Making Displays Fast, Faster, Fastest

Midland Metals has expanded its capabilities to control the chaos.


Nested parts are cut from flat metal sheets. Scheduling software determines what parts will be cut and any one time.

At first glance the plant appears chaotic. Everything seems in motion. Raw material shuttles to production equipment.

Cut parts are transferred to downstream machines for value added production. Workers are producing myriad parts for a plethora of projects, and multiple components converge on joining and packaging departments for assembly and distribution.

Amidst the 110,000 sq. ft. of raw material and automated machinery, human and machine are building products from scratch. Here, says BJ McDonald, co-owner of Midland Metal Products, the focus is to be fluid, to be dynamic, to smile and nod when a customer asks to do a job that requires high customization and short deadlines. Essentially to deliver even the most difficult project at breakneck speeds.


 The Cincinnati CL-840 laser can cut a range of materials from 11 gauge to 22 gauge mild steel and other materials.

Upon entering the factory floor, and standing among the frenzied activity there is a sensory feeling: with laser cutting sparks flying, forklifts beeping, workpieces clanging as workers bend components on a tight piece-work schedule, the pop of MIG welds. McDonald says, “When you look at the shop there are 150 people right now, and they are probably working on 50 separate projects, for maybe 20 different customers.”


 Midland Metals utilize 20 press brakes. Laser cut parts are delivered to the brake station as needed.

In fact, production at this family owned fab shop is not chaotic at all. While the human overseers running the facility may not know what particular job is being produced at any one time, sophisticated software and automated equipment are keeping production humming smoothly along on schedule.

McDonald, his brother, Marcus, and other family members head up Midland Metal Products, a family owned business that has been in operation for nearly 90 years. The Chicago-based custom metal fabrication shop focuses on point-of-purchase displays and store fixtures that are often seen in large box stores across the country. McDonald is the company’s fourth generation of owners that began when the Zidek family founded Midland Metal Products as the City Wire Frame Company in New York. In the beginning, the company manufactured various stock and specialty wire products such as lampshade frames and wire fan guards. Midland began its foray into POP displays in the 1920’s when it began supplying potato chip clip racks to the Jays Company of Chicago. At this time, the company moved its operation to Chicago to be closer to its clients. Steadily through the focus at Midland and in the 1960’s, Midland began exclusively serving POP agencies.


A 5-axis robotic welder is used for large jobs and small.


For long time readers of FAB Shop Magazine, the company name may be familiar. McDonald and his family first appeared in the pages of FAB Shop in 2011, and most recently was featured in the magazine’s sister-publication, Shop Floor Lasers, to talk about its new laser capabilities. Why a third look at this company? Because through the years, Midland Metal Products has continued to expand its production capabilities, adding new equipment, and reorganizing its plant layouts. This edition is no different, as the company has expanded even more since the last story, by adding a new laser cutting system, new powder coating capabilities, and rearranging areas of the plant. Even a year later, an update and review of the factory floor needed a redo.

The reason for all this expansion is to meet the needs of a demanding customer base that not only has to have a quality product, but they need it ASAP. “Our industry never really pressured us on quality, because that was assumed, or even on price, because this is a specialty market.

What retailers want is a display solution, in the stores, in time for a promotion,” said Marcus McDonald. “They don’t have time to wait.” Over the years, standard deliveries have gone from eight to twelve weeks to three to four. Often, a customer will approach them without a lot of development, only a need. “There might not be any blueprints,” said BJ McDonald. “Sometimes the retailer just comes to us with a brand new product, that has a different shape, a different look and size and says, ‘we need to get this thing into retail stores and it needs a display solution’.”

In the past, an order would come in for a bracket, and Midland would turn to its hard tool die maker who would go to work on a tool that would go on an OBI press and the tool would stamp out that particular part. In a couple months or so, the company would get the tool and then manufacturing of the POP item could begin. “That whole concept has gone away because if an American manufacturer has standard deliveries of eight to twelve weeks, most people will simply go to China for a third of the price.”


 The company’s welding department is in the center of production with various machining departments surrounding it. 


To shorten these lead times, the company has incorporated sophisticated software that can interface with automated machinery. “We have retooled the entire shop and introduced machine tools that are all CNC, but even beyond the CNCcapabilities is a software side that can make a virtual model create the G code.”

The company uses Solidworks software to design the displays and develop the programming to determine how it is to be made by the automated equipment. Typically, this starts with a fixture, which will follow a component through to the welding stage, and conclude with a full-sized, fully functioning prototypes for review and production runs once the review has been approved.

This design software has reduced the need for a programmer to churn through lines of code, spending hours if not days to get a machine to stamp the right part. “These things work very quickly, I’m talking about nano seconds, to develop the G code.”


One of three lasers that supply cut parts to press brakes and other downstream equipment.

The software interfaces with the company’s ERP/MRP systems to help ensure Midland meets justin- time delivery requirements, tracks material inventory, and nests parts for maximum material usage. “Solidworks is just not just this design engineering thing that exists on the front end,” McDonald adds. “It powers the entire manufacturing shop from the very second we say hello to our customers.”

Most jobs start with a fixture that is born from a parent engineering file. A CNC router machines a piece of plastic that has this exact needed shape. “ That is the first step of every part,” said McDonald. “It acts as a template and quality is ensured during welding. Every weld is done correctly, and at the correct location. In fact, on the bottom of the fixture are holes where the welding pins will go.”


A laser system cuts a tube for a display project. Using the automated system with multiple capabilities, allowed the company to rid itself of milling machines.

The other critical software component to production flow is the CI Scheduler software from Cincinnati Inc., the company that also supplies the laser cutting systems and press brakes to Midland Metals. The software takes information entered by the programmer and automatically nests parts for optimum material usage and job turnaround. It tracks material inventory and provides a production schedule.

“We’re using our own ERP/MRP system along with Cincinnati Scheduler software. The only thing a human needs to really do is place parts in buckets. We’re simply telling this entire system what parts are needed, how many and how bad we need them.”

Essentially, the system will know when a press brake operator should have been finished with a particular project, and will cut and deliver more raw materials to that press brake for the next batch or project.

The system takes those simple attributes about a part—need, timing, etc.–and comes up with a schedule on its own, using sheet utilization as a parameter. It does this on its own based on the parameters provided. McDonald added, “If you ask me what parts are going to be cut from a sheet at any one time, what parts are going to be placed on that sheet, the answer is, ‘I don’t really know.’ The system is going to be looking at all of these parameters things we asked it to do and come up with the strategy that satisfies all the things we are asking.


The Modular Material Handling System (MMHS) is a 2-story tall device with 28 drawers that delivers material to lasers and turret presses.


In addition to the scheduling software, production is also oriented to reduce material handling and to maximize operational efficiency, said McDonald, who calls this orientation right adjacency. Similar to a manufacturing cell, in which work flows from one production activity to the next, this concept places different areas of production near to where material comes in and in the best position to feed joining and packaging areas.

“Depending on the need and depending on the material type, there are different adjacencies, very short, very lean steps starting from when we take in material through the process,” said McDonald. Pointing to the different areas of the plant, McDonald shows where the wire production, tube processing, and sheet metal activities occur. “In the middle pocket is spot welding and MIG welding because these departments are the joinery departments. They’re taking these three materials and they’re joining them into one display.”

For instance, at one time all deliveries came into one set of docks. Now, deliveries are made to docks closest to where those materials will be processed. A dock for sheet metal features a monorail crane that bridges the gap between inside the shop and outside. The truck pulls up and the crane actually jumps that gap between inside and out and continues outside the building to the truckload where it grabs 6,000 lb units of flat sheet metals and brings it into the factory where it is visually inspected, checked for thickness and weight, and loaded into the two-story tall, automated material handling system also from Cincinnati. The Modular Material Handling System (MHHS) feeds the laser and turret CNC equipment with 6 ft x 12ft (2m x 4m) sheets in thicknesses ranging from 22 gauge (0.76mm) to 0.5 in. (13 mm).

The material handling system has a central elevator that drops off material to two different storage towers that incorporate 28 drawers that can carry 6,000lbs of steel per drawer of different sized sheets. Midland primarily uses from 22 gauge steel up to 1.25 in., but what is typical is 22 to 11 gauge along with some 0.187 in., 0.250 in., and 0.5 in. material thicknesses. The vast majority of sheet material, 90 percent or so, is cold-rolled steel or mild steel. The remaining is a mix of brushed aluminum for signage as well as stainless steel.

The system delivers flat sheets to two Cincinnati lasers for production, and to a new fiber laser system for prototoype production. The company bought its first laser cutting system in 2005, a Cincinnati 3500watt CL- 707 MODEL. The CO2 laser system was augmented in 2012, when the company also purchased a CL-804 high-throughput laser that increase the range of materials it could cut. Previously, it could cut up to 14 gauge mild steel. With the new technology, it could cut its full range of materials from 11 gauge to 22 gauge mild steel, and other materials including wood.

Most recently, the company purchased a fiber laser system, the CL-9000 system, from Cincinnati “The third stand alone fiber laser is devoted to prototype building and when it satisfies the request of the prototype shop, it will go into mini production run. We have a jib crane that’s placed in the material stream that can pick sheets from and move it directly onto this laser,” said McDonald. “The new fiber optic laser which is three times as fast as our other lasers. Adding a fiber laser was like adding three more lasers. A lot more lasing capacity.”

This is critical as developing prototypes is critical to showing the customer what would appear in a store and winning the contract. Last year, the company reportedly produced 1,800 prototypes.

In addition to supplying raw material to the laser systems, the MHHS also supplies materials to turret presses that processes 50 by 100 in. sheet steel, up to 3/8 in. thick. The turret press can carry 43 individual tools. The company has a tooling library of more than 3,000 tools.

After laser cutting and turrets pressing, the cut parts are transferred to other equipment stations including 20 press brakes. The brakes include a 60-ton Autoform+ and 90- ton Proform, both from Cincinnati, that have programmable ram speeds, that allows the company to maximize forming speeds for fast throughput. The Autoform also features dynamic thickness compensation to improve angular consistency by measuring and automatically compensating for thickness variation during production runs.


A grouping of laser cut and bent parts, along with wire components and tubing, that came together for assembly or packaging.


Midland’s tubing and wire areas have also incorporated automated technology over the last few years. The tubing station, for instance, installed two automated laser systems that allow for long raw tubing and can perform multiple capabilities. It can cut tubing to size from 20-24 foot lengths. “Having a tube laser lets us combine operations in one machine,” said McDonald. “It is a drill press. It is a saw. It is a notcher. In some cases it can be a bender. So, we are combining all those processes and we can buy tubing from millsource tubing rather than warehouse tubing where they would cut the tubing to size at a premium cost.” In the wire area, the company works with 3,000 lbs wire spools, which are straightened and cut to size using automated CNC 3D wire forming equipment

From the sheet metal, tubing, and wire forming departments, components are combined in the welding area for construction. The company has 38 spot welding machines with capacities from 30kva to 150kva, and an automated, 5-axis Panasonic robotic welding cell from Miller that uses a 2-sided rotary loading table that is capable of weldments as large as 50 by 84 in. containing as many as 67,000 welded intersections per piece.


Just as the company looked to improved laser processing equipment to reduce operational costs and improve capabilities for its customers, the company did the same to its powder coating systems. In the past, it had to outsource its powder coating, which meant that they had to work within the confines of that supplier’s schedule or pay a premium if a rush job was needed.

“We had to take control, “ said McDonald. “We wanted to have a system be able to change colors very quickly because we didn’t have the luxury of time and waiting on someone elses’ schedule since we’re trying to satisfy an enormous customer base with concurrent projects flowing through the shop.” To get around this problem, the company installed a second coating line to be able to change colors as needed. “The new quick color change system allows me to have up to 36 powder colors on deck and at the ready,” McDonald said. “This system allows us to change color with the push of a button in 17 seconds.”

While the strength of this line is its flexibility, the tradeoff is transfer efficiency and ability to reclaim unused powder. This system only has about a 50 percent transfer efficiency rate. The remaining 50 percent of powder went unused. For longer jobs in which one color can be used for extended periods, the company has a reclaim booth with a 97% transfer efficiency rate.


Midland Metals has added a reclaim powder coating booth. They also have a quick change system that allows them to change colors in minutes.


All of these upgrades to reduce turn around times is necessary as the industry continues to more quickly demand displays, and who are also looking to Midland Metals to do more value added work to the POP displays. “I think the biggest thing we’re faced with now is that the customers want us to do more, they want to do less at their end,” explained Marcus McDonald. “So, the assembly and packing and the warehousing is becoming a big part of a job.” In one new project, Midland Metals has been tasked with developing an interactive device that utilizes sophisticated electronic devices. “We are talking about high-value,” he added. “At some point, we’re going to have more than 4,000 [devices] in this building at $500 a piece.”

With the need to do more, and do it quicker, the company has not stopped looking at ways to innovate its production capabilities. The company is working with Cincinnati and a third-part integrator to add additional automation and robotics. “What’s really different with this emerging technology is not just the idea of using robots,” said BJ McDonald, “it’s the fact that we are working to get them to do their tasks more efficiently and adding autonomy to their programming. In other words, you don’t have to program every little move in the process.

“The idea is that you can simply say to a robot, ‘Hey park a bunch of parts here in this general area and here’s how I want them bent. Then, after you’re done, you’re going to stack them really nicely in this general area’,” he added. “The programming set up time is going to go way down. It can turn days into hours and that’s very exciting.”

Midland Metal Products 



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