Embracing Laser technology

Embracing Laser technology

December 11, 2013 3:38:43 PM

Artisan Industries Inc. began as a metal former in Streetsboro, Ohio, but like other stamping houses, recognized the need for diversification. Since jumping into the fabricating business, the company has been constantly evolving to become a one-stop shop for customers.

“Our strategy is to listen to our customers,” Berkes says. “We need to be able to support and grow with them.” It sounds like a simple strategy, but execution requires faith in the customer’s business plan and the financial wherewithal to invest in manufacturing technology and talent. “It hasn’t always been smooth sailing,” says Berke. “We reached peak revenue earnings ($30 million) in the late 2000s with defense related work, then diversified the company business after the reduction in military jobs. We added a third manufacturing location in Florida and grew our workforce to about 100 employees. But our commitment to our customer remained strong and served us well.” Listen to the story.

Berkes went to work for his father, Jim Berkes in 1993 as a plant manager of a 15,000-square-foot facility in the Cleveland area making retractable cargo restraint systems. Jim Berkes, who also was running his own stamping operation, Artisan Tool and Die, developed the restraint systemto cut down the waste associated with shipping. The cargo restraint system, still made by Artisan today, can be used repeatedly, unlike boxes or shrink wrap.

Unlike other stampers, Artisan Tool and Die didn’t bang out thousands of washers a day. The company concentrated on the tougher jobs—such as deep drawing—that the larger houses showed no interest in doing. The shop employed 10 journeyman toolmakers and supplemented the ranks with an apprenticeship program. It was a problem solver.

Jeff Berkes also liked to solve problems, which led him to explore the latest CNC technology. Berkes saw laser cutting technology as a game-changer. Traditionally, new projects required tooling, failure mode analysis, production of samples, prototype tweaking and ultimately, the production of parts six months later. The laser cutting method required a CAD file—translated into an NC program—to cut the part, taking a matter of minutes with production and delivery of parts soon thereafter. “We needed a laser,” says Berkes.

Berkes reached out to nearby shops to ask their opinion and was invited into the shops. In both shops he saw Mitsubishi laser cutting equipment. Shortly thereafter, he headed to the Mitsubishi showroom in Chicago and enrolled in Laser Cutting 101. “I was fired up about being exposed to CNC technology,” he says. The company purchased the first of what would eventually be a dozen laser cutting machines from Mitsubishi.

In 1998, the Berkes family and another partner left the company to form Artisan Industries. Artisan purchased new Mitsubishi laser cutting equipment and began competing with the company it left behind. It not only had the restraining belt product line, but a large customer that stayed with them as they formed the new business.

A Tier 1 supplier to Caterpillar approached Artisan management to gauge its interest in laser-cutting engine gaskets. After accepting the job, Artisan became one of the first area fabricators to laser-cut these types of parts. The engine gasket blanks were cut on the lasers and the blanks were fed to the stamping presses to complete high tolerance secondary operations. The investment in laser cutting technology paid for itself right from the start.

Today, Artisan Industries has two 4.5-kW eX CO2 cutting machines attached to a 16-shelf raw material storage tower, with room to add another CO2 or fiber laser. A stand-alone 6-kW NX laser cutting machine is located strategically in the 75,000-squarefoot facility so more equipment can be added when the business grows. The shop has another automated setup with a tower that feeds two 3.5-kW LV series lasers.

For Artisan, the laser cutting business grew over the years with the addition of automated storage and retrieval towers and modern equipment. In the late 2000s, metal fabricators across the U.S. were cutting armor plate for U.S. military vehicles and Artisan was invited to contribute to the cause after a local fabricator went out of business. The armored vehicle manufacturer looked to Artisan to step in and fill the gap. It absorbed the closed fabricator’s business, several employees and 65,000-square-foot facility.

“We were pumping armor for a couple of years,” Berkes says. “We were only able to do that because the customer had confidence and we had capacity and financial wherewithal to secure the materials and deliver the products.” In 2008 through 2010, Artisan posted record revenues. During that time, Artisan had a chance to perfect the process of cutting thick materials. Today, a majority of the metal thicknesses processed at the Streetsboro facility are 0.25-inch to 1-inch thick.

The defense business posed a potential risk, however, because it represented 85 percent of Artisan’s business. Berkes didn’t want to be too closely linked with one company or industrial segment because any downturn could be damaging. So Artisan diversified their customer base to counterbalance the defense work. Today, defense represents only 5 percent of the fabricator’s overall business.

Around that time, a longtime customer wanted Artisan to become a more valuable contributor to its supply chain. The catch was that Artisan would have to do so from Florida, near the customer’s headquarters. So, the metal fabricator opened a Florida facility. It is now the largest sheet metal supplier to the customer, delivering finished metal cabinets daily. With that relationship established, Berkes says the 35,000-square-foot shop is working to diversify its customer base.

Entering new industry segments, adding technology and a new facility, and evolving from a parts supplier to a component builder all put stress on an organization. Artisan was no different.

As the metal fabricator grew over the years, the pace and variability of manufacturing increased. “Drop-in” is no longer a term used to describe an order that disrupts the production schedule; it’s the nature of business. Customers don’t want to carry inventory, so they expect Artisan to supply parts at a moment’s notice.

“We’re successful because of our transaction speed,” says Berkes. “Once, a customer showed up in a full-sized van filled with raw material and said he needed 50 widgets by the next day. We said ok. Now everyone wants that level of service.”

To take care of these unscheduled jobs, Artisan reserves “ghost hours” for equipment. This open capacity gives Artisan the chance to accept “hot” work that otherwise wouldn’t be accommodated and customers can change or add production requests.

Berkes is confident that Artisan’s technology allows the company to compete with other shops. With offline programming, it can turn drawings into parts in a matter of minutes—even with production in full swing.
It has equipment that runs much more efficiently; for example, the eX laser cutting machines have faster cutting heads and can change gases 60 percent faster than older generation machines.

Artisan is constantly evolving and customers want the shop to grow with them, which is perhaps the greatest sign of faith in a supply chain partner. Customers don’t want to have multiple vendors. They want completed components delivered to them. So in two years, Artisan will have a powder coating line installed to deliver finished metal parts to customers.

Artisan is also exploring options for an enterprise resource planning software upgrade that will give it the ability to support the volume increases and quality expectations that come with growing the business. “The challenge is to never be complacent. We need to continue growing if we want to be in a similar position in 15 years,” Berkes says.

Twenty years ago, a company was formed to produce a cargo restraining belt that could eliminate waste associated with traditional approaches to shipping parts. In 2013 Artisan is still focused on eliminating waste and it’s more than willing to listen to its customers for ideas. After all, those relationships are responsible for the company’s success.

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