Not your average job shop
How one fabricating company evolved and thrived in precarious times
Sargent Metal Fabricators, Anderson, S.C., is not your average job shop. In an economic climate in which many U.S. fabricators have suffered, the company has stayed focused on its goals, invested in new equipment, grown by leaps and bounds, and positioned itself for future growth. How? By concentrating on key factors.
The route from Atlanta to Sargent Metal Fabricators in Anderson, S.C., is a scenic drive, especially after you exit I-85. You drive over beautiful Lake Hartwell and through pastoral country with little to interrupt the red-clay, tree-lined landscape. Finally, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, you come upon Airport Road and the large, impressive facility (Figure 1) that houses Sargent Metal Fabricators (SMF), a thriving business that began in 1975 and grew significantly at a time when many shops were feeling the serious effects of an economic downturn.
Faced with the same challenges as other U.S. fabricators—global competition, rising materials prices, skilled worker shortage—how did SMF do it? What is its recipe for surviving and thriving? Company President Tim Hayden shared his thoughts: "We have a passion for three key entities—our customers, our employees, and our vendors. Without these key players, our company would not survive. All are equally important to us."
Investing in a state-of-the-art facility and equipment, combined with automating labor-intensive processes, also played a role in the company's success.
In the Beginning
J.D. and Donnie Sargent started SMF with the goal of becoming one of the best fabricators in the Southeast. (Figure 2shows SMF's original facility; the company moved into two other facilities before building its current home.) Donnie instilled his love of the business in his son, Tim Hayden, who began working in the shop when he was 14. Hayden worked at SMF throughout high school and college and became company president after graduation.
Describing the company's evolution, Hayden said, "Until the early '90s, our company specialized in manual fabrication. We employed sheet metal mechanics who could perform all tasks to produce a part—shearing blanks; punching holes with our Whitney duplicator, a single-station, manual punch; bending; welding; grinding; and painting.
"We mainly supported the local textile industry with HVAC ductwork, machine guards, and installation. Our installation crews had to work many weekends and holidays because the local plants we supported were closed only during these times. We also built armored cars and fire trucks."
Investing in New Technology
"One particular customer wanted to award us a sizable package, but didn't do so because we didn't have any CNC equipment. That's when my dad decided we needed to purchase a CNC machine, and we purchased our first laser—a used, 1984 Amada LC667 Type 1, with a Spectra Physics 971, 1,500-watt resonator. This machine got us started in laser cutting.
"Shortly after purchasing the laser, we bought our first CNC punching machine, an Amada Aries 245. We then purchased an Amada RG 80."
Since those early purchases, SMF has acquired an impressive array of equipment from suppliers such as Amada, TRUMPF, Wysong, Cosen, Genesis, Brown & Sharpe, Romer, and STOPA that allow the company to provide value-added processes beyond fabrication. These processes include all types of welding, hardware insertion, full product assembly, testing, and warehouse/inventory management control.
Recent purchases include a TRUMPF TruBend 5130 attached to a BendMaster robot press brake; a TruPunch 5000-1600 with every bell and whistle available: tapping, high-speed marking, Wilson Wheel technology, and multitool; and a Romer portable CMM for inspecting 3-D parts.
Commenting on the value-added capabilities, Hayden said, "By adding additional value for our customers, we now are able to provide direct shipment from our plant to the distributor or end user. Some components we produce are ready to be used at 'point of use.' Previously many of our customers would perform several operations to the parts in-house before final assembly. Since we are already processing their parts, performing the added operations in our plant can reduce customers' costs and free up valuable labor for other operations. Without value-added capabilities, we would not have secured several key customers we have today."
SMF broke ground on its current 80,000-sq.-ft. facility, the company's fourth home, in 2002. Hayden said, "People said we were crazy, but with a leap of faith, industrial revenue bond financing, and county incentives, we went ahead."
Located on a 21-acre campus, the building is designed for growth. Three walls are concrete tilt-up construction, and one is a metal panel that can be removed. This design allows for duplicating the current floor space. With 21 acres, the facility can expand to more than 250,000 sq. ft. in the future.
Bright, Clean, and Comfortable
It's tough to say what you'll notice first when you walk inside the shop area (Figure 3). It's organized, clean, spacious, and comfortable. The climate-controlled building is a definite plus in the hot, humid Southeast.
At first glance, the shop floor resembles the TRUMPF facility in Farmington, Conn.—lots of blue and similar signage for different areas. But at SMF, you also see Amada machines that complement the TRUMPF equipment and allow SMF to produce a greater variety of products. Commenting on the combination, Hayden said, "We like to think we have the best of both worlds with both Amada and TRUMPF punching and bending machines.
"Using the Amada Vipros 368, we can punch 4.5-injch holes and use a parting tool at both zero and 90 degrees, which eliminates the need for an additional large station for parting. We can punch louvers more than 4 inches long with the Amada. It has a standard 58-station turret that can hold 58 different punch and die combinations. The biggest advantage with this machine is that we can punch large louvers in a single hit.
"Our TRUMPF TC 500 FMS punching machine can punch up to 5/16-inch material, and it allows us to use multitools to increase the number of tools in the tool rail. It works beautifully with our STOPA 134–shelf tower system that integrates with the various machines to aid automation. With the addition of our TruPunch 5000, we have future plans to integrate this machine into our STOPA automation.
"The biggest advantage to having both Amada and TRUMPF machines is that some of our customers have one brand and some have the other, so we can cater to what our customers currently run in-house, many times even using their tooling to run jobs for them."
Simple to Complicated
SMF-produced products range from simple laser-cut parts to very complicated structures, such as a methanol wash tank system that comprises more than 200 different components and a formation tank assembly with about 125 different parts (Figure 4). Among the more interesting parts the company produces are foundation flood vents for homes, poultry processing equipment, and a specialized toolbox system for the U.S. military.
SMF began working with the company that markets flood vents in 2004. Chronicling the relationship, Hayden said, "We used lean manufacturing techniques in laying out the assembly process with one-piece work flow. We received our first order in December 2004 and shipped the first units in March 2005. [This job] was one of our first opportunities to provide our customer with a total package—soup to nuts—from manufacturing, assembly, testing, packaging, and managing the logistics of the inventory. Our requirement with this customer is that we have products in stock ready to ship, so if they send us a release for parts by 12 p.m., we will ship the parts the same day."
How customer-oriented is SMF? Hayden shared a story that illustrates its commitment to customers: "We always strived to assist our customers when it's 'crunch time.' A customer called at 4:30 p.m. one day in early October and needed 1,000 left-hand and 1,000 right-hand parts in a couple of days. We had production running the next morning and shipped the parts on time to this customer. We do what it takes to service our customers, because without them, we do not exist."
When asked how foreign competition has affected SMF's business, Hayden said the effect has been minimal, "mainly because [foreign competitors] can't react to short lead-times from our customers. We actually have some customers that [had been sourcing] parts in low-labor-cost countries moving the sourcing back to the U.S. because of quality issues and horrible delivery."
Like other metal fabricating companies, SMF is dealing with the skilled labor shortage. Hayden said, "Skilled labor has been a challenge for our company for several years. That is the key reason we are so committed to automating our plant.
"We pay our key employees very well, because they are so important to our success. Besides paying them well, we have them extremely involved in the day-to-day operations on the floor; they have the authority to make key decisions concerning their areas of responsibility.
"We find many of our employees by word-of-mouth, referrals by other employees, or we sometimes get lucky and an experienced operator just stops by our plant. Most unskilled labor comes to our plant from a temporary employment service."
Even with the increased automation, SMF has added jobs, mostly because of the value-added processes the company now offers. The previous facility employed 55; the current facility employs 110.
"Like the Swiss Alps"
Currently the company is running at about 65 percent to 70 percent capacity. Hayden would like to see all current capacity utilized and the plant expanded; he has plans to make that happen. He is as passionate about his shop and its services as he is about the key ingredients in his recipe for success. He believes that potential customers who visit his shop will jump on board. He said, "If we can get them in the door, we can get the business. SMF is like the Swiss Alps: Pictures do not do it justice."