Keeping the (fire) door open

Punching efficiency, market diversity sustain ABCO Steel Door through the downturn

May 14, 2009
By: Tim Heston

A manufacturer of fire doors, in the South Bronx grows a business through market diversification and automation, just a few miles north of some of the most expensive real estate on earth.

steel fire door

About a block north of the Cross Bronx Expressway, not far from Yankee Stadium, truck and van drivers brave the city streets and park next to or back carefully into the loading dock of an unadorned brownstone. Drivers get out and yell, "I need four doors!" "I need three doors!" "I need two pallets [of doors]!" This goes on all day.

The Bronx isn't a typical locale for a company like ABCO Steel Door. Operating just a few miles north of some of the most expensive land on earth, this manufacturer of hollow galvanneal steel fire doors holds its own.

In recent years the company rode the construction boom by manufacturing large orders for various projects, from schools to hospitals and high rises. That business slowed significantly during the past few months, for obvious reasons, but the company is sustaining operations with other revenue streams. Those continual shout-outs from drivers, for instance, are part of the company's distributor and over-the-counter businesses. They mostly entail small orders, but they keep coming. Diverse revenue sources, coupled with shop floor automation and efficiency, have sustained this New York fabricator through difficult times.

From Custom to Production

William Schwartz, a veteran of the door industry, launched the company back in 1979 when, with the help of local government incentives, he purchased vacant city-owned lots and constructed a shop in the Bathgate Industrial Park in the South Bronx. William's sons now manage the business. David runs the operations side while his brother, Israel, runs the sales and marketing side.

The company remains in the South Bronx, but it bears little resemblance to the original start-up. ABCO began as a custom shop specializing in calamine doors, wooden ones covered with metal that were crafted by hand with a hammer and chisel. Even the metal exterior was bent by hand. Today the shop has expanded its manufacturing space to three buildings totaling 60,000 square feet, where 54 employees churn out both custom and stock doors made of 20- to 12-gauge galvanneal.

ABCO broke into the hollow metal door business 14 years ago. ("We used to distribute hollow metal doors, and we got tired of being told, 'My truck is stuck on the highway. My driver didn't show up,'" Schwartz recalled.) Now hollow metal doors and frames make up more than three-quarters of company revenue. To process them, ABCO uses a punching cell with robotic pick-and-place material handling, a press brake with springback compensation, roll forming, as well as spot and gas metal arc welding.

The company usually quotes lower than the competition, Schwartz said, a fact that shows how streamlined operations are, even in one of the country's most expensive labor markets. It's one reason that the company took the automation plunge. Two years ago ABCO brought in an LVD Strippit Pick-Sort system, including a 30-tool Global turret punch press with a robot from KUKA for automatic material handling. Depending on the job, the cell can run seven to 10 hours unattended. At the robotic cell unload station, a forklift picks up a pallet of doors and takes it to roll formers or takes door frame components directly to the press brakes.

During the good times in 2007, ABCO was processing more than 300 frames and about 150 hollow metal doors a day (though that number has decreased by about 30 percent in recent months). But what made ABCO a candidate for such automation wasn't so much the volume; while volumes are somewhat large for the fire door industry, the runs would be considered short for other sectors like automotive.

"People look at this kind of automation and think they have to be running 10,000 of the same part," said Greg Jacobs of Fabrication Technologies, the Shoreham, N.Y., equipment rep firm that helped ABCO integrate its punching cell. "In reality, you could be running 50 of one part, five of another, 10 of another. That's when this type of a system is most productive."

Automation and Smart Outsourcing

Before installing the robotic cell, workers went through several steps to punch out parts. Material was bought in sheets and squared on the power shear. Workers fed these squared sheets into one of two stand-alone turret punch presses, which would perform the miter cuts that would be bent over to form the door, and punch holes for the knockouts that receive the locks. They then placed parts (many more than 7 feet high) on pallets and, after completing a batch, moved the pallets to the roll formers or press brakes.

Today the operation for the standard product line is much improved, in part because of automation, in part because of some smart outsourcing to metal service centers.

For the doors themselves, ABCO receives a several-thousand-pound pallet of presquared steel from its service center, which eliminates shearing. The robot picks up the sheet and places it in the machine, which cuts the large parts along common lines, minimizing scrap. In fact, the machine leaves little or no skeleton behind. When the last hit releases the part, the robot grips it and stacks the part at an unloading station, ready for workers to move to the next operation.

A similar transformation happened for the door frames. Historically, workers would take a 4-ft. sheet, square it in the shear, feed it to a stand-alone turret punch press, and then take it to the press brake. Now the company receives a pallet of presquared sheet that is placed into the robotic cell. The robot places the sheet into the turret punch press, and four cut sheets emerge ready for bending.

"The factors that really mattered in this application were the material handling and material utilization," Jacobs said. "We didn't improve material utilization with the automation itself, because the company buys everything sheared to size. But you pay for that." The efficiency gained through automation, though, made up for that extra cost.

As Schwartz explained, "Buying the sheet squared is at least a wash, if not cheaper, than the shearing, the waste, the labor, and the handling that we had before. Today the square sheets literally go from the skid straight to the machine."

The robotic cell, said Schwartz, is the latest evolution of punching technology at the company, which in the 1990s used manual, single-station punch presses. In 2000 ABCO upgraded to some used stand-alone turret punch machines, and in 2007 came the robotic punching cell. Stock doors are processed through the automated cell (see Figure 1 and Figure 2), while specials and custom work go through the company's stand-alone punch presses (see Figure 3).

Through it all, laser cutting never was an option, sources said, because of part geometries. Door parts have few if any contours, and with the company's current turret and autoindex stations, operators rarely if ever change out tools, except for sharpening.

Tackling Another Bottleneck

The punching automation freed up the company's largest bottleneck, but clearing it uncovered another, albeit less severe, bottleneck at the resistance spot welding stations. "If I run the [robotic punching cell] day and night," Schwartz said, "there's no way the welding equipment can keep up." Production efficiency is still far better than before implementing the automation. As for that latest bottleneck, Schwartz added that it's a good problem to have. In his mind, he said, continuous improvement—including the identification and elimination of bottlenecks— never stops.

The current demand slump has at least temporarily solved the problem. ABCO doesn't have enough orders to keep its punching cell running 24-7. So right now Schwartz' priority is to get more business in the door. But in the back of his mind, he's planning for the economic upturn. The volumes and geometries his company processes aren't a good fit for robotic spot welding. "Frame and door dimensions change daily or sometimes several times a day," he explained. So he's been dreaming of ways to incorporate the joining process elsewhere—including in the turret press.

"Believe me, I'm trying," he said. "I sit up at night thinking about it, because the turret cell has the capacity [to take on another operation]. But there are certain things customers won't accept. There are tools on the punch press we could use that would produce a clip-fit that, when fastened together, would actually be stronger than a spot weld. But you can see it, and that's not acceptable in my industry."

Ready for the Upturn

The company has let go four people during the past four months, a small number compared to the mass layoffs of late. Schwartz said he has tried to minimize layoffs simply because he'll need the talent once the economy kicks back into gear. The building industry demands flexibility from suppliers. "I've had jobs in which we have the plans, make 120 frames, and then all of a sudden everything changes because someone forgot to leave room for conduits," Schwartz recalled. "At that point the whole job changes and has to be redone. The customer pays for the extra work, but my good heart ends up giving it to them for almost cost because I feel bad. We're not out to hurt anybody. We're here to make relationships, not to just hit one home run on a job." Those relationships, he said, will pull the company out of its current funk.

Schwartz added that the company is in a good position to succeed once the economy rebounds. For one, ABCO has shop floor capabilities smaller door shops don't. It also serves all sectors within the hollow metal door market. Schwartz' competitors fall into two areas: The small shops that do over-the-counter work and sell to distributors; and large corporations that sell doors to large construction projects.

ABCO serves both, and it's this diversity, he said, that has helped keep ABCO's doors open throughout these unprecedented tough times.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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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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