Rich Merhige, Founder & President, Advanced Mechanical Enterprises/AME
Vibration analysts are a rare breed. Merhige is one of the best.
Jack: What is vibration analysis?
Rich: All rotating parts vibrate to some extent. But when the vibration – and resultant noise – become excessive, it means there’s a problem with the equipment. Vibration analysis detects the source of the problem and fixes it before there’s a catastrophic failure of an engine or rotor or compressor or whatever part it is.
Jack: OK, tell us about AME Solutions.
Rich: AME Solutions is the “marriage” of our two companies, Advanced Mechanical Enterprises, founded in 2002, and Advanced Maintenance Engineering, founded in 1992. The first services our marine clientele and the second our industrial and manufacturing clientele.
Jack: What led you to found it?
Rich: When I came down to South Florida 22 year ago, I saw an opportunity to provide services on rotating machinery with a relatively new technology that I was skilled in. Vibration analysis was a powerful tool for maintenance for all types of machinery, and South Florida was the perfect place to introduce it, given its thriving marine industry.
Jack: How many offices do you have?
Rich: We have two locations, both in Fort Lauderdale: Our main headquarters with an industrial and marine machine shop and a second machine shop at the Lauderdale Marine Center, which houses our conference room and training facility.
Jack: How many employees?
Rich: There are 17 of us.
Jack: Can you talk about revenues?
Rich: Following some major changes at the end of 2012 we’ve experienced a 20 percent increase in revenue and expect a comparable increase this year.
Jack: How do you pronounce “Merhige”?
Rich: It’s pronounced “MERR-idge,” like marriage.
Jack: What services does AME provide?
Rich: Vibration and noise surveys, laser, optical and strain gage alignment, precision hull deflection measurements, field balancing, thermal imaging, machining, fabrication, welding and line boring.
Jack: What is “infrared thermography”?
Rich: Infrared thermography detects infrared energy and projects it as an image of heat and temperature distribution. It’s also called thermal imaging. We use this technology on machinery to see how it is affected when certain forces are acted upon it. It’s used for electrical panels and switch gear.
Jack: What is condition monitoring or predictive maintenance? Are they the same?
Rich: Condition monitoring is the process of gathering data to assess the operating health of machinery. Data is compared against an existing database or a model to diagnose existing issues and show the beginnings of wear and tear on mechanical components. When an issue is diagnosed and corrected, that is predictive maintenance.
Jack: Who are your main customers?
Rich: The yachting community along with commercial and industrial clients.
Jack: What is the mix between marine and industrial?
Rich: Seventy-five percent marine and 25 percent industrial.
Jack: What kind of industrial work do you do?
Rich: We service power plants and manufacturing facilities, among others. We recently had to fix a power station in the Caribbean that had blown generators. We try to convince people to use condition monitoring so it doesn’t get to the point of catastrophic failure.
Jack: What kind of marine work do you do?
Rich: We work with shipyards to conduct vibration analyses and other diagnostic procedures on a vessel before it is delivered to the customer. But mainly we work on repairs on yachts and bigger vessels, whose owners call on us when they have a problem.
Jack: Give us an example.
Rich: Well, we had this catamaran that was stranded in Tahiti with a leaking shaft and no ship repair yards around. This was no ordinary catamaran. It was the world’s largest sailing catamaran built at two different yards with lots of custom-made equipment. In this case, figuring out the problem wasn’t the hard part. Figuring out to fix it was. Getting parts was tough because marine is not mass production like other industries with lots of standardized parts. But we figured it out and worked out all the details in Fort Lauderdale and located the parts – mainly in Singapore – and then sent one of our best technicians to Tahiti to install a Wärtsilä shaft seal along with the custom components.
Jack: Wow. Cool. How is business in general?
Rich: AME has a booked schedule for weeks to come, and 2014 has been a good year so far.
Jack: What is the outlook for the next couple of years?
Rich: Currently, we are in the market to purchase a building as we have outgrown our current location and need more office and machine shop space. We are also looking to expand our commercial marine business and build stronger alliances with as many shipyards as possible. Often we are viewed as competition, but this is not the case. AME can be hired to simply do the diagnostics of their vessels, act as a consultant and, should they need, perform the service work. In a broader sense, I anticipate a greater industry-wide acceptance of the technologies we employ for diagnostics and maintenance.
Jack: What is AME’s relationship with Wärtsilä and Windrock? Are there other favored suppliers?
Rich: We are the authorized distributor for Wärtsilä in Florida and the East Coast. We are also an authorized representative for Windrock condition-monitoring systems for the marine industry. Windrock is an industry leader in condition monitoring for the oil and gas industry, and they wanted to expand into the marine business. They chose us as their partner.
Jack: You have been quoted as saying you have a “passion for fixing things.” Is “fixing things” what AME is all about?
Rich: Our customers come to us with the most complex problems in the world, and we are able to solve them. However, through our push for condition monitoring, we strive to provide our clients with more predictive maintenance services. That way we are assisting them with their machinery before it actually needs to be fixed.
Jack: Tell us about your own background. What did you do before founding AME?
Rich: Before starting AME I traveled, diagnosing and repairing issues on rotating machinery as a mechanical engineer for organizations such as American Transport Lines, Westinghouse, David Taylor Naval Research Center and Booz Allen & Hamilton. I’ve seen a lot of unusual and complex issues and am frequently called upon as a consultant by all kinds of clients for my technical expertise in noise and vibration.
Jack: How would you describe yourself?
Rich: I’m a procrastinator. I have the stereotypical engineering mind where I have to slowly and methodically analyze everything.
Jack: How would you describe your management style?
Rich: I personally believe in delegation and giving people the tools they need and nurturing them so they can extend their reach and grow. My staff handles most of the day-to-day management and details of the business, freeing me up to do what I love and do best, which is engineering.
Jack: What are your goals for the company?
Rich: To partner with additional product and equipment companies that we believe in and support. We will also continuously educate our AME service team to expand its capabilities and, at the same time, integrate additional services into our portfolio as technologies evolve.
Jack: What has been your biggest challenge thus far?
Rich: Educating our customers on the value of our services and their application to their mechanical issues has been our biggest challenge. The ROI isn’t always immediate.
Jack: What makes AME special?
Rich: What makes AME special is our dedication to continuous training on the newest industry-relevant technologies and our team’s years of hands-on experience. Textbook training and education are important but, when coupled with the comprehensive field experience our technicians have, our services are unsurpassed. They’ve been responsible for solving some of the most complex mechanical issues in the business and, through these experiences, are able to spot things using their senses and intuition that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to by just reading or sitting in a classroom.
Jack: What aspects of the business excite you the most?
Rich: I still enjoy going in the field and trouble-shooting complex structural vibration issues. Like tomorrow I’m flying off to a client in the Midwest.
Jack: Are you the sole owner of the business?
Jack: Is there a profit-sharing program?
Rich: We have a new bonus program in place this year, which consists of a portion of the revenues that are exceeded from last year that will be dispersed among the team for their hard work and contribution to the company.
Jack: AME has a very active community relations program. Tell us about that and some of the organizations you support.
Rich: AME believes in open communication, and we will maintain a corporate culture that promotes and encourages a fulfilling worklife for employees. AME is a member of 10 different associations and organizations and gives back as often as possible. We get involved in numerous sponsored events, many of them charity-driven. This year we became a member of the Marine Industry Cares Foundation/MICF that supports numerous children’s charities (Kids in Distress, Children’s Diagnostic Treatment Centers, among others) in the local South Florida area.
Jack: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Rich: I love traveling every chance I get. I’m also an avid boater and enjoy any activity that’s on the water. – MarEx
Jack O’Connell is Senior Editor of The Maritime Executive.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.