Santee, California

President Michael Bice says the contract manufacturer is on track for modest growth this year thanks — in part — to continued opportunities within the defense sector.

Bice joined Vortex Engineering in 2015 after a 23-year career in the Navy and Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. “I was involved in working with talented engineers, talented personnel, and talented people overall and in the manufacturing space,” Bice recalls. “Metal fabricators tend to be a very highly skilled, very talented workforce, so that’s what drew me to manufacturing. I wanted to continue working with talented people. And, you know, it’s fun to make stuff and solve customer challenges.”

Photos Jonathan Castner

Solving customer challenges is precisely what the precision fabrication company is known for. “Our secret sauce, if you will, is we’ve always listened to our customers with a challenge and rose to meet that challenge,” Bice says. “Maybe they have an engineering solution but can’t find someone to do their custom work. If they come to us, we can work with them on a design that meets their needs. That turns into repeat business. We keep on catering to these customers and grow with them as they grow.”

Bice says the company’s workload skews heavily towards projects for customers within the defense industry. “It’s typically supporting a modernization of a communication or electronic system,” he explains. “The components include metal fabricated pieces like small brackets, foundations, cable hangers, and things like that. Those components are very specialized and unique, and they’re made of aluminum, or high-strength steel, or different stainless steels.”

That said, Vortex Engineering also does a good deal of fabrication to support the production of custom machinery for reverse osmosis membrane filtration. “We’re one of three manufacturers in the country that makes reverse osmosis membrane equipment,” Bice continues. “Not the filters themselves, but the machines that manufacture the membranes that go into the reverse osmosis filters that make drinkable water from seawater or brackish water.”

This diverse range of projects keeps the company “on our toes,” says Bice. “As far as volume, we typically do [quantities] of one or two, but we may do many different items for a large order. So, for example, to support a submarine or ship upgrade, [we may fabricate] 10, 20, or 30 small parts.”

Within Vortex Engineering’s 13,000-square-foot production facility, the company has made significant investments in equipment including a hydraulic 220 ton numerically controlled press brake and numerically controlled guillotine, six Blanchard-ground cast iron welding tables that are laser aligned and slotted for the precision fabrication of large structures, and numerous sanders, drills, mills, and saws.

The manufacturing team is MIL STD/NAVSEA certified for a variety of metal types and processes. And recently, Bice says the company has begun to make the switch from a “100 percent manual paper company” to using “enterprise resource software to maximize and streamline our manufacturing processes. We’re looking to go paperless with that system and are also making investments in updating our quality management. We’re going to be ISO 9001 certified next year.”

Challenges: Because of Vortex Engineering’s defense work, the company must source almost all of its materials from U.S. manufacturers. Bice says this has continued to present a challenge, with about 10 percent of materials either very difficult to find or requiring longer lead times. “Getting talented people that can do the work with the right skill is still a challenge as well,” he adds.

Opportunities: Though 2020 was tough for the company, they enjoyed one of their best years in 2021, almost doubling their workload. Bice says they continue to see growth and opportunities in both the defense sector and within the water filtration industry.

“The ships and submarines continue to need maintenance and upgrades, so that growth will continue,” he explains. “And on the water membrane side, there has been a recent uptick in request for proposals and updates on equipment. Drinkable water is in global demand, so that will continue to be an opportunity as more companies are looking for that kind of manufacturing.”

Bice is forecasting moderate growth of between five and 10 percent in 2022. “Through next year, our focus is on getting as much new work as we can while at the same time streamlining our manufacturing processes to maximize our margins for each different order,” he adds. .

Needs: “Near term, it’s people,” Bice says. “Long term, we need to start modernizing some of our equipment to continue to grow with our demand. The ERP system will get us there on the electronic side of things. But we’ll have to continue to modernize our cybersecurity posture with processes and procedures along with equipment. For a company our size, I’d say we’re exceptionally postured for cybersecurity, but it’s a continuous process.”