ECS Composites, founded in 1954 in Oakland, California, then known as Crate Rite, Inc., was one of the first case manufacturers to introduce reusable Fiberglass Reinforced Polyester (FRP) containers. Before utilizing the FRP cases to safely transport and store valuable equipment, container manufacturers, including Crate Rite, Inc., built and used wooden crates. These large and cumbersome containers provided storage but did not always protect the gear and supplies during transit, especially in austere environments. Crate Rite, Inc. became ECS Composites in 1965. It moved to its current location in Grants Pass, Oregon, to be closer to its primary customer base, the many logging companies in Southern Oregon. By 1969, ECS created a packaging solution to house and protect the 19-inch rackmount. It also found a new customer base. The mid-1960s saw a boom in technology, especially in networking and integrated circuits. The 19-inch rack was the standardized frame for mounting electronic networking modules. ECS, partnering with customer Hewlett-Packard, created a container system, complete with sophisticated shock attenuation, that protected the networking gear inside. Most important, the container and shock system inside allowed the equipment to be mobile and operational in the field. ECS’ state of the art shock attenuation system allowed the enclosed equipment to move at the moment of impact. During transportation, the container will flex, and the enclosed equipment will begin to deflect the cushion system as it moves toward the container’s point of impact. The basic idea was to allow full utilization of the space between the equipment and the box (i.e., the sway space) for flexing the shock attenuation system. Not only was the expensive module protected from the elements, but it was also safe from vibration when being transported. The customer that came calling for ECS’ Rackmount cases was the Department of Defense (DoD), which needed its data centers in the field to be operational and lightweight. ECS’ Rackmount cases were the first to allow for full integration and interoperability of networking equipment.
Today, ECS remains an internationally respected designer and manufacturer of reusable containers and enclosures for equipment. The company is also an experienced custom molder of thermoplastic and thermoset composite parts, possessing one of the nation’s largest compression molding presses and additional techniques for molding thermoplastic materials and fabricating metal product diversity to the company’s core capabilities.
Maybelle Becklin must have thought her husband, Don, had lost his mind when he came home one afternoon and announced that he was taking out a second mortgage on their home to purchase a small but burgeoning packaging business on the docks of Oakland, California, right before Christmas in 1954. That business was Crate Rite, Inc., a manufacturer of both wooden crates and composite containers for transporting mostly military equipment. It was a newer innovation, a reusable fiberglass container, that piqued Don’s interest for ownership (Becklin, 2020). While the company gained its roots and a solid reputation, as a supplier of wooden containers, Becklin was planning to help the company move forward with the FRP container's advent. FRP was the same material used for exteriors of planes and even some cars in the 1930s and 40s. Now, Don just needed to convince his wife and their three children that an investment in a container company was worth a second mortgage.
While reusable fiberglass composite containers got their start in the mid-1950s, the rapid gains in container management efficiency by the U.S. military began with the onset of the Vietnam War. The capability to move more cargo farther and faster was ideal to the military, which had become more entangled in global engagements. By the time the United States became involved in the Vietnam War, containerization had become an extensively used logistics method of operation. Combined with the development of automated supply-ordering systems, containerization of cargo accelerated supplies' movement through the logistics pipeline from continental United States installations and depots to overseas units and depots. In 1965, the Army and Air Force jointly owned almost 200,000 containers. Every central Army unit moving into Vietnam carried its accompanying spare parts and supplies in containers. The demand for containers increased as the conflict escalated, and eventually, the Southeast Asia theater inventory exceeded 75 percent of the boxes then owned by the Army and Air Force. The 150,000 containers in the theater represented about 6 million square feet of covered storage (Weaver, 2010).
All of this aided Don Becklin as he propelled Crate Rite Inc. forward, and by the time he moved the company north to Grants Pass, the business was an industry leader for designing and manufacturing reusable containers, as well as for reputable business practices. After Don purchased a specific metal strip used to H-section the boxes, he took a phone call from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which needed the metal for use in its space shuttle. Don handed the metal over to the NASA engineers for free and even offered to bend the strips. NASA thanked Don but assured him that it sent men to the moon, so bending metal would not be an issue. A week later, Don was on the phone again with NASA, and the engineers needed the metal bent. ECS personnel bent the strips, and when NASA wanted to send a bill for the work, Don replied that he appreciated what NASA had done for the United States, and the work performed was on ECS. As a Government Agency, NASA had to send something. A couple of weeks later, ECS received a package from NASA, and inside was a flag that was on Apollo 11 and a letter from NASA with signatures from Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins (Becklin, 2020). Today, the flag and note are proudly displayed in the company’s main conference room.
When Don, now working alongside his son, Dennis, invented the packaging solution for the 19-inch Rackmount, ECS engineered the prototype fiberglass container with large shock mounts to protect the nearly 200-pound networking equipment. Don and Dennis engineered the sophisticated shock attenuation system to allow the enclosed equipment to move at the moment of impact (Becklin, 2020). The ability to have networking equipment be mobile and operational in the field was a huge step forward in technology for the United States Military. By this point, Dennis had assumed the majority owner's role and took over as the chairman of the board, while Don retired. Dennis Becklin steered ECS further toward military applications and away from the logging industry, becoming a subcontractor for businesses and contractors who supported the DoD.
In 1979, a fire in the middle of the night destroyed most of the main facility, but as Dennis proudly proclaims, ECS was never late with a single order. Employees continued to assembly the custom containers under tarps and in all kinds of weather conditions as the main building was rebuilt in less than a year (Becklin, 2020).
While competitors offer cheaper products and faster lead time, ECS stays true to its roots, and each container is custom-built to meet specific customer requirements. As a testament to its integrity, a significant customer of ECS, General Dynamics (GD), to cut costs, tried to reverse-engineer the Rackmount container in 2009. ECS’ annual contract with GD was nearly $14 million, the largest for ECS at the time. When Dennis Becklin found out GD was mass-producing its Rackmount case, which was very similar in design to ECS, he severed all ties with GD, including cutting off a valuable friendship with the President of the division. The $14 million contracts were lost during the Great Recession, and as a result, many employees were laid off during a tumultuous time. ECS went from profiting nearly $50 million at its peak in 2007 to $18 million in 2010. The company persevered, and in 2012 Dennis’ son, Sterling, became the third-generation owner. Under Sterling’s leadership, ECS has updated many of its technologies to adapt to the latest trends, which has helped the company rebound financially.
Today, the ECS has two primary product lines that it manufactures at its main facility and two completed at other factories. Thermo Stamped Composite (TSC), which is compression molded on presses up to 1,200 tons in capacity and uses the same composite materials found in car bumpers and military truck components. FRP, a 65% (by weight) long strand, fiberglass reinforced, polyester thermoset laminate. ECS also uses carbon fiber mixed into the FRP composite laminate resin and fiberglass material to produce a lightweight, composite material that is particularly suitable for use in applications that have weight limitations. Rotationally Molded Polyethylene is made from a low-density resin. Vacuum Infused Process (VIP) distinguishes itself by being the only process that uses atmospheric pressure to push the resin into the mold cavity. VIP technology is a vacuum-assisted composite fabrication and is widely used for producing large components with good quality, and widely applying in aircraft, shipbuilding, automotive, wind energy, and defense industries, due to its low cost, time-consuming, simplicity of the required equipment, and better ecology conditions at the manufacturing level (Shevtsov, Zhilyaev, Chang, Huang, & Snezhina, 2020).
One primary market has been large containers for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV). Recent advancements in hardware technology have enabled more integration of sophisticated software, triggering progress in the development and employment of Unmanned Vehicles (UVs), and mitigating restraints for onboard intelligence. As a result, UVs can now take part in more complex missions in environmental conditions that call for a higher level of situational responsiveness.
ECS jumped into the VIP business in 2012 when customer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA), which manufactures large UAVs, asked the executive team to bid on a multi-year, multi-million dollar container contract for its Gray Eagle, the largest the company had ever seen. There was a catch: The prototype needed to be in San Diego, California, in 90 days. ECS had never built an application this large in its history. It also did not have the facility to house such a giant container, so the company rented a building. Nearly 20 employees from various departments banded together to construct an eight-foot-tall, 30-foot wide container. With literally hours to spare, the team loaded the completed case onto a flatbed truck and had it delivered to GA. The GA program managers awarded ECS with a five-year contract for 19 containers. This spawned not only a new product line but also an investment in a new facility to house the large containers. For more than 65 years, the company has followed Don, and Dennis’ philosophy of it has never cheated a customer, never taken money it didn’t earn, and always did business with integrity
ECS Composites creates integrated and interoperable packaging solutions for sensitive equipment and applications. ECS is one of the few reusable container companies that engineers and designs packaging solutions around a component that meets environmental requirements and military standards (MIL-STD). To provide the proper protection for equipment, ECS personnel need to understand the specifications and the application's environment. The process begins when the customer calls the sales department at ECS and provides vital information like dimensions, the payload, the terrain, which could be an arctic region or a desert, what compliances and other special precautions need to be met, and a request for quotation (RFQ) is created. After the quote is checked by document control, ECS engineers can determine which material is best suited for the equipment. The quote then goes to product management, where a part number is created and the Bill of Material (BOM). The package is then sent to costing for a price. While most small businesses, like ECS, tend to start with flat structures, they develop more bureaucratic structures as the organization grows. ECS has a bureaucratic structure with narrow spans of control and high centralization, specialization, and formalization. Manufacturers, like ECS, who make and sell high-risk items, have to have rigorous bureaucratic systems to ensure that each product designed, manufactured, and sold is absolutely safe in every situation where it may be used (Coker, 2014). ECS’ bureaucratic structure is like most management, which has a pyramidal command structure. The Functional Organizational Structure has a high degree of specialization for ECS employees and is scalable as the company grows. Creating an organizational chart and chain-of-command for ECS, the top-level is a two-pronged leadership, with the owner acting as the President of the company, and a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) running the day-to-day operations, overseeing the executive team, and focusing on the company’s overall revenue and payroll. The finance department has a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) overseeing three divisions, accounting, purchasing, and costing. The Product Management department runs like a Matrix structure with a Vice President supervising the engineers and leads running individual product departments. A matrix organization requires different skills of leadership conditioned by the peculiarities of a matrix structure. A strong emphasis is on the ability to efficiently cooperate and a high level of personal efficiency (Lukinate & Sondaite, 2017). A challenge with this type of structure presents itself when employees are given direction from two different managers, and they need to prioritize their work responsibilities (Lotich, 2018), which is a problem, mainly when the owner tasked the engineers with personal projects. The sales and marketing departments are led by another Vice President, regional managers, associates, and manufacturing reps covering the East and West Coast and International markets. There is a natural conflict between the sales department, costing, and product management because of its customization, with much of it stemming from price and capabilities. ECS products are nearly double the cost of the competitors, but the differentiator is the material ECS uses for its development and the engineering prowess that goes into designing the container around the equipment. On the production floor, there is a Vice President of Manufacturing that oversees several departments led by managers. Finally, a quality director heads both quality control and assurance.
Since Don Becklin purchased Crate Rite, Inc., in 1954 and later transformed it into ECS Composites, the company has been innovators. The Becklins took an existing manufacturing process and engineered it into reusable containers. Later, ECS engineers experimented with different thermo stamped composite materials to create a more flexible and durable box. The product is costly and complicated. The strategy has always been to become part of a more massive contract for military applications instead of selling directly to consumers. The CEO and executive team formulate and implement goals and initiatives while also improving efficiency and controlling costs for the fiscal year. ECS’ marketing team performs an annual SWOT analysis at the start of the first quarter to help the company identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats while also discussing a competitive advantage. ECS products are more focused on designing around components and material for their target market, which is why they are priced higher and have a longer lead time.
Dennis Becklin’s motto is, “we want to run the business today the way my dad did in 1954.” (Becklin, 2020). In other words, the values, expectations, and practices should lead to integrity with the consumers and support and value for the employees. To help the employees feel appreciated, the owners bring in donuts and snacks every Wednesday morning. They also set up the work week where employees can leave every Friday at 1:30. The owners also purchase turkeys for the employees each Thanksgiving and hand out cash bonuses at Christmas. These small tokens of appreciation helped keep the employees motivated. No company has a perfect culture, and poor communication and perceived ineffectiveness lead to conflict and an occasional dysfunctional environment. At times, there is a silo effect between departments. Many organizations are fragmented into silos, or insular worlds of specialized expertise, which fail to communicate or collaborate with one another. ECS is no different. As a result of this, the people in these silos, and the organization relying on those people, suffer from a kind of myopia that prevents them from seeing risks or opportunities that they might see without this fragmentation (Barnett, 2017). An example of this is when the costing department provides a price for an RFQ, and the salesperson feels the dollar amount is too high, and the lead time is too long, and they will lose the sales when they have to communicate the information to the customer. There are a couple of product lines that are outsourced and more expensive. The rotomold product line, for example, has been manufactured by several outside companies since 2017, and each time it is moved, the price increases significantly, and the lead time is extended. The salesperson can be frustrated and even embarrassed because they quoted a different figure less than a year ago for the same product. Simultaneously, the costing department feels it is doing what it needs to do to make the company profitable. In some cases, the sales associate has even attempted to bypass the costing department on an RFQ, creating significant problems for the information system and profit margins.
As a subcontractor and supplier for the DoD, ECS must adhere to specific standards and processes. The military contracts for many of ECS’s customers; because of the need for interoperability of logistics equipment, ECS's defense standardization mostly works with is MIL-STD. More specifically, MIL-STD-810. This is a test method standard that defines the environmental test procedures and engineering considerations for designing a product. The MIL-STD provides 29 test methods covering a wide range of conditions that a product might be exposed to during its use. Standard test methods include Temperature (Methods 501.6 and 502.6) and Vibration (Method 514.7). More application-specific test methods include the Explosive Atmosphere (Method 511.6) and Pyroshock (Method 517.2) (Trimble, 2017).
Meeting MIL-STD-810 has also proven to be a differentiator for ECS, as many of its competitors can’t make that claim. The MIL-STD allows ECS to be part of defense contracts, representing a large percentage of its business. ECS also works with outside vendors and suppliers for its components, which also need to meet stringent standards and requirements.
After several years of being ISO (International Organization for Standardization) compliant, on October 1, 2019, ECS became ISO 9001:2015 certified. ISO 9001 is an internationally recognized certification that ensures the quality of products and services of a company. ECS adopted a quality management system in a strategic decision that improved its overall performance providing a sound basis of development.
Most of ECS’ competitors are less expensive because they are injection molded containers and the process to manufacture these cases is cheaper. This has proven to be an issue in the commercial market competition because ECS typically doesn’t have containers off the shelf (COTS) and the necessary inventory to be a factor in the business-to-consumer (B2C) markets.
The greater number of external forces, the greater the complexity of the external environment. ECS does exist in a complex environment, but it caters to the complexity with engineered solutions, which has hurt its brand because it does not cater to the B2C markets.
ECS has 190 employees, which makes it a small-to-midsize enterprise (SME). There are unique limitations encountered by many SMEs, like having inadequate employees, lacking resources of finance, lacking experience and background of education, and, most importantly, lack of managerial knowledge (Abu & Abdul, 2006). ECS is a member of the Small Business Association (SBA). The SBA is the only cabinet-level federal agency dedicated to small businesses. It provides counseling, capital, and contracting expertise as the nation’s only go-to resource and voice for small businesses (SBA, 2020). The typical structure of a small business is flat since there are a limited number of people who are responsible for many tasks (Griffin, Phillips & Gully, 2014), which is very much the case for ECS. One example is the Vice President of Sales oversees the sales and marketing and the processing teams. Small organizations also have fewer people to divide tasks among, so small organizations have a lower degree of work specialization than large organizations' positions. ECS has a small sales team, so the emphasis is on large contracts instead of small orders. The same for the product management team, which focuses more on highly-custom applications over the standard product line. One factor of organizational structure that is impacted by an organization's size is work specialization, which determines how tasks are subdivided into separate jobs. The more a job is broken down into small tasks, the more specialization is required by each worker (Griffin, Phillips & Gully, 2014). ECS has fewer people to divide tasks among, so the jobs have a lower degree of work specialization than larger organizations' positions. ECS also requires less departmentalization since a small number of people are available to achieve the organization’s goals, and departmental functions often overlap. ECS falls in line with formalization, which determines to what degree the organization's jobs are standardized and the extent to which rules and regulations governing members of the organization. Large organizations have taller structures and a longer and more structured chain-of-command, resulting in highly structured jobs governed by many rules and regulations (Griffin, Phillips & Gully, 2014). Despite being a small organization, ECS has a structured chain-of-command because of its role as a defense subcontractor.
On a micro level, everyone brings to ECS a particular set of personal characteristics and a unique personal background and set of experiences. On a macro level, ECS's structure integrates organizational behavior so that it is synchronized, explicitly providing a channel of communication through which information flows, which is very vital to its success. It all begins with the RFQ and concludes with the quality inspection of a finished product. Each employee at ECS has individual roles, and it is up to the department managers and leads to provide the tool so they can use them to carry out their jobs more effectively.
Planning: This can vary from each department. For example, marketing means forecasting a budget and putting together a strategy for sales for the fiscal year, and helping the sales team execute that strategy. For accounting, this means having raw materials available and the necessary inventory to get orders manufactured and out the door on time.
Organizing: Because of the sensitivity of the equipment, there are specific jobs for groups of employees. One example is the product management department; the engineers are divided by the four different product lines. Each material acts differently in various environments or even payload, so the customer requirements can dictate what packaging solution is selected. Each specific engineer designs the case around special equipment and environmental elements, cargo, and other conditions.
Leading: ECS is a family-owned business, which means the executive team has to consider the shareholders when it comes to decision making, especially with the finances and budgets. Taking care of customer needs takes precedence because that is how ECS makes a profit, but there is also a delicate balance with the family. At any point, an employee may do a project for one of the family members on top of their regular job duties. It is up to the manager or executive to motivate the employee and help them balance their work.
Controlling: This is the most critical function for ECS. The company is a business-to-business and a build-to-order manufacturing facility, which means there is little inventory on the shelves. One of the organization’s goals is to have clean audits at year-end, and it takes a team to make this happen. Limiting mistakes throughout the year is one way to alleviate the extra scrap containers and expenses. For the past six years in a row, ECS has come out profitable during the year-end audits prompting the CEO to buy pizza for everyone as a reward and gratitude.
Since 1954, ECS has been part of the technological revolution as a critical supplier and protector of networking equipment. As technology has grown smaller in recent years, Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) has become the focal point as those who supply to the military are forced to reinvent product offerings and adhere to the new guidelines. Defense platforms now are looking for ways to maximize payload efficiency, which means every centimeter of space, every ounce of weight, and every watt of power are now heavily scrutinized (Rees, 2013).
ECS makes its molds and has an inventory of parts and components on hand to accommodate the changing technology, thanks to a small machine shop inside the facility. The company recently invested in automated computer numerical control (CNC) machines to produce machined parts. Large presses inside the production facility help create shells from the molds. If a specific case and price meet the customer's needs, a contract and purchase order is drafted and reviewed. The container is designed into a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) model by an engineer using Solidworks, an analysis and product data management software. While drafting and developing the container, the engineers pay special attention to structural integrity, including Finite Element Analysis (FEA), to determine the container's weak points. FEA is the process of simulating behavior complexity for engineering projects (Zhuming, 2018). It allows ECS engineers and designers to optimize structures and composites to provide proper safety factors while reducing weight.
Preparing for the Future
Recently, the DoD announced it is moving forward with a $10 billion military cloud computing infrastructure. The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), which includes a preliminary 10-year contract with Microsoft or Amazon, is considered one of the Pentagon’s most high-profile technology contracts in years. Through it, officials hope to link together worldwide military systems at all classification levels from various military departments into a unified architecture (Konkel, 2020). The JEDI program will change the course of how engineered packaging solution companies work with the military going forward.
Today, technology is pushing military applications to a smaller size and weight. SWaP is now scrutinized by military contractors for both electronic warfare and avionics. Also, the demand for multifunction systems and the need to reduce system development costs (SWaP+C) is driving system designs to be more modular and platform-centric, further pushing semiconductor integration levels and device configurability (Cowles, 2015).
What does all this mean for ECS? It means after three generations; the company will need to continue to adhere to the constantly evolving technology and perhaps even reinvent itself to adapt to the challenges ahead.
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