Nontraditional fabricator chasing nontraditional markets

With the automotive industry struggling, Michigan-based Matrix Metalcraft actively pursues diversification.

The FABRICATOR July 2009
July 2, 2009
By: Dan Davis

Matrix Metalcraft, Clinton Township, Mich.,has done plenty of prototype and production work for the automotive industry in the past, but with the downturn in the industry, it is targeting industries aligned with alternative power generation for new business. In doing so, it has found out that its laser cutting capabilities will serve those efforts well.

matrix metalcraft laser cutting

Laser cutting on 3- and 5-axis machines is a key part of Matrix Metalcraft's plan to pursue manufacturing projects that once relied on stamping and machining processes to be made.

The economic troubles that plague Michigan right now hardly qualify as breaking news. Everyone is well aware of the lack of demand for automobiles and the corresponding aftershocks that have affected everyone from corporate executives to shop floor workers.

What most people don't realize is that many metal fabricating and machining companies that have been closely linked to the automotive industry have worked hard over the last several years to diversify their customer base. The work associated with prototypes and small-volume runs for limited-edition automobiles has been a great foundation on which to build a business, but hardly the only market a successful company should strive to serve.

So the lights haven't been turned off in Michigan. The state still remains open for manufacturing business.

Matrix Metalcraft, Clinton Township, Mich., is a good example of a metal fabricating company anxiously looking to jump into new opportunities.

Laserlike Focus

Paul Kwiatkowski, now the company's president, and Greg Genoff, currently vice president, started Matrix Metalcraft in a small, 1,200-square-foot space in January 2000. Its first laser basically filled up the entire manufacturing floor.

Even then Kwiatkowski and Genoff knew that laser cutting was a good fit for the prototype business it was pursuing. Tooling didn't have to be created to knock out holes from blanks or cut trim from formed components.

That kind of thinking is still considered "nontraditional" even today, according to Ryan Willette, Matrix Metalcraft's vice president, sales and marketing. Old-school OEMs are so accustomed to high-volume approaches to manufacturing that developing tooling for a job is almost second nature. They are not sitting around thinking about manufacturing technologies that might remove an extra step in a tandem or transfer press setup.

"Traditional [manufacturing] is taking steel off a big roll and feeding it into a press. The stamping press is going boom, boom, boom, and it's forming the part after six or eight hits," Willette said. "We don't do that. We work with sheet."

It's not a revolutionary approach to manufacturing, but it can appear to be the most unique idea in the world when presented to a purchaser who has no deep understanding of metal fabricating.

For example, the company produced a prototype of a crossbeam (see Figure 1), which supports a vehicle's instrument panel, for a new multiperson vehicle being made by a private company. The crossbeam featured a main support structure fabricated with rectangular steel tube, which made more sense for joining the myriad brackets used to affix things such as the steering wheel and glove compartment to the beam. The vehicle designers had been using round tubing, but accepted the suggested change.

Matrix Metalcraft also was able to combine three separate components into one sheet metal center support structure for the radio and HVAC controls.

In another example, the company produced an automotive prototype that ended up a production job. It formed and fabricated air bag holders (see Figure 2) for the passenger side of right-hand-drive cars destined for export.

In both instances, Matrix Metalcraft saved the customers money because tooling did not have to be made to punch out the holes in blanks or trim off excess material after forming.

The company's two 5-axis lasers from Mitsubishi Laser/MC Machinery Systems make a real impact when working with these types of jobs, Willette said. Its 3,000-watt laser cutting system with an 80- by 60- by 23-inch table and its newer 3,000-W, 122- by 87- by 33-in. table with pallet changer are able to whip around these types of parts, cutting all of the openings that at one time may have been created with the aid of dies.

Willette said the company is still pursuing these types of prototype and, hopefully, production jobs (see Figure 3), but the success in the immediate future will have to be found in other industries as the automotive companies restructure and recover from these difficult times.

"There's work out there; you just have to find it," Willette said.

Getting Into the Thick of It

Like many other companies, Matrix Metalcraft is looking at industries aligned with alternative power generation as it seeks to find new customers. Those industries have become very important pieces of the overall plan for Michigan's economic makeover.

State organizations, such as the Michigan Economic Development Corp., are active in trying to match up Michigan shops with OEMs looking to establish a supply chain in the Midwest. In fact, Willette said he had attended an Alternative Energy Manufacturing 101 summit earlier in the year in the Detroit suburbs, and he came away from that event convinced his company is in a good position when compared to other shops in the state.

"There are companies that want to find out how to diversify in the emerging markets; we're there. We are a step ahead of them," Willette said.

The company is quoting parts for a wind turbine manufacturer looking for a North American supply base. The turbines contain many steel brackets to hold pieces in place as the giant turbines spin around, and Willette said Matrix Metalcraft can cut and bend those thick parts as efficiently as anyone.

This could be a large opportunity for the company and other metal fab and machining shops in Michigan. As of Sept. 30, 2008, the American Wind Energy Association reported that Michigan had 55 "utility-scale wind power" installations. Willette said that the state's goal to achieve 1,000 megawatts of wind-generated power by 2011 means that at least 550 more towers will need to be built in Michigan. That's a far cry from the 6,297 installations in Texas, but this could be just the beginning if government support for this type of energy generation gains traction.

Laser cutting makes sense for these types of thick parts. The company's 5,000-W, 3-axis laser cutting system and its newest 6,000-W, 3-axis model, also from Mitsubishi Laser/MC Machinery Systems, can make short work of plate. Willette said its newest laser cutting machine (see Figure 4) is capable of cutting up to 1.25-in carbon steel, 1-in. stainless steel, and 0.50-in. aluminum. It has proven especially useful in pursuing armor kit projects being solicited by nearby military vehicle designers.

Willette said the newest laser can make an impact as the company pursues more traditional sheet metal jobs. Because the gantry features a rack-and-pinion design instead of a more traditional ball-and-screw design, the laser head moves incredibly quickly over the sheet metal to be cut. He said the laser can move up to 2,000 IPM across various processing areas. Such speed gives the company much more cutting efficiency than it ever had on its other 3-axis laser.

Company management looks at the investment in new equipment as a priority in keeping the business coming in despite the economic slowdown, Willette said.

"That's how we are going to make ourselves more competitive," he added.

The newest 5-axis laser (see Figure 5) has a pallet changer, which means an operator can switch out jobs in 60 seconds and push through many more jobs much more quickly. When more customers wanted formed parts, the company invested in 6-foot, 60-ton and 8-ft., 130-ton press brakes. It also has hydraulic stamping, GMAW, and GTAW capabilities.

Typically, Matrix Metalcraft considers its sweet spot runs in the 1,000 to 5,000 volume range, but it will take jobs in the 20,000 range, if needed. For those high-volume jobs, say 100,000, it has a relationship with a facility in northern Michigan that has both the production expertise and the room to accommodate the order.

In short, no one is turned away.

"We have everything in place to be a full sheet metal supplier," Willette said.

Now the company has to let the manufacturing world know of its capabilities and convince traditional manufacturers that developing tooling is not necessary for every production scenario. Of course, the best way to do that is old-fashioned hard work and knocking on doors. Change is a constant, but some traditions die hard.
FMA Communications Inc.

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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