When we talk about the future of American business in 2020, lots of us jump to technology: gig economy apps, blockchains, and unicorn startups. But behind the brick walls of the old Trico Plant Number 3 on Elk Street, another kind of success story is playing out. Austin Air Systems is beating gigantic multinational competitors in the air purifier marketplace, and they’re doing it the old-school Rust Belt way: with press brakes and welding torches.
Austin Air opened its first facility in Larkinville (500 Elk Street) in the fall of 1990, with an innovative combination of proven technologies: HEPA and carbon filtration systems. The devices remove particulate matter and pathogens from air. This has always been important, but demand has exploded since COVID-19’s national spread took off in March.
“Our workforce has quadrupled in size, we’re running multiple shifts every day, and we’re still getting more orders than we can handle,” says Mike Domon, Austin Air’s VP of Sales. The firm now employs about 250 people locally, and will continue to expand as long as the orders keep rolling in.
Those 250 workers are currently turning piles of sheet metal, filter paper, and other raw materials into 1,500 air purifiers every day. “We’ve got our own press line, our own paint line, we do almost everything in-house. Each purifier is essentially a handmade product,” Domon explains. “It takes a week to do all of the steps involved in making a filter, so we’ve got 7,500 of those in process at any given time.”
This retro approach to logistics has made Austin first among its rivals. While the trend for the last 50 years has been long and complicated supply lines, Domon points out that this doesn’t work during a crisis. “If you’re waiting for injection-molded parts from China because you ran out, it might be 8 or 12 weeks before you can get back to work.” Eschewing computerized components and outsourced production, Austin takes a common sense approach to scaling up: “Going from 1,000 units a day to 2,000 units a day is easy: you just hire more people.”
The devices are popular with consumers, but Austin’s strategy of heavy duty, low-tech, and high quality also has them punching above their weight as a contractor. Competitors like Honeywell and Carrier are more than 200 times the firm’s size.
In 2001, the US military did some house cleaning, and realized that they needed to decommission an old stockpile of chemical weapons left over from the World Wars. A $1 billion incinerator was built for the task in Anniston, AL. After evaluating the devices on the market, Uncle Sam ordered almost 30,000 purifiers from Austin Air to keep the neighbors safe, just in case anything went wrong. SoCalGas placed a similar order after 100,000 tons of methane leaked from a well in Aliso Canyon, CA in 2016. This summer’s forest fires out west turned what was already an overwhelmingly busy season into an all-out sprint to keep up with orders.
Therese Forton-Barnes, a local green living consultant, also evaluated the competition and chose to become an Austin Air dealer. “We’re very fortunate to have this company here in Buffalo. The purifiers are constructed of all steel — there’s no plastic anywhere in it. It’s a non-toxic powder coat paint. There’s nothing else like that available.”
The firm feels fortunate to call Buffalo home, too. “There’s a great supply of people who are ready and willing to do jobs that take quite a bit of skill, and people are ready to do it on every shift.” says Domon.
Get connected: austinair.com
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