January 3, 2008
Everyone who works at Tampa Sheet Metal Co. has a riverboat to thank. Yes, a riverboat.
During the early 1900s, Augusta Jiretz, looking out the window of her room in a waterfront hotel, saw a riverboat that reminded her of home, Hamburg, Germany. That was enough for Augusta and her husband, John, a journeyman sheet metal mechanic who shortly thereafter set up a two-man sheet metal shop in 1920, the Tampa Sheet Metal Co. In 1938 the company's 12 workers built a facility on what is today Kennedy Blvd., then the outskirts of town; today it's virtually downtown.
"When I first came to work here [in 1956], we did most things by hand," said John L. Jiretz, company president and the founder's grandson. "To set up a punch press took a half hour, and to change a hole size took another 20 minutes."
My how times have changed.
The company still operates at the same location where 1920s craftsmen built the first facility, but inside today's facility sits CNC equipment--brakes, punch presses, welders, and lasers--and a digital work flow environment that would amaze the company founder.
The company uses Solid Edge Siemens software, which helps the company verify drawings and its embedded manufacturing data. Company managers perform comprehensive preproduction inspection to ensure they're meeting customer needs. If any change is needed, they make sure those changes happen in the digital environment--not on the shop floor.
"We perform preproduction inspection of the design itself to make sure it's exactly what the customer wants," said John D. Jiretz, the company vice president and the founder's great-grandson, who had a vision not rely solely on paper and move drawings into a digital environment. In 1999, the shop made its first steps toward a digital work flow.
"We now work with a model that's interactive," he said. Users can "peel off" pieces of that design for welding and fabrication, all the while linking back to the same root file residing on the company's server--no duplicate information, no misinformation, no surprises at the eleventh hour.
The company has remained small, employing just two more than the dozen workers it had during the Great Depression, but production has gone through the roof, thanks to automation and digitization.
I spoke with John D. and his father, John. L. Jiretz, just before the holidays, and for me their story seemed well-suited for the new year: Stay rooted in the old, but say hello to the new.
Sure, modern technology allows the shop to compete in ways a 1920s sheet metal journeyman couldn't have imagined. But the work ethic hasn't changed, nor has the imagination needed to overcome challenges. Consider the founder who built a business and endured the worst economic disaster in modern times--and undoubtedly he did it in part by relying on the skills he learned through his German apprenticeship and the skills of his employees.
The same reliance on skill holds true today, only the skills have changed a bit thanks to automated equipment. Today's challenges involve perennial pricing pressures and a global playing field, and the company competes by offering advanced digital services, easing work flow, and shrinking lead-times to get better products to market faster for customers.
For Tampa Sheet Metal Co.--a fourth-generation American enterprise--2008 looks like a good year, and I'm sure they'll continue doing what they've always done to compete: keeping roots in the old, imagining the new, and using both to sustain and grow.