February 13, 2007
Family-owned Hansen Steel Services started six years ago with a 600-ft. long empty building and a combined 144 years of experience and built it into a thriving job shop that shoulders large plate fabrications.
About 25 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., Hansen Steel Services employees wear T-shirts imprinted with the company's Viking logo—a reference to the owners' Norwegian ancestry.
It's not hard to imagine co-owner Dave Hansen as a Viking descendant. He's a mountain of a man. Big, booming voice. Commanding presence. Big ambitions, too, as it turns out.
Big—as in "in a big way"—is how he and his brother Mike Hansen, cousin Jeff Hansen, and sister Cathy Hansen, who are equal partners, approach their family fabrication and steel services business. The four put everything they have—effort, experience, finances, and time—into fostering growth of epic proportions for their start-up company.
It's no small wonder, then, that the Hansens are capable of shouldering very large, plate-thickness fabrication jobs. They bend long plate components such as truck frame rails on a press brake system with a one-stroke capacity of 40 feet long (see Figure 1); roll 14-ft.-diameter, 10-ft.-wide oil and gas tank shells (see lead image); shear and fabricate transportation and building components of up to 1/2-in., 20-ft.-long plate; as well as process large, 50,000-lb. coils of sheet steel.
"We know how to handle large fabrication jobs," Dave said.
Each family member has primary responsibilities: Dave is the plant manager. Mike—also a sizable man—is the sales manager; Jeff—with all the height, if not the girth, of Dave and Mike, is office manager; and Cathy—small in stature but with a large presence—masters the inventory and purchasing.
The four draw on a combined 144 years of experience, having worked together since the early 1970s at the steel company their grandfather founded in 1935. A parting of the ways with that company led them to make grand-scale decisions about their futures.
"We sat down and we talked about it and said, "Do you want to go on together or get out of the business and do something else?'" Jeff said.
"We decided to go forward," Dave said. "When you get in the steel business, it kind of gets in your blood, I guess."
"We put together a business plan," Jeff said, "based on the dollars we needed to generate, and basically set out to try to achieve those goals. We figured out a very tight budget, and initially we each had to contribute some money. At times we had to put in more money, but I guess we all had a belief that we were going to be able to provide something that our customers would value."
"We believed in each other too," Dave said. "We had worked together for a lot of years, so we had a good relationship."
Jeff concurred. "I have a lot of faith in Dave to run the shop, and Dave has faith in me to do what I do, and vice versa with Mike and Cathy. So we have all the players to cover all the bases, and to go forward with the confidence that each of us has in each other," he said.
Two of Dave's sons, Bart and Travis Hansen, comprise the fourth generation—so far. Travis operates the lasers, and Bart does computer programming and sales. "They are actively involved with the running of our business," Dave said, "as I worked for my dad, and he for his."
Dave said that although they had decades of experience and had shouldered a good deal of responsibility at their former company, starting up a new business was challenging.
"Previously we were handed a stick and a big ball that was already rolling, and we just had to keep it rolling down the middle," he said. "When you start over, it's tough getting that ball rolling. But it's been fun and exciting, too, because we were able to create our own big ball, if you will.
"I remember when we first bought this 600-foot-long building in March 2001; we stood here and looked all the way down, and it was empty," Dave said. "And so we started over—no equipment, no metal, not much of anything."
Only six years later, with 36 employees, the company is running at full production four lasers, four plasma cutting tables, five press brakes, three shears, two plate rolls, two angle rolls, and two leveling lines in the previously empty building, which is also equipped with four overhead crane systems (see Figure 2). "We didn't expect to be looking for work six years ago, so we're on an "accelerated program,'" Dave said, explaining the push for rapid growth.
Starting over provided opportunities to take new approaches and to have more control than they had previously, Jeff said. "We transitioned into the newer technologies as we started our company. Now that we have laser capabilities that we didn't have before, and high-definition plasma cutting, we're doing a better job. We're more productive, we're able to turn product around quicker, and the accuracy level has improved," Jeff said.
The family had relationships with mills, so they were able to hold material costs down through direct-mill purchases, Jeff said. "But what we hadn't had was the ability to cut nice parts. That led us to buying our first laser, a Cincinnati."
Business picked up rapidly. "We were cutting literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We just couldn't keep up, so next we bought some Strippit/LVD lasers with automated loading and unloading [seeFigure 3], and that allowed us to run virtually unattended," Dave said. "We were able to put a stack of material under the laser and come in the next morning to a stack of cut parts."
Hansen now has two Cincinnati laser cutting systems (a CL-7 and a CL-7A dual-table) and two Strippit/ LVD Axel 3015 L automated material handling laser systems with a 3-kW laser source.
Mike said having laser capabilities gave the company an edge because it could offer potential customers better cut quality than they were accustomed to on thick plate parts, and that helped him as he made sales calls. "We just introduced ourselves, gave them our card, and told them we could make their parts better.
"Many people within the industry on the West Coast who use steel plate—trucking, automotive, off-road vehicles, construction, oil and gas—usually weren't getting laser-quality cut parts. They'd put up with it [rougher cuts], but they didn't really like it. And so we introduced the laser-cut parts to them and that helped us get business," Mike said.
The laser capability expanded fabrication services the company could offer too. "A lot of people were taking plate that we may have sheared for them into their facility and punching holes in it," Mike said. "Well, we'd say, we can do that whole thing at one time on the laser, and it looks pretty sharp, and it's pretty economical, so how about it?
"And then they might say to someone else, "You know, I got a great-looking part from Hansen.' And then we'd get a call from somebody who maybe was not even in the same business."
Typically, the company cuts material up to 5/8 in. thick on the lasers, but it cuts 1/2-in.-thick to 11/2-in.-thick plate on MG Systems' EdgeMaster® cutting systems, which are equipped with Hypertherm's HyPerformance® high-definition plasma cutting systems, Dave said. Recently the Hansens installed a machine (also an MG Systems EdgeMaster) with HyPerformance twin torch high-definition plasma cutting systems. Two plasma torches mounted on a single gantry over one cutting table cut two identical parts simultaneously, halving the time it takes to cut them (see Figure 4).
In high-definition plasma cutting, the plasma arc is very tightly constricted so the plasma jet becomes very stiff. This improves cut edge squareness and tolerance, according to Kenneth Woods, Ph.D., Hypertherm Inc.
The machine's gantry weight, rigidity and harmonics, and acceleration/ deceleration capabilities improve cut quality, according to MG Systems.
"We had customers who needed high-quality cut holes and slots on components that were too long for our 12-foot-long laser tables," Dave said. "The high-definition plasma system satisfied the need."
Dave credits their MG Systems Slagger™ cutting table with further reducing operation time. The self-cleaning table is equipped with a patented pusher-type blade that moves slag from the table bottom to a collection pan at the end of the table. This reduces the amount of time it takes to clean slag to about five minutes, Dave said.
Dave said the heat-affected zone (HAZ) that thermal cutting methods such as lasers and plasmas create has not been an issue for most of their jobs, in part because the two methods are so fast that the HAZ is minimal.
Dave said one customer is happy with the better cut quality the high-definition plasma cutter provides on a 3/4-in.-thick part because it eliminated a downstream process. "His other supplier gave him plasma-cut parts using the old technology, so he'd have a beveled edge that he had to grind smooth and square so he could weld them to beams. Our parts have square, precise corners so he doesn't have to do that."
A construction industry customer liked the improved accuracy the high-definition plasma cut produced on high-strength steel beams that had to be assembled in the field, Dave said. "The plasma they had been using was adequate for cutting slots, but they were not real clean-looking holes. I think they kind of lived with it because it was cheaper than having somebody come back later and punch those holes. With the high-def cuts, the slots almost look as though they've been punched.
"I think we're seeing more of that type of work coming to us because there hasn't been a problem somewhere in the field," Dave said. "With the older type of plasma cutting, there always were questions: Would the alignment be quite right? Was the hole as clean as it should be? Were things fitting quite as well? And now that's not even talked about.
"And so I think that set us ahead of others who are doing similar work but who are still using the older-technology plasma cutting.
"With all things being equal, we're getting the nod because of the quality of the work. It's the high-definition plasma cutting and the lasers," Dave said.
Some of the company's projects are large in terms of numbers of parts, as well as scale of parts. For a recent tank shell project, Hansen fabricated more than 60 truckloads of steel.
Handling a job that massive required organization and planning right down to the most minute details, Dave said. Illustrating his emphasis on planning, a poster on his office wall reads "Your failure to plan does not constitute an emergency for me."
Components had to be stored, loaded, and delivered in reverse order of how they were needed on-site, and each component was color-coded to indicate that order. Parts were stenciled to show right-side-up orientation. Each section of the building is alphabetically labeled to eliminate confusion about where parts are stored. Doorways bear markings indicating their dimensions to ensure that components are brought through the right-sized doors (see Figure 5).
"It went so smoothly. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop—for them to send truckloads back, saying we sent the wrong size," Dave said. "But it never happened.
"Sometimes it's the little things that make you money," Dave said.
The newest addition to the family of equipment is a robotic welding machine, which provides continuous welding for many of Hansen's customers.
"We've found that in our market here in California, a lot of the welding has gone to Mexico. With a welder welding parts, we cannot compete," Jeff said. "So we're looking at what the laser and automation have done for us. And we're thinking, with robotic welding, maybe we can compete with what has gone down to Mexico."
Next month will mark the sixth year the family has been in business together.
Dave attributes their success to years of experience, quality parts, and being in sync with customers. "It's simply time, good quality, and somebody with the intelligence on this end of the phone who is able to climb into the head of the customer and understand what it is that they're trying to achieve and be able to achieve it for them."
Too, the Hansens are quick to point out that they have received a lot of help from friends and business associates, especially as they started out. On their first job—a series of tank shells—the customer paid within 10 days. A supplier lent them equipment he was not using. "So many people helped us out because they knew us," Dave said.
And, of course, for the Hansens, success has been about being in business with family. "It's a matter of trust," Dave said.
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. Print subscriptions are free to qualified persons in North America involved in metal forming and fabricating.