Mother of All Packaging Loads: Pennsylvania Business Finds Niches Making Specialty Wood Containers for Big Defense Items
Crate Company Expands from Military Customers; Pennsylvania Business Specializes in Custom Wood Containers
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 6/1/2017
SCOTTDALE, Pennsylvania – No job is too big for Quality Support, which has made a strong reputation developing packaging for defense items, such as vehicles, tank canons and fighter jet pieces. Handle with care has whole new meaning when you are shipping something critical to America’s defense infrastructure.
The driving force behind the company is its founder Jack Davis. Years ago he was employed as a manager at a precision machine shop. The business did a lot of work for the government, particularly for the Navy, making components for the Navy’s nuclear program.
The precision components the company machined for the Navy and other customers required intricate transport packaging to ensure their safe arrival at the destination. “The packaging was a bit of a thorn in my side,” he recalled. “I started thinking, if it was a thorn in the side for us, it had to be for other companies.”
He decided to start a business on his own time that would specialize in packaging for military shipments. “My first job was done on the kitchen table,” said Davis.
Soon he got a call from another company asking if he built wooden crates. He turned them down. Well, word spread quickly. When he received the third call within a week, asking if he built wooden containers, this time he answered yes.
Davis’ company has enjoyed steady growth since those early years. Today the company’s operations employ 26 people and occupy three buildings. In addition to manufacturing custom pallets, skids, crates and containers, Quality Support also supplies industrial lumber products and operates a lumber yard facility.
Quality Support is located in Scottdale, Pennsylvania about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The company has three buildings — two of them constituted an old National Guard armory and are listed on the National Register for Historic Places — with about 50,000 square feet under roof. When the company purchased the property, the roof was caved in on one building, and the walls were buckling; Quality Support restored the building.
Quality Support has thrived in the niche it quickly established. “We have experienced growth every year that we have been in business, even during lean economic times,” said Davis. The company has experienced steady growth despite not having a dedicated sales representative. “It was all by word of mouth,” he added, “or when a buyer left a company and went to a new company, they always brought us along.”
Most of Quality Support’s orders are for custom wood packaging. “We are strictly a job shop with a majority of our orders small quantities,” said Davis. However, the company recently received an order for more than 10,000 crates.
About 65% of the company’s business is related to the U.S. military. For example, the company recently completed an order for 65 specialty pallets that would be used to ship control panels for a nuclear-powered submarine. The pallets featured ¾-inch oak plywood bases with holes drilled in the base to bolt on 3-½-inch by 7-inch wood members. Some dimensions required precision within 0.03-inch. By contrast, it also has supplied large pallets that are used to ship refurbished doors for the U.S. military’s Stryker armored fighting vehicle.
Jack cited other examples of orders for the military, one being a shipping crate for a cannon of an M1 Abrams tank. The company regularly supplies shipping crates to a business that provides the military with .50 caliber machine guns; the crates require CNC fabrication of some internal components to ensure adequate support during shipment. Quality Support recently supplied a truckload of crates to a Navy base to ship large transponders.
Some wooden packaging, notably for the military, requires intricate design. For example, the company has designed crates and specifications to ship bullet-proof replacement windows for Humvees and other military vehicles. In another instance the company supplied the container and did the packaging of a piece of high-tech equipment that is used to calibrate the U.S. military’s Patriot missile systems. Quality Support also supplies crates with internal supports and cushioning to ship tail wings for F-35 fighter jets.
In addition to manufacturing crates used for shipping industrial products and components and supplies for the military, the company has a master carpenter on staff to build crates that are used in conjunction with trade shows and displays.
“If you need a standard six-sided crate, we can do that,” said Jack. “If you need something more special, a crate with internal components that may include hardware to mount the unit to the crate, we can do that.” Quality Support can meet military specifications and also provide wooden containers with foam and special wraps, saddles, internal bracing, barrier bags, RFID labels or the kind of labeling the military uses. “We can provide that crate as a complete kit. If need be, we can send a crew into your facility,” and provide on-site packaging services.
Quality Support also builds pallets, but most pallets are unique and constructed for special requirements, such as a container that may have a pallet base so it can be handled by a forklift truck. An order for 50 standard pallets would be considered a large pallet order for Quality Support. A recent order called for 49 pallets; only two of them were the same.
The company ships about four loads of finished goods per day on its fleet of several straight bed trucks, but the loads are very varied. “One crate may be a whole truckload,” noted Davis. It recently shipped a load containing 96 crates. Other recent deliveries included a load of crates in two different sizes and another load of five different sizes.
When he started the company he was still working full-time at the machine shop although he later worked as an engineering consultant, a job that required frequent travel. He built crates and shipping boxes at night or on weekends. Eventually he rented a one-car garage from a friend to use as a work shop.
“One of our first customers was a tubing supplier,” said Jack, requiring long crates. “We had to open a window and stick one end outside when we were working on the other end.” Within a few short years he was able to begin working in his business full-time. His first year of being self-employed, about 1995-96, gross sales were about $12,000. As the company grew over the years, he moved to larger facilities and now is in his fourth location.
Because of the nature of the business, the company’s operations do not require a lot of traditional pallet industry equipment. It relies mainly on woodworking machines that might be found in a cabinet shop or similar business. Jack leans toward Grizzly Industrial Inc. for equipment. The company has three or four Grizzly table saws, several cut-off saws, an up-cut saw, planer, moulder and jointer.
Quality Support recently purchased its first Baker Products horizontal band resaw and was setting it up. The single-head Baker resaw, equipped with digital setworks and run-around system, will be used to split 2-inch material. The company also may begin buying some cants and resawing them on the Baker machine.
Pallets, skids, crates and containers are assembled by hand with pneumatic nailing tools. MAX staplers and Paslode nailing tools have been provided by the company’s nail supplier in recent years.
For saw blades and sharpening services, Quality Support uses Saw Sales & Machinery in Gibsonia, about 15 miles north of Pittsburgh.
Several brands of hardware are used for crate latches, reinforcing corners, clips, casters, hinges and other components. They include Klimp Industries, Southco, and Brooklyn Hardware. Some hardware — like bolts, nuts, and washers — are commercial grade and some are custom-made to meet military specifications.
Quality Support buys #2 dimension lumber and some #3 material as well as truck-load quantities of plywood and oriented strand board. The company also buys some rough-cut oak, such as 6x6 and 8x8 in 20-foot lengths.
One of the biggest challenges the company faces is growth outside of its typical geographic range. In the past, as much as 98% of the company’s business was local. Thanks to the Internet, now Quality Support frequently manufactures transport packaging for customers that are some distance away. And the company also provides on-site services to remote customers. The company’s business now is about 70% for local customers and the remainder out-of-town. Remote customers learn about Quality Support via its website, www.qualitysupport.biz.
Davis cited several examples of remote customers. “We just received an order for 32 crates,” he said. “These crates will be constructed of fire-retardant material and latches for partial dis-assembly and shipped to Toronto, Canada.”
“We have an order coming in from the St. Louis area, just completed an order for a company in Kentucky, and are working on one for a company in New York.” In addition, Quality Support recently delivered finished goods to customers in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Although the company mainly serves customers in the Eastern United States, it has supplied wood crates and containers to customers as distant as Texas and California.
As noted above, the company also provides on-site services where needed. For example, a customer in New Jersey required a crate to ship a 60-ton press. Quality Support constructed a crate, then had a team deliver it to New Jersey and assemble the crate around the press to prepare it for shipping.
“A couple of years ago we constructed two truckloads of crates and delivered them to Kingston, Ontario,” recalled Jack. “We packed the product, finished assembling the crates, and had the product air-shipped to Brazil. It is truly now a world economy.” That particular order had to be completed between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
A lot of crates, especially for customers who are some distance away, are shipped in knock-down form with finished assembly done on-site. Large, oversized crates are more easily shipped as kits, too.
Quality Support also sells industrial lumber products to other companies that make pallets, containers and dunnage. In some cases it simply acts as a distributor, re-selling material. For some customers it may cut material to size. For companies that need heat-treated lumber for export wooden packaging or dunnage, it will buy material that has already been heat-treated or have it heat-treated by another business.
The company’s operations do not generate much scrap material, according to Davis. Although it builds some crates 60 feet long and longer, the company also builds thousands of small boxes, and it can use small pieces of material for those jobs. “So our scrap is minimal,” said Jack. The little scrap the company generates is supplied to a company that grinds it for mulch, although in the winter it is used to fuel a wood-burning furnace in the company’s container assembly facility.
It can be a burden navigating federal regulations as a supplier, acknowledged Jack, especially when it comes to making a change in an order. “Any time you want to change anything, it about takes an act of Congress,” he said. Military specifications can be complex and cover everything from tags and labels on the crate to the nail sizes and how far apart the fasteners are spaced.
Quality Support provides various employee benefits, including paid vacations and a generous 10 paid holidays.
Although he is not involved in trade associations, Jack is involved in his community. He has served on the Scottdale Borough Council for eight years. He is a member of a veterans organization that is building a new memorial in Scottdale, and he also is a member of the local Lions Club.
Davis and his wife enjoy traveling, looking for antiques and old cars. He also skis, although he didn’t get any time on the slopes this past winter.
Quality Support seems to be somewhat immune from economic downturns. “We not only survived the latest downturn, but during this time frame we experienced excellent growth, and this year has started out even better,” said Davis.
Do you want reprints or a copyright license for this article? Click here
Research and connect with suppliers mentioned in this article using our FREE ZIP Online service.
Crate Company Expands from Military Customers: