In 2012, the indestructible superhero, Hulk, endeared himself to Marvel movie fans with his simple mantra: Smash. Six years later, a trio of young entrepreneurs introduced a Hulk with a slightly modified mission: Endure Smash. Their Hulk cross coupling cable protector for the oil and gas industry is an annealed ductile iron casting used to securely grip and preserve expensive electrical submersible pump (ESP) cables and capillary tubes that face up to 45,000 lbs. of pounding force at the tube collar deep inside a wellbore. With 425,000 clamps sold since 2018, it’s safe to say they’ve been a smash success.
But in 2019, Oil & Tool Solutions (OTS) Director of Product Chandler England, together with his co-founders—childhood friend, Matt Smart, and engineer Mark Robinson—recognized a major void in the ESP marketplace and decided to go after the opportunity with gusto. Their original Hulk product is a 7-in. clamp produced at a foundry in China, and while it represented breakthrough innovation for securing long cables and pipes in wells, narrower lines were grossly underserved; with no successful 5-in. device in the market, field workers were more or less left to jerry rigging their own unreliable solutions. The need for a small-diameter clamp was almost desperate.
Leading a team of engineers into technically arduous territory, Robinson was driven to develop a solution and quickly before competitors could beat them to it—a device that would be both narrower and longer to protect valuable cables. On the other hand, the owners agreed their venture to design a completely new clamp with thinner walls and tighter tolerances presented a unique occasion for rethinking everything they’d been doing to manufacture the Hulk.
It was still pre-Covid and tariffs had already gone into effect when OTS stepped back to consider new options, including U.S. production. A resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, England turned to an acquaintance at Charlotte Pipe, who referred him to Waupaca Foundry, both AFS Corporate Members. For the next 12 months, which included the pandemic, a new band of trailblazers—comprising OTS, the Waupaca team, and a machining partner Waupaca selected—designed, refined, tested, and perfected the Hulk Slimcast 5-in. clamp, which OTS took to market in the fall of 2020. They’ve since installed at 20 wells and sold 6,000 units this October alone, and the clamp has opened up a whole new playing field in West Texas.
“We were maturing as businessmen who began to understand the advantages of manufacturing something in the U.S. and utilizing the technologies and robotics that have gotten better and better,” said England. “We can manage cash flow better, because we’re not having to ship things across the world and then they sit on the water; we could eliminate this whole speculative build-up of inventory. And there’s a huge time gap before you are actually selling product. So we thought, ‘How do we get around that?’
“Plus, we are Americans, and we personally feel that if we can get things done stateside, that would be our preference because we’re selling to this market,” he added. “And we want to be good stewards to the planet, which means not shipping product halfway around the world. If you can shorten your supply chain, and manufacture things in the market you’re selling to, that’s huge ... We want to be profitable, we want to run a good business, and we want to do things the right way ... Just because everyone says it’s cheaper to manufacture in India or China and these other foreign countries because labor is cheaper, well, is that really true?”
It wasn’t, when all costs were evaluated, including the less-monetary but equally potent price of language, culture, and logistics barriers while embarking on a new product development awash in constraints and complications.
“We knew that by going into these tighter wellbores,” England said, “we wanted to work with an American company so that if there are issues, we can work together to resolve them quicker and with less uncertainty.”
Many Solutions, One Casting
The collaboration produced numerous favorable outcomes OTS had not expected, and it started with their choice of metalcaster.
“We immediately formed a great relationship,” said Mike Behring, Waupaca director of off highway and industrial sales, recalling the first meeting. “I initially shared with them that too many customers approach us with initial designs and want to focus solely on cost. I said, ‘Let’s not go through this as a cost exercise alone; let’s go through this as a partnering exercise, and through that, we will develop a cost competitive optimal design and a foundry- and machining-friendly casting ... In the end, they saw we were able to accomplish all of the goals partnering as a team.”
When England first met with Waupaca, he said three things stood out that won his trust: (1) they clearly excelled in metallurgy and educated the manufacturer on the best alloy to employ for the application—ASTM 536 grade 60-40-18 ferritic ductile iron; (2) when Waupaca engineers inspected the existing Hulk clamp, they didn’t trash-talk the Chinese workmanship—they praised what was good but identified where it could be improved; (3) the Waupaca team didn’t hoard all the work—instead, they did what was right for the project and introduced an excellent machine shop into the mix, a company that eventually became the tier-1 supplier that is now Waupaca’s customer for Slimcast.
Machining was, in fact, the lynchpin that ultimately enabled multiple Slimcast SKUs to be derived from a single casting, as opposed to producing multiple castings, each with separate tooling.
“If you think about it, we’re clamping onto different cables,” said England. “Some cables are thicker than others, some are wider. So we needed to leave some extra metal in this casting and then have it machined out to different levels so it could combine with different SKUs of cable. And so that allowed us get the cost down—we can take one casting and machine it into six different SKUs. And that is a big deal.”
The achievement was a beneficiary of a Waupaca revelation: The large, high-cost sand core from the original Hulk clamp could be completely eliminated on the new casting. Instead, the tooling engineers added several strategically-located drafts in the mold, which not only removed redundancy but ended up maximizing the machining time for the clamps.
How? The first generation Hulk used both a core and machining to drill and tap holes required for hinge pins and latching swinging bolts operators use to assemble and secure the clamp around pipes and cables in the field. Behring explained that machining alone could take care of the pin holes on Slimcast, but as long as machining was required for that, why not leverage machining to also handle several variations of the clamp—a clever dodge around the far more costly route of building tools for half a dozen individual castings.
Getting those multiple iterations just right took several weeks, and England’s agile team came a-running to the Southern Wisconsin area to personally test samples whenever the machine shop called them.
“It was a lot of back and forth,” said England. “We basically just got on airplanes and set up shop alongside the machining team. We brought up all our customers’ cables, the capillary tubes; we shipped up a pull test bench—we have to be able to grip this cable, so we had this mechanism to yank cables. We brought up pipe and other presses to kind of crush it and see how strong this thing was, because everything is thinner now. So we’d spend three or four days together, they’d say ‘Here are the revisions we’re going to make,’ and we’d say, ‘See you in a couple weeks and we’ll retest it.’”
Versatile in the extreme, the perfected Slimcast family of clamps are stocked at OTS’s Denver plant, and the machine shop controls fulfillment of the various machined versions of the casting. Customer orders at OTS sometimes have to be out the door in as little six hours, so the quick-changeovers enabled by automated machining have paid off compared to the lead times of casting.
“We don’t know which SKU is going to be the most popular at any given time,” said England, “because one month, one cable may be super popular, and then the next quarter, another cable may be popular. This would have been impossible if we had done this internationally—we would have had to more speculatively invest in enough inventory of everything, not knowing what’s going to be in demand. But when there are shifts in the cable markets or a big company like Halliburton decides to switch to a new contract and they tell us, ‘Oh, by the way, run this cable,’ we can adjust quickly enough.”
Value in the Pipeline
Before a drop of molten ductile iron hit the mold, Waupaca had ensured the strength, wear, soundness, and sizing requirements would all hit the mark of their customer’s specifications.
Using Magma simulations, Behring said, the foundry could confidently thin walls and change geometry of the part, as well optimize pocket sizes in the housing of the clamp.
“We also focused on casting length and adhered to specified lengths that were acceptable to us, OTS, and the machine shop and to assure that we were able to then optimize the number of cavities in the mold, which is another direct contributor to reducing cost.”
The foundry’s metals expertise proved critical, too.
“The yield strength of this material, which can withstand the corrosive environment it’s in during the life of the product, as well as the lower cost of ductile iron versus steel, are what make this particular grade optimal for this application, Behring said.
“And the mechanical, ferritic properties really allow something comparable to a low alloy steel. Oil Tool Solutions required a material that could withstand high impact as the drilling pipe enters the well and many times collides with the wellhead blowback protector. In order to accomplish that, you need this grade of ductile iron with 18% elongation. This is comparable to a lower control arm on your vehicle—if your front tire hits the curb, it’s going to push that material. But at 18%, it will come back to its original form.
“Once the coupling is entering the wellhead protector, that smaller-diameter Slimcast design smashes into the concrete protector—it has to have the impact qualities and elongation qualities to come back to form without breaking.”
A full anneal is required to achieve the elongation requirements, Behring added, and has the added effect of breaking down carbides in the casting’s microstructure that can interfere with the metal’s desired attributes.
With a year of hard knocks under its belt, Hulk Slimcast has an estimated lifespan of three years or four installation cycles, whichever comes first, according to England. OTS adds value to their customers by offering a refurbishment service that will extend each clamp’s working life even further.
Slimcast’s successful debut as a wholly American-made casting for oil and gas wasn’t necessarily the catalyst behind OTS’ decision to eventually reshore—as well as redesign—the original, wider Hulk product, but it certainly has reinforced the idea. The company’s Chinese casting partner has worked out well for the last three-and-a-half years, but it was never the end game, said England. On the other hand, he’s not in a hurry to execute on reshoring just yet—there’s plenty to capitalize on for the present as Slimcast sales pick up steam.
Meanwhile, he stands by his own mantra these days: Challenge yourself. By rejecting hearsay and doing their own homework, England and his fellow OTS owners discovered they could manufacture their invention better, stronger and at low cost by working with high-caliber domestic partners.
“We challenged ourselves, and what we try to challenge others now is, look under the hood, get some pricing, talk to experts in your market,” he said. “Maybe certain products are not going to make sense to get done here, but challenge yourself and go through the process.” CS