Anchor's a way down the road to improvement

Texas fabrication shop solves material handling dilemma

The FABRICATOR March 2005
March 8, 2005
By: Dan Davis

A Fort Worth, Texas-based fabricator found that it was spending thousands in moving material from one building to the next for various operations. The company embarked on several expansion projects and invested in new equipment to help remedy the situation.

Anchor Fabrication has a reputation for the ability to form long and awkward parts. A 1,200-ton, 52-ft. Pacific press brake in the Precision Division assists in reducing downtime and material handling costs because the parts no longer have to be shipped across the street for forming.

Why did the fabricator cross the road? To finish a metal fabricating project started on the other side of the street.

That's no joke, and that's not funny. So Anchor Fabrication of Fort Worth, Texas, realized in 2002.

The company was cutting sheet metal on one side of Lawson Road, shuttling the parts across the street, and forming the cutouts into 3-D shapes in another building. A quick financial analysis revealed that the fabricating shop had thousands of dollars tied up in delivery trucks, fork-lifts, drivers, and wasted time linked to excessive material movement.

"From what I have seen, most job shops are arranged in a very discombobulated way, meaning equipment, facilities, and people aren't organized in a manner optimized for production," said John "Tra" Willbanks III, Anchor Fabrication's chief operating officer. "We were no exception."

A rethinking of material handling and an investment in new equipment and facilities are helping ensure that Anchor Fabrication is now moving in the right direction.

A Fabricating Story

Anchor Fabrication's story is much like other shops'. Someone with fabricating in his blood wanted to strike out on his own.
In this case, John Willbanks Jr., Tra's father and the company's CEO and president, purchased a 25,000-square-foot-facility in 1989 and christened it Anchor Fabrication. Previously he had partnered with family members in another fabricating endeavor and had worked for two years as credit manager for a bank.

The 52-ft. press brake is the perfect tool for forming these extended loading ramps destined for moving van and delivery truck applications. Individual metal parts can be as long as 20 ft.

"I thought about different career paths, but I always gravitated back to fabricating," said Willbanks, who claims to have operated his first shear at age 12.

Back then the elder Willbanks would sell the job in the morning, and he and Tra—13 at the time—would help to fabricate the orders in the afternoon and early evening. The production team relied on two 12-foot shears and two 12-ft. press brakes to make the fabricated goods.

From the day the company opened its doors for business, John Willbanks Jr. said he wanted to purchase a laser. He knew it was the perfect technology choice for a job that was not yet his—a fabricated faceplate for an automated teller machine. The faceplate required 1 1/8-inch holes in a 1/4-in. plate with only 1/8 in. between the holes. Drilling the holes was proving expensive for the customer, and punching the holes ended up distorting the metal too much.

"It was really the perfect laser part," said John Willbanks Jr. He had every intention to purchase a laser at the 1991 FABTECH International Show.

Those intentions, however, fell by the wayside when he received a call from Norton Metals, a steel supplier just down the road from Anchor Fabrication. The company was getting out of the shearing and braking business and wanted to know if Anchor Fabrication was interested in the equipment. John Willbanks Jr. admitted he "went with what he knew" and added the 20-ft. shear and the 22-ft. press brake, postponing the laser purchase.

The purchase of that equipment helped to shape Anchor's reputation as a fabricator of long parts.

Tra Willbanks, Anchor Fabrication's chief operating officer, said press brake operators enjoy working with the new V series press brakes from TRUMPF. The six-axis back- gauge makes setup easier, and the European-style tooling speeds up changeover to the next job.

'Changed Everything'

In 1993 Anchor purchased a plasma system, which finally gave the company the ability to cut curves, not just straight lines. "Contour cutting changed everything for us," John Willbanks Jr. said.

A year later Anchor purchased a Cincinnati CL-7 laser cutting machine. By now John Willbanks Jr. said he was experiencing double vision—seeing a need for two companies instead of one.

"I kind of had this mindset early on that it does require a different skill set to run a shear than it does a laser shop," he said. "I felt like I could control both environments better if I had two separate facilities."

A building boom began in 1994 with construction of a 12,000-sq.-ft. facility for laser cutting activities, followed by another 28,000-sq.-ft. addition in 1998 to house two TRUMPF laser cutting machines and two Koike plasma units. In between, Anchor embarked on a 25,000-sq.-ft. expansion dedicated to sawing and forming aluminum, stainless, and mild steel—a result of greater demand for its large formed parts.

By 2002 John Willbank's vision was partially realized. The contour-cutting shop was, indeed, operating on its own, and secondary operations, such as forming, took place across the street.

What starts as sheet metal at one end of the Precision Division ends up a completed fabrication by the time it reaches the end of the rail line.

From a traditional point of view, operations looked normal enough. Precision cutting took place in one area, and fabrication of long, heavy parts took place in another. Unfortunately, material movement between the two buildings was increasing. Four forklifts whizzed back and forth during the day, moving cutouts from one building to another and transporting fabricated parts to the shipping area.

Normal didn't make so much sense by the end of the same year. Working on a project that called for the fabrication of extended loading ramps for the rear of delivery trucks, Anchor Fabrication had hired a delivery truck to move pickled and oiled, laser-cut parts because they needed to be protected from the elements and the potential harms associated with forklift truck delivery. Watching the delivery truck one day, John and Tra Willbanks had what they call an "epiphany." How much time and money was tied up in material handling with this project and other jobs in general?

Numbers Don't Lie

Tra Willbanks described the material flow as a "toilet bowl"—parts traveled in a circuitous route from one process to the next before they were "flushed out" for delivery. Simultaneously, Anchor Fabrication was flushing away thousands of dollars associated with excessive material movement.

These cabinets for an on-site industrial storage application are painted and assembled at Anchor Fabrication. These sorts of secondary operations likely will be demanded by more and more customers in the future, according to the company's management team.

Tra Willbanks, relying on his background in business consulting with Arthur Andersen, ran some calculations based on overhead rates for a delivery truck, forklift operator, and estimated material handling costs. He determined that Anchor Fabrication was spending between $30,000 and $40,000 per month to shift metal between the two buildings.

This gave the company's leadership team an opportunity to do some real soul-searching. What could be done to improve the material handling situation? What sort of change would have the most positive effect on the company as a whole? Was this an opportunity to change not just the look of Anchor Fabrication, but the company's approach to business?

The first decision was to formalize the two-companies-within-a-company approach that John Willbanks Jr. visualized years before.
The Industrial Division, which is dedicated to jobs that do not require high-quality cut edges or tolerances beyond ±0.063 in., occupies a new building on the side of the street nearest the main office. The business unit is capable of cutting and forming plate as thick as 3 in., as wide as 20 ft., and as long as 50 ft.

The Industrial Division contains a lot of the fabricating equipment Anchor Fabrication had used for several years: two Koike plasma units, one oxyfuel unit, two shears, and five press brakes. The newest addition to the mix was a Cincinnati mechanical shear that cuts mild steel ranging in thickness from 24 gauge to 3/8-in. plate, purchased in late 2003.

Creating the Precision Division required a little more thought and more creativity. Not only was there a greater need to rework material flow on the other side of the street, but more new equipment was needed.

"The whole goal was getting technology that was suitable to the definition of precision," Tra Willbanks said.
Anchor Fabrication struck up a relationship with TRUMPF Inc. in 1998 with the purchase of two 3,000-watt laser cutting machines.

Pleased with the performance of the machines and the business relationship with the technology vendor, Anchor Fabrication in October 2003 purchased a TRUMPF L6030 with a 4,000-W resonator that cuts 3/4-in. mild steel, 3/8-in. stainless steel, and 1/4-in. aluminum and a TRUMPF L4050 with a 5,000-W resonator that cuts 1-in. mild steel, 1/2-in. stainless steel, and 1/2-in. aluminum. Six months later the company bought another L4050 with a 5,000-W resonator to replace one of the less powerful lasers.

Anchor Fabrication also purchased additional press brakes in October 2003, exclusively for the Precision Division.

John Willbanks Jr. purchased this 22-ft. Pacific press brake for his company in 1991 instead of pursuing the purchase of laser cutting equipment. Since then the company has worked its way through multiple generations of laser cutting equipment, while the Pacific press brake is still used on a daily basis.

The company bought a TRUMPF V130 130-ton press brake and a V230 200-ton machine. Tra Willbanks explained that the precision press brakes were necessary to uphold Anchor Fabrication's pledge to maintain tolerances of ± 0.03 in.

"Now we offer our customers not only a laser-cut part with dimensions ranging within ± 0.03 in., but we also offer a laser-cut part, formed on a press brake, with a tolerance of ± 0.03 in.," Tra Willbanks said.

The company also bought a Pacific Press Technologies 600 K press brake in the fall of 2003. The 1,200-ton, 52-ft. tandem press is used to form close-tolerance fabricated sections for all types of manufactured products, one of which is the extended loading ramp fabrication that got the company owners looking to make a change.

The new purchases joined a Hypertherm HD4070 plasma system, which can cut up to 3/4-in. steel and generally hold dimensions within 0.0313 in., under the roof of the newly constructed, 50,000-sq.-ft. Precision Division.

A rail system moves cut parts from the cutting machines to the forming machines and then to the shipping bay. It's not the most glamorous material handling innovation, but it does the trick in moving the large parts, some weighing as much as 5,000 lbs., from one station to the other along the fabrication process, according to Tra Willbanks.

He added that Anchor Fabrication considered cellular manufacturing, linear manufacturing, and U-shaped manufacturing approaches, but that a simple rail line, which he first observed on a trip to a TRUMPF manufacturing facility, made the most sense.

"At one time we needed transfer carts to get from one building to the next or we needed a forklift. Out of that grew this whole idea that we could just get more carts, put them on a rail, and then stage the jobs," Tra Willbanks said. "My goal is that one day a person could walk into this facility and see six carts lined up with jobs already in process. And if you need to hopscotch one job in front of another, you pick up the cart with a crane and change the sequence of jobs."

Connected to the Precision Division building is a new, 12,000-sq.-ft. welding facility where Anchor Fabrication technicians weld, drill, mill, and even paint parts in some cases. Tra Willbanks said customers want a one-stop source for their metal fabricating needs, and the new welding facility is an attempt to meet those needs.

The Results Come In

After spending more than $5 million on new equipment and the expansion and reconstruction of facilities to create more than 100,000 sq. ft. of fabricating space, the Anchor Fabrication management team is pleased with the results.

The company has eliminated more than $40,000 per month in transportation costs because the inline rail system delivers jobs to downstream processes in a much more efficient manner. The company also went from four forklift trucks zooming around the 50,000-sq.-ft. facility to only one forklift for the newly expanded campus.

With the 5,000-W resonators, laser cutting speeds are now twice as fast as before.

The V series press brakes have a six-axis backgauge, which has helped to reduce setup time. For example, the company once spent 35 hours of press brake time to complete a job for a custom motorcycle manufacturer; the reduced setup times on the new press brakes reduced that project time to 18 hours, even with increased quantities.

"The biggest change in our business has come from identifying more conventional ways to organize tools and move materials. Organizing tools, dies, punches, clamps, cleaning materials—it all helps in cutting wasted motion," Tra Willbanks said.

He doesn't call his company a completely lean manufacturing environment, but the company is getting closer. The steps the company has taken—and will continue to take—have positioned Anchor Fabrication to be a player in U.S. manufacturing for the immediate future.

"A lot of people in this business are looking to get out or grow the business so they can sell it," Tra Willbanks said. "I'm looking for ways that we can head deeper into this business."

"I've said this before and I'll say this again: There aren't a whole lot of guys lining up to figure out how to do what we are doing," John Willbanks Jr. said. "For me, that's an opportunity."

Anchor Fabrication, 1200 Lawson Road, Fort Worth, TX 76131, 817-232-4575,
Cincinnati Incorporated, P.O. Box 11111, 7420 Kilby Road, Cincinnati, OH 45211-0111, 513-367-7100, fax 513-367-7552,

Hypertherm Inc., P.O. Box 5010, Etna Road, Hanover, NH 03755, 603-643-3441, fax 603-643-5352,
Koike-Aronson Inc., 635 W. Main St., Arcade, NY 14009, 585-492-2400, fax 585-457-3517,

Pacific Press Technologies, 714 Walnut St., Mount Carmel, IL 62863, 618-262-8666, fax 618-262-7776,
TRUMPF Inc., 111 Hyde Road, Farmington, CT 06032, 860-255-6000,

Dan Davis

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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