- Created: 2017-10-10
Being a leader in sheet metal fabrication often means venturing outside your shop’s comfort zone – and into machining
by Kip Hanson, senior editor
We’ve all heard the clichés. One-stop shop. Soup to nuts. Full service.
The opportunity to find everything under one roof might be expected from a big box or automotive superstore, but it’s far less common in manufacturing where those who machine metal for a living tend to stay far away from the people who bend, form and weld it. But for an increasing number of fabricators, mastery of CNC lathes and machining centers has proved to be a smart business move, resulting in decreased reliance on others, improved part quality, happier customers and additional sales opportunities.
A 100-year-old company, Robinson Metal boasts more than 185,000-sq.-ft. of manufacturing space.
One of these companies is EVS Metal. Founded in 1994, the company’s original business model was based on production of rackmount enclosures for the computer industry, but that soon evolved as EVS acquired customers in the telecommunications, consumer electronics, medical and semiconductor industries, all eager to partner with a fabricator able to offer “end-to-end manufacturing solutions.”
Today, EVS Metal has facilities in four states and has moved far beyond fabrication.
“We’ve long offered some level of light machining, but not to the point where we were comfortable pursuing more of that kind of work,” says Joseph Amico, vice president and director of manufacturing and sales. “But we recently acquired a shop in New Jersey with five vertical machining centers and a live-tool equipped CNC lathe. Together with what we already had there and in our Texas facility, we can now handle most anything that comes our way. It’s made us a lot more flexible.”
Much of this work is machining of components that fit within a fabricated enclosure, for example, or performing secondary operations on a welded chassis. It’s not just chipmaking, however. Several of Amico’s customers are medical equipment or capital machinery providers and charge EVS Metal with turnkey solutions. This not only means machining, fabricating and welding, but electro-mechanical assembly and testing, as well.
“We also do some work for the transportation industry, such as access gates for a subway or train station,” he says. “Those units are built and tested for the target environment, including the communication network, high-voltage and ground fault verification, pretty much whatever’s needed short of building the actual circuit boards. We then ship the completed units from here directly to the end customer, ready for installation.”
The machining area isn’t the only part of the business that’s received a capability facelift. Over the past two years, EVS Metal has added key pieces of equipment at several of its facilities, including an LCG 3015 AJ Series 2-kW fiber laser, an EG 6013 AR automated bending robot and most recently, an EM 3612 ZRT turret punch with a 300-tool automatic tool changer and FMS material retrieval and storage, all from Amada America Inc.
“The ZRT allowed us to reduce the number of machines we have in New Jersey while increasing our ability to set up and run unattended,” Amico notes. “The same goes for the fiber laser, which eliminates the limitations we were facing with our CO2 machines. Forget about the increased speed of the fiber – the biggest benefit for us is the ability to hit the start button and have it work the same way every time, year after year.”
Vertical integration means continually upgrading all a company’s equipment. For EVS Metal, that meant adding an Amada EM 3612 ZRT turret punch with 300-tool automatic tool changer.
Another shop enjoying the benefits of its new fiber laser is Robinson Fab and Machine, a division of Robinson Metal Inc. Late in 2016, the company replaced some of its older CO2 lasers with an Amada LCG 4020 AJ 6-kW fiber laser equipped with an 80-in.-by-160-in. table and AMS 4020 automated material handling system.
Division manager Jamie Tilkens says there was a little bit of a learning curve, but thanks to a seasoned team of employees, Robinson’s first fiber experience has been a positive one. Combined with an array of fabricating equipment, including 242-ton press brakes, dual-head waterjet machines, 240-ft. crane bays and 100 AWS-accredited welders, the laser provides Robinson’s five manufacturing divisions the ability to tackle everything from custom enclosures to pressure vessels to processing machinery.
Tilkens arrived at Robinson shortly after its initial foray into machining, nearly 20 years ago. Like EVS Metal, Robinson wanted to fulfill the needs of its sheet metal customers, but ran into difficulties while attempting to do so.
“The main issue,” Tilkens explains, “was that the machine shops in our area would work with us while they had capacity, but as soon as they got busy with their core customers, they’d leave us behind.”
An EG 6013 AR automated bending robot hard at work in EVS Metal’s New Jersey facility.
Like many who subcontract work to others, Robinson experienced long lead times. But, poor quality was the straw that broke the outsourcing back.
“We’d take an order from a customer, rely on someone else to help us with the machining, and then our name would be stamped all over the defective parts that we didn’t even make,” he says. “Worse, we couldn't even fix anything because we didn’t have the necessary equipment.”
That’s all changed. Robinson’s current machining lineup has several Mazak multitasking and turn/mill lathes and nearly a dozen OKK horizontal and vertical machining centers. The shop also is in the process of installing a SNK bridge mill with 200-in.-by-108-in. X and Y travels. With its five-sided machining capability, it will hopefully eliminate the bottleneck the shop has had on its Kuraki boring mill.
In recognition of its extensive machining and fabrication capabilities, the company rebranded itself shortly before installing its fiber laser last year. What were once marketed as two separate companies – Robinson Fabrication and Robinson Machine – have since become Robinson Fab and Machine and are promoted as a single-source supplier.
A machinist preparing to load parts into one of EVS Metal’s 11 Haas machining centers.
Both companies go well beyond fabricating and machining. Painting, powder coating, blasting, rolling, graining, welding, assembly and integration – these are just some of the many services offered by these leaders in metalworking. And if you don’t know exactly what you need, only that you need it and fast, engineering and design services are also available. Whatever it is, these one-time fab shops have long since become one-stop manufacturing shops.
One-stop manufacturing has its challenges. Anyone who’s tried to fill an open position in the milling department or hire a certified welder knows the difficulty in finding skilled workers – attempting to staff a shop responsible for the entire gamut of metalworking processes might seem as likely as teaching your poodle to play the piano. Yet somehow, these companies have managed to do just that (find employees, that is, not piano-playing dogs).
Says Tilkens, “It was a struggle at first having two such disparate skill sets under the same roof. The mentalities are different. If you mess something up on a fabricated part, a lot of times you can fix it. That’s not the case with machining – once you remove metal from a workpiece, you really can’t add it back.”
He laughs, “Maybe that’s why a lot of people say that machinists and fabricators don't get along.”
Except for machine operators, who might float between the two departments, EVS Metal and Robinson tend to keep their more experienced people assigned to their respective areas. And as with a number of shops across the United States, both companies work with local technical and high schools, promoting the trades and encouraging young people to pursue a career path – chip or fab – in manufacturing.
Both companies have also realized additional opportunities as a result of their diversification. EVS Metal’s Amico says that once you’re able to fulfill one customer’s entire range of manufacturing needs, it becomes easier to do so with other customers. This, in turn, leads to more business, ever greater diversity and a higher level of commitment between customer and supplier alike.
“When you can fulfill a project from start to finish, it makes things easier for your customer,” he says. “They’re less likely to shop around, and as long you continue to deliver on your promises, everyone’s happy. The only downside is that the entire process is more complex, with a commensurately longer supply chain. Most of the time, you have to set up a stocking program for your customer’s parts, and work to a moving forecast rather than the ‘Here’s your purchase order, here’s the due date’ mentality of the old days. Everything is just more dynamic.”
One outcome of this dynamism is EVS Metal’s expansion into self-service point-of-sale and wayfinding kiosks, which has recently been split off into a separate division under the brand name RedyRef.
These OKK vertical machining centers represent only a small percentage of Robinson Metal’s chipmaking capabilities.
“We’ve always had calls from customers asking us, ‘Hey, can you make me a telephone kiosk or a media kiosk or a kiosk for a hospital,’” Amico explains. “And the kiosks themselves don’t look all that complicated, but each one is custom, and each takes a lot more knowledge than designing a sheet metal bracket or computer chassis. This is one example of a large opportunity that wouldn’t have presented itself were it not for our vertical manufacturing background and capabilities.”
A similar story can be told for Robinson Fab and Machine, which just signed an exclusive agreement with one of its longtime customers. After years of supplying fabricated and machined components for the customer to assemble in-house, management there recently decided they’d rather focus on their core competencies of engineering and sales.
“So, we agreed to hire all their manufacturing employees,” he says. “They started for Robinson on Sept. 5th.”
Tilkens agrees that there’s no cliché behind a one-stop manufacturing shop. “We have six people in our project management group, each of whom handles machining and fabrication together. Having both capabilities has increased our production volumes and variety substantially and has also been very helpful with level loading the business. You don't feel the economic ups and downs as much. You can’t be a jack of all trades, and you have to know when to say no to some work, but I can honestly say it was a good move for our company.”