Southern Fabricators finds that advanced technology fortifies customer relationships
May 6, 2011
Southern Fabricators Inc. has put a premium on the relationships it has with its customers, and that focus has led to robust growth, particularly as the metal fabricator has invested in new equipment to keep up with customer demands.
Probably the best reminder of the very early days of Southern Fabricators Inc., Polkton, N.C., is the customer that the job shop still makes parts for—just as it did in 1968 when brothers Ken and Everett Carpenter started work in a 10,000-square-foot facility. Sure, the steel frames and other parts for Ingersoll Rand portable compressors—a business that Doosan Infracore Portable Power purchased in 2007—are made a little differently now, but some of those parts still look as they did those many years ago.
"If you have the same customer for 42 years, you are doing something right," said Ken B. Carpenter, the company's sales manager and son of the company's president and founder.
Southern Fabricators has done a lot right in recent years to ensure that it would rebound strongly after drops in business from 2008 to 2010. Carpenter said the company expects to grow 33 percent when compared to 2010 and earn approximately $15 million in annual revenue.
The growth has resulted from a diversification strategy that the company pursued over the last five years. No single customer dominates the business, and the job shop now does work for many industries, such as electric; heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation; industrial equipment; and material handling. To support these customers, Southern Fabricators' management team (Figure 1) has invested in equipment, people, and software, all of which has helped to meet requests for tighter lead-times and strict deadlines for delivery.
Meanwhile, the Southern Fabricators team has tried to maintain personal relationships with all customers. Even as some of the bigger OEM customers push for more e-mail communication, the company has gone the other way—refusing to install a voice mail system. Anyone who calls the shop always gets a live person.
"Some people think it's old-school, but we think it's personal," Carpenter said.
Of course, the relationships are only as good as the on-time-delivery numbers. Southern Fabricators realizes this and has taken steps to show that the company is personally interested in punctual delivery, as well as friendly relations.
A lot has changed since 1968, and the turnaround on jobs is probably one of the most dramatic changes. Eight-week lead-times used to be the norm, but today the company is lucky to get half of that time to get products out the door. In the case of prototypes, the window to turn around a design is even smaller.
"If it's a hot job, and they need it in a certain amount of time, we do what we can to get it to them," Carpenter said.
Keeping track of those hot jobs has been a lot easier since 2007 when the company laid fiber-optic cable throughout the facility and installed a Made2Manage enterprise resource planning system. Before that occurred, the operations manager had the jobs that required the tightest turnarounds written on a legal pad, and he hustled across the shop floor to keep tabs on just where the work stood as it worked its way toward delivery.
Today equipment operators can call up a daily schedule, along with prints, at numerous computer terminals throughout the shop. They can see which jobs require immediate attention and which jobs aren't needed right at that moment.
Carpenter added that the software "connects" everything—from shop floor performance to front-office activities, such as invoicing and payrolls. Southern Fabricators now has a good sense of how efficiently it is operating and can access that information at a moment's notice.
Another big assist came with the addition of a TRUMPF L-6050, a 6-kW laser with an automated sheet loader and unloader (see Figure 2a) and a 19-station material tower (see Figure 2b). The company constantly runs the machine over its two 10-hour shifts, four days per week. Because of the automation, it also can operate the equipment unattended over a weekend.
"You can put a sheet up there, and it'll make a thousand parts before you know it," said Ken Carpenter Sr.
Southern Fabricators is cutting plenty of parts with its new laser and its other three TRUMPF lasers: an L-2503E (3-kW), an L-3030 (4-kW), and an L-3050 (5-kW). The laser cutting is a good fit for most of the material the company cuts—7-gauge to 0.25-in.-thick mild steel.
Coincidentally, the job shop has seen an increase in its thinner-gauge work, according to Rocky Carpenter II, mechanical engineer and grandson to founder Ken Carpenter. Not so coincidentally, most of the increase is tied to new accounts that came from sister divisions of a current customer.
In the near future Southern Fabricators plans to purchase a new precision punching machine. What makes this piece of equipment attractive, according to Carpenter, is its ability to be programmed offline, an option that the company uses on all of its laser cutting machines. It also performs value-added processes, such as tapping, countersinking, and forming, right on the machine.
At the same time the company invested in more laser cutting capacity, it also purchased a high-precision press brake. The TRUMPF TruBend 3120 (see Figure 3) has enabled operators to deliver high-quality parts to the welders and cut down on the amount of rework needed to make the parts fit up in the welding fixtures.
Employees also have proven to be much more flexible as they have adapted to the tightened lead-times for projects. They are cross-trained to work multiple pieces of equipment, ensuring that a job won't be disrupted even when someone calls in sick or has to step away from the machine.
"Wherever the need is, that's where they work, whether it's lasers, press brakes, or shears," Carpenter said.
Just as employees perform multiple functions in the cutting and bending departments, welders also take on varying assignments. The area is stocked with an array of welding equipment—32 Miller gas metal arc welding power units, a Miller gas tungsten arc welding unit, a Taylor-Winfield spot welding machine, two Airco pulse-arc GMAW units, and a Panasonic robotic welding cell—but the welders keep the projects constantly moving. At this company, they not only weld, but also grind (see Figure 4).
The company management team picked up the idea after a tour of a nearby Freightliner facility. The truck manufacturer's welders moved freely between tasks, eliminating material handling time moving product from one area of the factory to the next. Carpenter said the team broached the idea with the company's approximately 40 welders, and shortly thereafter they began juggling multiple responsibilities.
Working with shortened lead-times is one challenge. Meeting the predetermined delivery date is another.
One of Southern Fabricators' customers in particular has to have its fabricated and painted breaker boxes delivered to the installation site on agreed-upon dates, or the utilities will not use them. A missed date is a missed paycheck for the customer and, consequently, bad news for Southern Fabricators. With just-in-time delivery a permanent part of the manufacturing landscape, metal fabricators have to worry about meeting all deadlines, not just certain ones.
Such a concern led Southern Fabricators to jump into the machining business in 2010. After spending about $300,000 a year on outsourcing its machining activities, the company purchased a new mill and lathe.
"Someone else down the road doesn't see the urgency of the product," Carpenter said.
It also worked out well because Operations Manager Randy Collins had come from a machining background only three years earlier. He helped the company make a smooth transition, influencing the purchasing decision, ramping up production, and finding the right people to run the equipment.
Although the job shop has no interest in becoming a machine shop, the new equipment has helped it avoid the bind of having to wait on machining services from outside vendors. Now when a pin, block, or bolt is needed, the shop floor can look to the front of the shop instead of down the road for help.
Bringing in formerly outsourced work is not foreign to the company. Ken Carpenter Sr. set up a powder coating operation back in 1991. "That got us an edge," he said.
Today the company has a 10,000-sq.-ft. powder coating facility with a five-stage pretreatment system, two powder coating lines, and two curing ovens that heat up to 450 degrees F. One of the powder coating lines has a four-hopper system (a different color in each hopper), which allows Southern Fabricators to change powder colors in a matter of minutes and gives operators the flexibility of easy color changes. The largest part that the line can handle is 6 by 8 by 20 feet.
Southern Fabricators recently invested in upgrading the powder coating operation as well. About $30,000 was spent on new application guns for better powder usage—keeping more powder on the parts than on the floor. Another $15,000 was used to upgrade the nozzles in the pretreatment system so that chemicals could be targeted more precisely at the parts moving through the enclosure.
Carpenter estimated that the company is spending about 25 percent less on powder and pretreatment chemicals because of the equipment upgrades.
"You got to get with the program"—that's how Ken Carpenter Sr. described the steps Southern Fabricators has taken over the years to keep up with customer demands. The way he sees it is that more OEMs are looking to get out of the manufacturing business. That's why his company needs to offer as many value- added services as possible.
Sometimes customers might call for something even more than just supplying fabricated metal parts. For Southern Fabricators, it meant taking over an entire production line for a material handling equipment manufacturer.
In the building that houses its 6-kW laser cutting machine, the company also has an entire line of production equipment—a machining center and various welding fixtures—used to produce steer axles and frames for a lift truck. Southern Fabricators took over the line when its customer closed its manufacturing facility and asked if the shop could do the job.
The job shop took over the line in late 2009 and has been churning out the components (see Figure 5) since. In fact, Southern Fabricators actually has improved production efficiencies on the line because most of the manufacturing is done in-house and greatly reduced the need to outsource parts. Currently the line is producing about eight units a day, but can complete up to 30 per day based on production volumes needed.
This is more than a simple outsourcing story. Southern Fabricators is now part of the material handling equipment manufacturer's Midori-kai group, or Green Club. It's a phrase the Japanese company uses to describe its preferred supply base. In Japan the company holds annual meetings at which its top managers mix with the suppliers, sharing ideas and exchanging opinions. The manufacturer wants its supply partners to be successful so the overall supply chain can be stronger. It's almost like a family, and Southern Fabricators has made the trip to Japan because it's part of the Midori-kai. It's personal.
The company's management believes that, and they entice all 110 employees to buy into that belief as well. Carpenter said the employees are offered family insurance with only a $25 contribution, and they have the opportunity to participate in a 401(k) program. The hope is that they can look at their place in the company as a career rather than just a job.
"We have a philosophy here. It's a skating rink philosophy," Carpenter said with a smile. "Basically, with us not having a product, all we have is our service, our quality, and our delivery. If we don't do that for our customers, somebody is going to make a heck of a nice skating rink here out on this cement floor."
That's his personal opinion, of course. What else would you expect?