This article originally appeared in The Music Trades in November of 2015.
Piano maker invests millions in Ohio plate foundry with plans to supply global production.
In 1999, Steinway & Sons faced a critical manufacturing dilemma. The O.S. Kelly Company of Springfield, Ohio, its sole supplier of piano plates, had just lot key customers including Baldwin, Aeolian, and Wurlitzer and was on the brink of bankruptcy. A tough choice confronted management: abandon its sand cast iron plate, a key component that had distinguished Steinway pianos for almost 150 years, and find a new source of supply overseas; or get into the plate manufacturing business by purchasing O.S. Kelly.
“It was a very tricky decision at the time,” recalls Andrew Horbachevsky, vice president of manufacturing, Steinway & Sons. “With so many of the parts that go into our instruments, we have deep sources of supply, but our sand cast piano plate is so specialized and difficult to make. We couldn’t find any foundries capable of meeting our specifications so we opted to buy O.S. Kelly to protect this key source of supply.”
Piano experts will debate the merits of sand cast piano plates, like those produced by Steinway at the O.S. Kelly factory, verses V-Pro plates, which are commonplace with high-volume Asian producers. “It would have been easy for us to just go to China and get a cheaper V-Pro plate,” offers Horbachevsky. “But our sand caste plate is different, a slower production process that we feel yields a better sound. It’s a critical component.” He adds, “Our cast-iron frame, also called the plate or harp, is responsible for sustaining the massive tension of the strings, which by some measures must support tensions of up to 40,000 pounds. There is no margin for error when you are dealing with this type of tension.”
Ten years after acquiring O.S. Kelly, Steinway again faced a serious impasse. The factory and its team of 50 employees were producing quality plates for both the New York and Hamburg Steinway factories. However, aging equipment and rising costs forced management to again make an important choice: plan for the future and commit millions in capital expenditures or close down the plant and find an offshore plate supplier.
In 2010, management again sided with O.S. Kelly and pledged a commitment to invest in a multi-million dollar capital campaign to modernize the aging factory. The investments, initiated in 2012, are just now coming to a close with the completion of a new 25,000- square-foot factory, state-of-the-art CNC machining center, and high-tech recycling systems that will not only make O.S. Kelly a more environmentally friendly facility but lower operating costs as well.
“Night and day” is an apt description of the new O.S. Kelly facility versus the 19th century shop it replaces. Poorly lit areas with sand-covered floors have been replaced by new brightly lit rooms where operators load molds with a special mix of sand and binders. These molds then move by rail to the casting area where operators fill them with a molten mix of iron that can weigh up to 400lbs if it’s a plate for a Steinway concert grand piano. A new high-tech recycling system now eliminates the need for carting hundreds of thousands of pounds of sand used in creating molds to landfill sites each year. Sand now goes through a heat system where it’s recycled to be used again in creating new molds.
The new systems in place at the O.S. Kelly factory are decidedly different from anything a visitor would see at either of the Steinway factories in New York or Hamburg. Steinway is about woodworking and handcraftsmanship, while O.S. Kelly is all about metallurgy and metal working. “We’re very proud that we have a manufacturing and engineering team that can not only visualize complex systems like this, but make them a reality,” continued Horbachevsky.
Horbachevsky and his Springfield, Ohio-based engineering team are especially proud of their new “school-bus”- sized CNC machining center—which can take a 400 lb. concert grand plate, flip it over, and with 48 computer-controlled tools, drill all the holes for hitch pins, agraffes, and tuning pins—and at the same time, deburr all the sound holes. It’s a proprietary machine with a price tag well north of $1 million that, according to Horbachevsky, “will not only bring a new level of precision but also allow us to expand production and take on additional work.” The plate that emerges from this machine is then ready for the painstaking finishing process that includes a powder coating and sanding followed by two rounds of paint and a final matte satin finish.
Springfield, Ohio at one time was the piano plate capital of the world with nearly one thousand workers producing 250,000 plates per year at O.S. Kelly and the now defunct Wickham Piano Plate company. Although volumes at O.S. Kelly today are much lower, the factory is busy supplying thousands of plates to Steinway’s factories in the U.S. and Hamburg as well as a few other domestic and foreign-based piano manufacturers. Horbachevsky sums up, “The precision we use today would never allow us to return to the volumes of the past, but we now have the capability to not only produce the finest plate in the world, but to expand production as well.”