Philosophy of continuous improvement at Laserfab

Philosophy of continuous improvement at Laserfab

December 11, 2013 2:36:57 PM

Regardless of your type of metalworking shop, it helps to have a mission statement, a mantra, a code or a general way of working that serves to inform and guide the personality of the business. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t call an audible from time to time, but it’s beneficial to have everyone in the business working from the same playbook. Kevin Frazer, president and CEO of Laserfab Inc., has relied on what he and his team call the continuous growth and improvement philosophy, and it has served Laserfab well.

Company Snapshot

Laserfab is primarily a metal fabrication company specializing in laser cutting, forming, and welding of steel, stainless, and aluminum components and assemblies, and employs 60 people in three locations in Washington State. The Seattle/Tacomaarea shops in Puyallup and Redmond are 27,000 and 18,000 square feet respectively, while the Moses Lake location in Central Washington is 24,000 square feet. Over the years, Laserfab has used this continuous growth philosophy to grow from their original Puyallup location into the newer two locations, adding layers of technology incrementally along the way.


From what began years ago as twostand-alone lasers, the company now has seven Mitsubishi lasers, including Mitsubishi laser LVPs, and most recently, a Misubishi eX Laser. With fabrication as a core competency, the company also has two Dener press brakes and a Toyokoki, in addition to other metalworking and forming equipment. But as important as the lasers themselves are the new automation packages. The company boasts two material handling towers (one in Redmond, the other in Moses Lake) and one EL4 load/unloadsystem located in their Puyallup facility.


“Our largest customer is Genie Industries, a Terex Company,” Frazer says. “We support their campuses in both Redmond, and Moses Lake, Wa. We are a production job shop first and foremost, as we have customers in most industries including the man-lift [Genie Industries], aircraft, electronics, displays, marine, architectural, and other industries. Our quality and delivery are close to world-class, and our service and flexibility are excellent. That has been the constant to our success.”


Laserfab walks the walk, too, having received supplier-of-the-year recognition from Terex. They received this honor thanks to a unique Kanban-based, just-in-time inventory and delivery environment— which was expanded to several other customers. As a bonus, pricing is extremely competitive and the company remains very profitable as far as the fabrication industry is concerned. Laserfab also assists design and engineering of special projects which is helpful to many customers.

A Philosophical Approach

The continuous improvement philosophy at Laserfab really speaks for itself; it represents a commitment to a constant, incremental improvement strategy. This manifested most recently in the movement from stand-alone laser machines to fully automated material handling towers. One key element to the approach is the word ‘continuous’—meaning Laserfab never wants to be resting on its laurels or content to take a breather in improving. This keeps the company sharp and always looking forward.


For instance, he sees the advantages of the Mitsubishi river systems too, which could potentially be the next step or a step down the road. As Laserfab eyes the future, the operators are getting used to the new towers and dual laser systems, and growth is really starting in terms of production and efficiencies.


“We really do value the partnership we have with MC Machinery. And that means a lot of things, not just service, maintenance and rapport with the team. Our continuous improvement philosophy didn’t slow down in 2008 and 2009, when a lot of fabrication and job shops were slowing or contracting. Even through the down economy, our two companies were able to work together to arrive at certain financing considerations that helped us survive and flourish through those tougher times and continue to improve,” Frazer says. “We worked together, and once we got through that, we went back to original program. So we have survived together in good times and bad; we trusted each other throughout.”


They opened their new Redmond facility in July 2011. This was the company’s first foray into the tower automation system, a significant step forward. And it was such a success that it spawned a second tower, retrofitting the existing setup at the Moses Lake location.


“The continuous improvement philosophy really is ingrained in us; it’s a central part of our younger management team. It was important, and that’s why we picked Mitsubishi,” Frazer says. “A great resonator, low consumable costs – we had the confidence that when the technological changes came, we’d be on the forefront, and we moved forward with each technological step.


All along the way, Laserfab has seen improved cut quality, improved cut speed – virtually every metric improved incrementally with each step. In the end, Frazer’s team thought ‘OK, we need to do as much unattended as we possibly can.’


“Now, we have the young guys programming the parts, and only one guy needs to be watching two machines, so that means leaner staffs of really highly qualified employees. The controls are easy to learn, and the equipment runs itself. We can have one senior trouble shooter in the shop at any given time, and we can keep everything moving and running.”


Because Laserfab runs lights out much of the time, the most senior or experienced staff are concentrated on being available when the most work is going on – changeovers, etc. The company typically runs three shifts, sometimes a fourth weekend shift, so the machines are always going. These guys can also help to manage and train the less experienced guys.


“We have a really good, solid staff, and we love to have our own personal farm team, as we train from within; this means no bad habits,” Frazer says. “With our Just-in-Time manufacturing style, we have to hit tight delivery windows every day at each facility. We have a dynamic, demanding customer base, so we have to have impeccable systems and the equipment has to be running to meet requirements. All of that factored in, Mitsubishi and MC Machinery was the perfect match for us. It’s the perfect company to grow with, if consistent improvement is part of your strategy.”


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