The Wisconsin Family Robinson

Robinson Metal's approach to fabricating has it growing when others weren't

The FABRICATOR June 2010
May 28, 2010
By: Dan Davis

Anyone that works for Robinson Metal Inc. learns the business from the ground up. This approach has served it well as the De Pere, Wis., company has grown to become one of the largest fabricating job shops in the U.S.

The Wisconsin Family Robinson - TheFabricator

Figure 1: Because Robinson Metal Inc. works with food processing companies, its fabricators have to be skilled in working with stainless steel.

Matt Shimmon has worked at Robinson Metal Inc., De Pere, Wis., for four years and is currently working in the custom fabricating side of the business. Even with limited experience compared with the many company veterans walking the floor and running the business, Shimmon is free to talk with customers when they call.

“I always like talking to them. When you make something and you’re proud of it, it’s good to get the compliments,” he said.

At Robinson Metal, everyone is a customer service representative. The company pays for more than 140 mobile phones for its employees, pretty much ensuring someone with knowledge of a project can be reached. In fact, customers actually enjoy talking with the people responsible for fabricating their parts.

That type of customer interaction doesn’t sound like rocket science, but the commonsense approach fuels a lot of the company’s success. Robinson Metal is a $59 million business built around metal fabricators who know how to approach, execute, and deliver a job in a quality and timely manner. A majority of the 300-plus employees have solid fabricating and manufacturing knowledge, which comes into play in almost every aspect of the business—estimating, operations, and sales and marketing.

The real challenge in the last five years has been maintaining that same culture as the company added close to 140 employees. The key is finding that right person and letting his or her talents shine.

“They have confidence in you to do a job. They aren’t watching you over your back,” Shimmon said.

That’s a smart approach because the company doesn’t have time to micromanage. It needs its people to learn good habits and business practices. After all, one of them could be running the place someday.

Operating the Store

Keith Bauer, who has been at Robinson Metal for 19 years, is a project coordinator, a key position in ensuring that quote is accurate and the part is delivered as the print dictates. He runs a crew of about nine fabricators and they tackle a daily production schedule in their “store,” an area of the shop floor where all the final welding and assembly take place before the job is moved to finishing or shipping.

Bauer takes a peek at quotes for jobs before they are sent back to customers, meets with his team members every day to go over the schedule, and walks the floor for most of the day, keeping tabs on the jobs. The crew, ranging in experience from two to 20 years, determines who does which work. Because of cross-training, the same person that sets up a job is likely the same person that will do the tack welding and the final weld. Robinson Metal processes a lot of stainless steel (see Figure 1) and aluminum jobs of different sizes, but you won’t find employees who specialize in any one metal. Employees’ multiple skill sets allow them to take complete ownership of a job.

Robinson Metal also has plenty of fabricating veterans who can help the less experienced employees if needed. Its employees can run any sort of CNC fabricating equipment, and its 150 welders are ASME-accredited. That type of technical knowledge is evident just by touring the shop.

fabrication enclosures

Figure 2: The fabrication of enclosures and tanks for huge generators is no small feat. A 50,000-square-foot addition was put on the Robinson Metal building to accommodate the projects, and the company has a 60- by 40-foot paint booth to put the finishing touches on those fabrications.

For instance, the company jumped into waterjet cutting about four years ago after discovering it made sense to do the work in-house rather than outsource it. Today it has five waterjet tables from Flow International, one of which has a 13- by 20-foot bed and can cut material up to 8 in. thick. Rather than rely on a vendor’s technology, Robinson’s own employees designed abrasive recycling systems for the waterjets and fabricated abrasive material feeding towers for them as well.

That same technical expertise inspired Robinson Metal to find a way to capture the excess heat generated by its four laser cutting machines. In the winter, the shop floor’s interior is toasty as the excess provides supplementary heat. In the summer, the heat is evacuated externally, letting the shop floor’s air-conditioning units do the job.

Shop floor employees provide the necessary input when it comes to investment in new equipment. This includes recent purchases such as an Amada 242-ton, 14-ft.-wide hydraulic press brake; an Amada turret punch press; or a RAS GIGAbend metal folding system with a capacity to accommodate 0.197-in.-thick mild steel and 11-gauge stainless steel.

Even with all the expertise on the crew, Bauer isn’t above getting involved like he might have done starting out at Robinson Metal 19 years ago.

“If there are weekends we need to work, I’ll put on my old clothes and give them a hand,” he said.

Bauer hasn’t forgotten his start at the company. He had an older brother who worked for the company and followed in his footsteps, beginning on the cleanup crew. Six months later he began working odd jobs and learning how to weld on the shop floor after his regular duties were done.

“That was pretty cool. I liked to work with my hands,” Bauer said. Every now and then, he still gets to do just that.

Running a Department

Scott LeTourneau, Robinson Metal’s estimating manager, knows about the shop floor. He’s only two years removed from it. He and the other nine people in his department all share the same background.

“Every single guy who is working in this area has worked on the shop floor,” he said.

Such a background leads to quotes that are much more detailed and realistic than what some other competitors might supply customers. LeTourneau said customers call any quote the “Robinson book” because the packet they receive is going to cover all possible aspects of a fabrication project.

That’s the result of having fabricators prepare the estimates. They have a history log, part of its JobBOSS shop management software, that provides input in terms of potential cutting times on the waterjet or laser cutting machines, but the experience really comes in handy when defining projects that involve a lot of welding. Estimators with no shop floor experience might take into account just welding time, but the Robinson Metal estimators know just what combination of grinding and polishing might be necessary to make a customer’s job really meet all expectations.

When asked if he might hire someone with estimating experience and let him work on the shop floor to get some real-world experience, LeTourneau said he doubted that would ever happen. The seven estimators, including himself, that work on fabricating projects and the three estimators for the machining department are able to work seamlessly with the project coordinators and salespeople, he said, a scenario that wouldn’t exist unless the estimator had the Robinson shop floor experience.

Fifteen years ago LeTourneau was hired to help in the maintenance department and be the gopher. His first job was to paint an overhead crane at the company’s old location. After several months, he figured he wanted to tackle more and asked one of the senior fabricators on staff to teach him how to weld. Soon afterward he was participating in small fabricating projects.

“Guys that have the ability get to do it,” LeTourneau said, referring to just about any position that might be of interest to a capable Robinson employee.

Overseeing a Division

That’s how Jim Birkholz wound up running Robinson Metal’s custom enclosure division. Back in 1996 he was a project coordinator on a job for 100 fabricated generator enclosures for a rental fleet. Municipal laws require the enclosures to protect the general public from possible leaks and excessive noise.

Well, Robinson Metal saw an opportunity. Building the enclosures wasn’t that big of a deal because it was just a large fabrication project, Birkholz said.

Instead of just building boxes, however, the company wanted to build the best boxes. Birkholz said he and co-workers began looking at competitors’ enclosures, noticing some of the elements they liked, and then combining that with their own fabricating expertise.

Almost 15 years later, Robinson Metal Custom Enclosures now accounts for almost 30 percent of the company’s annual revenues. Unlike the early days when Birkholz had to rely on forklifts to move these massive units around, Robinson Metal employees are working on the custom enclosures (see Figure 2) in a 50,000-square-foot addition that was completed in January 2008.

Birkholz said the company is now a recognized leader in the manufacture of these enclosures and tanks for the power generation industry. These fabrications become part of a generator package that could carry a price tag of $1.5 million.

“What we bring to the package is our acoustical knowledge,” he said.

That’s sound business for Robinson Metal as more municipalities look to enforce noise pollution regulations that have been on the books for years, but are only recently being enforced. It’s also the reason that the custom enclosure division is bringing in its first full-time engineer this year to work on these acoustical issues.

Birkholz said the business has changed dramatically since he worked on those first enclosures. The company now does all of its own mechanical, radiator, and switch gear work on the boxes and maintains three master electricians to handle all of the electrical work.

But that’s how the company operates, always striving to do more and encouraging its employees to do the same. Birkholz started with the company 27 years ago, right after completing a work co-op his senior year of high school. He liked to work with his hands and later took about five trade school classes at night because his co-workers encouraged it.

Today he’s hiring engineers, but he’s not looking just for technical know-how. He’s looking for hard workers with solid values.

Keeping the Culture Alive

Mark Lambert, Robinson Metal’s general manager, echoed those beliefs.

“I look for a person with energy and heart,” he said. “We want a good person that’s honest and has a good work ethic.

“He has to have a skill set. That’s important,” Lambert added. “But we also can train them.”

Keeping that commonsense approach to hiring and maintaining a “Robinson” image have never been more tested than in recent history as many changes have occurred. Robinson Metal started a whole new machining division 12 years ago. Like so many other aspects of its business, Robinson Metal brought machining jobs in-house to control costs and eliminate the unpredictable nature of “scheduled” deliveries from other machine shops. The company moved into its current home, a 125,000-sq.-ft. building at the time, 10 years ago. Also, the company has grown its ranks aggressively in recent years to keep up with new work; for the record, the company did not have any involuntary layoffs during the most recent downturn. Robinson Metal also plans to be ISO certified in 2011.

The secret to Robinson Metal’s success is its people, Lambert said. That’s why the company has a fitness center that’s open to employees and their families from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. and five work areas with computers for those employees who don’t have a PC at home or access to high-speed Internet. That’s why the company’s shop floor has high-intensity lighting and the interior is air-conditioned during the summer months. That’s why the company invites all of its employees to the annual fish fry in the early spring so that customers can meet the Robinson Metal family.

That recipe has worked wonderfully for the company over the years. So much so that it didn’t hire its first salesperson until 2004. Business has gotten so competitive that Robinson Metal couldn’t rely solely on word-of-mouth recommendations any longer.

”We aren’t doing brain surgery. It’s just really getting people to do the work for you,” Lambert said, as he stood with a group of co-workers on the shop floor during the early morning scheduled break.

Lambert is not a stranger to the shop floor. He started out as a driver for the company about 26 years ago.

Where else did you think the general manager for Robinson Metal would get his start?

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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