to create meaningful work and be known as an outstanding employer, said Jeff Miller.
Starting a company isn’t as easy as pushing a button, but Brenneman and those he collaborates with are pushing the right ones.