Imagination fabrication

To be a playground equipment fabricator, you gotta have game

The FABRICATOR February 2006
February 7, 2006
By: Kate Bachman

BCI Burke, Fond du Lac, Wis., is the oldest playground and park and recreation equipment manufacturer in the country. As the company grew and its product offerings and colors multiplied, it found it needed to address problems with long leadtimes. Burke looked at every possibility for improvement, including processes improvements, inventory organization, manufacturing equipment purchases, and personnel productivity improvements, including crosstraining.

Burke's signature play environment this year is a multievent treehouse designed to look like it is in a natural setting, complete with hollowed tree trunks and leaf climbers.

Founded in 1920, BCI Burke, Fond du Lac, Wis., is the oldest playground and park and recreation equipment manufacturer in the country. You don't last that long without imagining the possibilities for trends, market opportunities, changing revenue sources, and adapting to a changing environment.

Manufacturing playground equipment, or "play environments" as the company calls them, is no child's play. Especially if your slogan is "Imagine the possibilities" and you offer customized play equipment so that the possibilities are limited only by your customers' own imaginations, as the expression goes. Which means that the possibilities for demands on your product offerings are unlimited too.

You gotta have game.

In the late '80s the company began manufacturing its play equipment as modular components to expand the configuration possibilities. This approach also met the demand for playground equipment that could be assembled and installed by nonprofessional installers, such as parent-teacher organizations (PTOs).

Independent sales representatives help customer PTOs design the playground configuration for each site based on which of the modular "events" in the catalog they like and want to include. "Half of our play sets are assembled and installed by volunteer groups like PTAs," said Mike Seibel, production control manager.

In 1998 Burke met the demand to expand the color choices.

The play structures always must be considered from a child's perspective and for safe contact with a child's hands and feet (and whatever else lands on them). Safety is an invisible component that drives not only the play equipment design, but also the fabrication techniques (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Fabricating playground equipment requires adapting to trends. One way Burke facilitated the current demand for motion is by inserting Nylatron® bearings into its overhead seesaw so that it can pivot.

"One of the challenges in building playground equipment is that the welds have to be very smooth because they will be touched by little hands, and so clothing doesn't get caught on them," said Seibel.

Apparently the possibilities are not only endless, they also must be durable. All tubular components and weldments, as well as clamps, fastening systems, and hardware—virtually all the metal components—on the company's play equipment are guaranteed for 100 years. To meet a centurylong guarantee, the company manufactures its metal components of 1.029- to 6-inch-OD galvanized and powder-coated steel tube, plate and sheet, and stainless steel plate. The "trees" and other fantasy play elements are constructed off-site of rotational-molded plastic, guaranteed for 25 years.

One of the trends affecting playground equipment manufacturing currently is to incorporate motion. "Kids want movement. Anything you can do to build in movement is good," Seibel said.

The company has three layers of customers to satisfy—the independent sales reps, the parents' organization or whoever is commissioning the project, and last but not least, the, uh, play operators—the children.

Expanded Product Line, JIT, Lengthened Lead-times

As the company grew and its product offerings and colors multiplied, it found it needed to address problems with long lead-times. The fabricator lost a large percentage of its independent sales reps to competitors who could respond faster and pay more.

"Lead-times were six weeks in 1997. They went up to 13 to 14 weeks in 1999," Seibel said.

In 1999 Burke had shifted to a just-in-time (JIT) approach to inventory management, but found that it caused lead-time problems. The company has about 10,000 SKUs. About 25 percent are fasteners; the rest are brackets, plates, and about 1,500 different tubular components, Seibel said.

"JIT does not work for a custom shop, unless you add additional employees on a temporary basis, which increases your cost," Seibel said. "We lost work. We couldn't ramp up fast enough. It took us two years to recover."

He added, "We found that it works best for us to stock up in the off-season." The company's season starts in late spring and extends through October. It builds up inventory from Thanksgiving through April.

The Making of
a Playground
1. Tubes from 1.029- to 6-inch OD are at the ready to become playground equipment components.
2. Tubes then are cut off, sorted, and shelved. Sheet and plate are sheared and stored. Some tubes are angle-cut on a miter saw; straight tubes are cut off on a bundle saw. While the saw operator is waiting for the bundle saw to finish cutting, he crimps the ends of posts on an ironworker stationed nearby.
3. Tubes are then bent on a tube bender according to the specs for the part. "Tube bending is kind of an art form," said David Sorrell, supervisor of drilling, cutting, and assembly. During setup, the first few may require some adjustments. The plate and sheet components are then bent in a press brake.
4. The tubular, sheet, and plate components are then drilled or punched. The operator may use a mandrel punch to save time if the volume or rate per day allows.

To Everything There Is a Season; Turn, Turn, Turn

When Burke reverted to a build-to-stock, powder coat-to-order inventory management program in 2003, it scrutinized other aspects of its manufacturing to improve its inventory turnover and reduce its lead-times to meet demand. Burke looked at every improvement possibility—processes, inventory, equipment, and personnel productivity, including cross training.

Storage System. Burke reorganized its storage area, adding racking of sheet and plate directly across from the exterior loading door so that every raw material is directly accessible. "Otherwise, it's Murphy's Law—whatever tube or sheet you want will be at the bottom," said David Sorrell, supervisor of drilling, cutting, and assembly.

Sawing. The company bought an Amada Cutting Technologies bundle saw for tube cutoff. Bundling tubes with like ODs and thicknesses and cutting them all at once has realized the company huge time savings, Sorrell said. "You can't literally just pick up a bundle and cut it, though. You have to square it off."

The bundle saw enabled the company to increase worker productivity. While the bundle saw is cutting, the saw operator uses a Scotchman® ironworker stationed nearby to crimp the structural posts that go into cement footings. Crimping the posts eliminates the need to drill and deburr holes for inserting rebar.

"When we look at an equipment purchase, it has to give us a return on investment in two years," Seibel said. "This one [saw] met our expectations for ROI."

Powder Coating."Five years ago, we outsourced over 90 percent of our powder coating. Now 90 percent of our powder coating is done in-house," said Pat Lloyd, supervisor of welding, grinding, and painting. This has saved money and time, he said.

Another change the company made was in how it transported parts for painting. "We used to have to take the parts off of the mobile cart and load them onto a stationary rack in the paint booth. Now the wheels have been replaced with high-heat-tolerant wheels so the cart can roll right into the powder coating booth. Just that alone saved 10 to 15 minutes per paint cycle," Lloyd said. "We went from 10 cycles a day to 12 cycles a day."

Welding Galvanized and Stainless Steel. Burke made some changes in the assist gas it used. By using an argon/helium/CO2 shielding gas blend from Praxair in place of the argon/25 percent CO2 blend it had been using, it reduced spatter, improved weld appearance, and added versatility. "We can now weld stainless steel and galvanized steel with the same torch," Lloyd said.

The company continues to look for quality and productivity improvement opportunities. It is considering acquiring a rotating welding table so that wraparound welds can be applied continuously around the tube. "Now you have to stop and start—weld halfway around the tube and then turn it over to weld the other half," said Lloyd. "You have to be careful to close the weld so you don't make pinholes. You also have to avoid overlap to avoid making bumps."

Inventory Management."Inven-tory tracking used to be all up here," Seibel said, pointing to his head. "That was OK when we offered only one color. Now we offer 11 different colors." Since the company moved to a computerized inventory control system, it has had no trouble tracking inventory, Seibel said.

Image Image Image Image Image
5. The tubular, plate, and sheet components are then welded into weldments, such as this unitary enclosure, which is a sort of gateway to the play structures. "These go into almost all of our playground sets," said Pat Lloyd, supervisor of welding, grinding, and painting. 6. All the parts getting the same color are painted at one time. Painting steel that is already galvanized is an extra precaution. "The last thing our customers want to do is install an entire playground setting and have it rust in six months," said Lloyd.

Customer Financing. Burke has taken an innovative approach to supplementing revenue sources. It recognized that because schools' budgets are cut, funding often is not available for playgrounds. This year it began offering a fundraising program guide to help PTOs and other groups raise the funds needed to build the play settings.

Inventory Turns, Labor Rates, Turnaround Time

The company measures its productivity and success by looking at inventory turns, labor rates per shipment, and turnaround time. "That indicates how much we increased productivity without adding staff," Seibel said. "They affect profit directly."

In 2002 Burke's inventory turn was 3.6 per year. Now it is 7.5 per year. Labor rates have almost been cut in half from where they were in 1999. Turnaround time per shipment, which had risen to 13 to 14 weeks in 1999, is now 29 to 30 days. And 98 percent of its orders are shipped complete and on time.

"This allows us to keep the reps happy," Seibel said. "Faster turns and complete shipments help them maintain their credibility."

It's easy to imagine that having playgrounds in place sooner makes children happy too.

BCI Burke Co. LLC, 660 Van Dyne Road, P.O. Box 549, Fond du Lac, WI 54936, 920-921-9220, fax 920-921-9566,,

Amada Cutting Technologies, 14849 E. Northam St., La Mirada, CA 90638, 714-670-1740, fax 714-670-2017,

Praxair Inc., 39 Old Ridgebury Road, Danbury, CT 06810, 800-772-9247, fax 800-772-9985,

Scotchman Industries, 180 E. Highway 14, Philip, SD 57567, 800-843-8844, fax 800-843-5545,

Kate Bachman

Kate Bachman

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1302

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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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