Cathie Anderson

Tri Tool shows how to succeed at local manufacturing

Chandler Mohan adjusts a Toshiba vertical turret lathe that makes parts for the TriMax portable machining system at Tri Tool Inc. in Rancho Cordova. The system eliminates pinch points where a welder’s clothing and fingers can get caught when working on pipes.
Chandler Mohan adjusts a Toshiba vertical turret lathe that makes parts for the TriMax portable machining system at Tri Tool Inc. in Rancho Cordova. The system eliminates pinch points where a welder’s clothing and fingers can get caught when working on pipes. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

On a tour of Rancho Cordova-based Tri Tool, chief executive Joe Wernette and two of his employees stressed to me that their 44-year-old manufacturing company has remained competitive by focusing on innovation.

Tri Tool produces equipment that allows pharmaceutical companies, jet fighter mechanics, oil and gas companies, big utilities and others to repair and replace existing pipeline on-site. You might think, “So what?” But Wernette explains the gravity of what can happen when a pipeline repair goes south.

“The materials that flow through a pipe are extremely caustic or flammable or dangerous or under pressure,” he told me. “If it leaks out, bad things happen: contaminants into the groundwater, contaminants into our air, explosions. You have to weld it together to maintain a no-leak, critical path.”

Tri Tool, which now grosses about $40 million a year, got its start by creating portable tools that could be used reliably and safely at the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. It has since expanded to industries such as pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, defense, space and telecommunications.

Wernette and his team introduced their newest product at a fabrication industry trade show in November, and they already have received orders. Known as the TriMax, it allows workers to cut, bevel and weld a pipeline without risk of getting their fingers or clothing caught in exterior gearboxes or brackets. The patented design was unlike anything else on the market.

“We’re cutting steel,” said Joel Walton, the Tri Tool veteran who led development of the new technology. “We’re cutting metal with a machine that comes apart and pulls together. It’s rotating around and the operator is in a mobile work environment out in the field. You could be down in a trench or up on a scaffolding.”

Walton couldn’t change the nature of the environment where work was done, but he figured there must be a way to redesign the machinery and remove the pinch points that caused a hazard in tight environments.

He told me: “We went back to the drawing board and said, ‘How can we make a tool that will perform far greater than anyone else’s – on stability, speed, rigidity, all those areas – and what can we do on the safety side? If we can’t beat them on price, let’s go after performance and let’s go after safety.’ And we did that.”

Walton called the TriMax his “swan song.” He has worked for Tri Tool for 33 years and will retire this year. He said he felt like the TriMax tool really gets the product back to its roots. The company was founded on the premise that it was possible to make the world safer one weld at a time.

“How do you get a safer weld?” Wernette asked rhetorically. “You have to start with preparation. That’s the prep of the pipe, before you weld on it. Then you have a better opportunity to have a successful weld – a code-quality, X-ray-quality weld.”

To get that, he and Walton said, you have to prevent the welder from getting fatigued and you have to ensure that the bevel and counterbore on the adjoining pipes slide together precisely.

Walton explained: “There were a lot of ways people would cut pipe in the old days. They would cut it with saws. They would torch it with gas torches. Until the welding machines came along in the late ’60s, early ’70s, there was really no way to make a precision cut. They’d have to have pipe prepped in a machine shop. Well, if you had an in-place pipe that you wanted to cut, you had to torch it and grind it by hand. It was very labor-intensive, and it didn’t give a consistent prep.”

Tri Tool started out with tools that helped with prepping the pipe surface and added welding equipment to it. Mechanized tools helped to reduce human fatigue and the safety and quality challenges that came along with it, but their inherent risks required that welders be vigilant as they worked in often-close confines.

The company’s portable equipment can be taken apart to make it easier to get into and out of tight spaces. The operator can then set up the equipment around the pipe. The tools are typically operated using a computer keyboard or a remote that looks a lot like those used to play video games.

Portable doesn’t always mean lightweight, said Walton, pointing to a machine that weighs 12,000 pounds. Another of their machines, Wernette added, is large enough to work on 76-inch diameter water pipelines in Saudi Arabia. The size of the machine, its uniqueness and its functionality determine pricing.

Tri Tool designs its systems and does 80 to 90 percent of the work it takes to build them at its 134,000-square-foot facility in Rancho Cordova. People outside the manufacturing industry think such work is a dying field, Wernette said, but Tri Tool employs engineers, machinists, mechanical technicians, finance people, administrative, shipping and receiving clerks, crate-builders and more.

Machinists operate 23 sophisticated computer-controlled cutting machines that cost the company anywhere from $15,000 to close to $1 million. Tri Tool’s welding project manager, Dale Flood, was just nominated as the president of the American Welding Society in 2018, Wernette said.

In total, about 160 people work full time for Tri Tool, and a small group of them live a fairly nomadic existence training or doing work for clients all around the world. Wernette likened these and other employees to the smoke jumpers who parachute in and fight wildfires: “On a lot of our projects, there is no time. It has to be done now. People don’t have heat. People need energy. People need leaks repaired. Our people go into situations unknown, but based on their experience of living in this world, they’re able to go in there and effectively triage and get the job done.”

Wernette grew up in the business. His father, Dr. George J. Wernette, founded the company and got it off the ground with the help of his wife, Jerri Wernette. They still own the business.

“During the summers, Dad would give me to an employee,” Wernette said, “and I would go to work every day with that employee during the summer. I worked in our IT department. I worked in the manufacturing side and also around our tool-bit grinding operation.”

He went off to Arizona State University to study aerospace engineering but came back to help his father with the business before he could earn his degree. The 36-year-old took the reins as CEO in February 2016 and enjoys telling people that he has roughly 30 years of experience at Tri Tool.

Wernette said he loves the business because his team gets to help diverse clients solve problems: “We go to the customers’ pain points, and we find pain relievers. We give them what they need. We recently designed a CNC (routing) machine system that had to break down into small components and be reassembled in position through a small hatch, and it had to have the rigidity, controls and ability of a large machining system, but it had to sneak into a tight spot. We do a lot of custom engineering.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

Careers in manufacturing

Tri Tool CEO Joe Wernette noted that his company and Siemens USA are partnering with the Los Rios College District to expand apprenticeship opportunities for individuals interested in manufacturing careers.

The U.S. Department of Labor awarded $5 million last year to five Northern California community colleges – American River College, College of the Siskiyous, Cosumnes River College, Sierra College and Yuba College – to align advanced manufacturing coursework with industry needs and to redesign and schedule college classes to support apprenticeships. The goal is to train or retrain 1,000 workers for job openings in Northern California.

Rancho Cordova-based Tri Tool never rests when it comes to updating the machinery that has driven its $40 million-a-year business to success. Last month, the company showed off advances that eliminate pinch points where a welder’s clothing and fingers can get caught when they’re cutting, beveling and repairing existing pipeline.

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