It's not all gloom and doom

February 23, 2009
By: Tim Heston

Hey, just curious, but did you hear about the collapse of manufacturing last week? How about the fact that this recession could be the worst the world has ever experienced and that social unrest soon will create serious political instability in some parts of the world; that crime rates will rise, and that us honest folk should leave the cities before it"s too late; that we"re in for years of hardship?

I"ve read and seen it all in some form or another during the past few weekswith some of the scariest stuff, I might add, coming from our chief executive (who probably needs to scare folks to get the legislative branch to sign such unsettling stimulus packages). Staffers at one newsmagazine even decided to put that classic shot of a shuttered manufacturing plant with rusty perimeter gates locked under a darkening, foreboding sky.

The negative numbers governments and other organizations put out there spur such gloom-and-doom coverage. And to be sure, many lives have been turned upside down by the economic crisis. Despite all the bad news, though, bright spots aren"t too difficult to find. For instance, last week I talked with Randon Bernards and Shane Klyn, two gentlemen who work at metal fabrication operations bucking economic trends in different ways.

Bernards manages the fabrication shop at Crimson Fire, a Brandon, S.D., maker of fire trucks and associated apparatus. He told me he"s spent more time interviewing people over the past few months than ever before, in part thanks to new fire industry regulations that made it cost-effective for municipalities to place orders in December.

Company managers know the surge won"t last forever, of course. President Kevin Crump told me they"re planning for 2010 to be a tough year. But to endure the ups and downs, Crimson Fire has also gotten very good at what it does in a market cluttered with numerous small OEMs vying for a limited amount of business. In recent years the company reduced its work-in-process significantly. Instead of batching parts together on its band saw, waterjet, shear, press brake, and other fabrication equipment, they cut and form only what"s needed for the trucks being assembled on the floor. This means the company can make changes quickly to suit customer needs. At the same time, the fire trucks are designed modularly. Like LEGO® blocks, truck parts can be assembled in multiple ways, but the basic building blocks are standardized.

Shane Klyn is operations manager for Ultimate Hydroforming, a metal fabrication company that"s the polar opposite of Crimson Fire. Instead of being very good at making a certain category of products, Klyn"s Sterling Heights, Mich., company is very good at making a little bit of everything. The prototype shop has just about every metal forming and fabrication process under its roof: hydroforming, stamping, deep drawing, cutting, and welding.

Those processes serve a diverse customer base not just anchored to automotiveunusual for Michigan. Instead, employees make prototypes for everything from commercial and military aerospace to alternative energy and the medical industry. Klyn said managers make a conscious, continual effort to diversify. They won"t turn down work, of course. But if, say, aerospace orders increase, Ultimate Hydroforming managers try to expand the business in other areas. The company had record sales last year, and is predicting steady growth.

These metal fabricating operations continue to operate sound businesses at a time when popular perception says everything should be collapsing around them. I can"t deny that times are tough, and I understand the recent spate of gloom-and-doom media coveragebut the story isn"t the same everywhere.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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