Dewey Lockwood, owner of Fabricating Solutions, has an infectious outlook on the state of manufacturing in the United States. Operating a highly successful fabrication and design-for-manufacturability business tends to have that effect on a person. But his image of U.S. manufacturing is based on more than just what’s happening inside the walls of his facility.
“I’m optimistic that we’ve passed the tipping point in manufacturing,” he says. “You see it in the young people that work in high-tech manufacturing. They realize the huge career opportunities that are available and are embracing it. They’re a part of the ‘buy local’ movement, and that culture is trickling over into manufacturing.”
Fabricating Solutions boasts some of the most sophisticated equipment for parts production available today. And Lockwood’s philosophy regarding the resurgence in manufacturing is similar to his philosophy regarding the relationship of equipment and the fabricating business in general. As equipment evolves, the stigmas attached to manufacturing are stripped away. And as the stigmas are removed, more Americans will look to manufacturing as a viable career.
“With advancements in equipment, you have to go with it or your competition will go for it first,” he says. “While our competition is debating to buy a machine and their bean counter is hemming and hawing over the last $100,000, we’re moving forward. We don’t buy for today; we buy for tomorrow.”
Building it better
Fabricating Solutions opened its doors in 2004, offering customers a host of services grounded in manufacturability. The company is known for its prowess in the re-engineering and design of fabricated parts as well as its consultancy in the design, engineering and manufacturing of prototypes. Customers have a habit of bringing their parts to Fabricating Solutions to find better, more cost-efficient ways to make them.
Lockwood’s deep understanding of manufacturability has propelled the company into major growth. He attributes the experience he gained working at Trumpf Inc. as an applications engineer in the press brake department as a significant catalyst to launching his own company.
“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but being on the ground floor at Trumpf, and especially in applications, gave me a global view of how press brakes were being used,” he explains. “It was a great time to work there because Trumpf was just starting to use 3-D modeling, which offered the ability to do complicated parts compared to the simple 90-degree bends that we’d been doing in the past.
“That was the inspiration for launching the company,” Lockwood continues. “For me, 3-D modeling and offline programming were like playing a video game at my desk, never having to scrap a part, waste a tool or lose precious time on the shop floor.”
Prior to his seven years at Trumpf, Lockwood made steel molds for the pre-cast concrete industry. He describes the equipment he worked on as being adequate, but in that same breath he says he was “technology deprived.”
“When I got to Trumpf, I was like a kid in a candy store,” he proclaims. “I actually got drunk on the technology. Offline programming and 3-D modeling offered advantages not previously available, and that’s what inspired me to go as far as I have with the business.”
On a mission
The mission statement for Fabricating Solutions is not to make a widget, but to make a pre-existing widget better. To fulfill that mission, Lockwood understands the importance of purchasing the best equipment available and using it to its fullest potential.
“If you allow us to take our manufacturing processes and knowledge and apply it to your part, everybody wins,” he says. “That strategy was borne out of the unfair advantage of 3-D modeling, but it has definitely evolved since we first got started.”
Beyond design for manufacturability, Fabricating Solutions can also perform full product runs for customers. In some cases, the company has helped customers program their parts into their equipment so they can hit the ground running on their own production floors.
Fabricating Solutions’ customers come in many shapes and sizes and from various industries. Their products range in size, shape and material type, including steel, stainless steel, aluminum, coated materials and red metals, such as copper, brass and bronze.
“Life has changed dramatically since Fabricating Solutions began,” Lockwood says. “When you solve a problem for a customer, they inevitably want you to solve more. We went from prototyping as our highest volume design service to doing a lot of production, as well. But, it all evolved out of redesign for manufacturability. You don’t get to be a prototype shop with one of the biggest and fastest lasers and the most sophisticated bending machines on the market. There’s just not enough prototyping out there to feed those monsters.”
The shop floor at Fabricating Solutions could easily be mistaken for a Trumpf showroom. Other than its spot welder, every single piece of equipment is a Trumpf. Lockwood says that his time at Trumpf shaped his approach to capital investments overall.
“It’s not the first $200,000 or $300,000 you spend on a press brake that gives you the competitive edge,” he says. “It’s the last $60,000 to $100,000. Trumpf’s laser ACB and the 6-axis backgauge with extended opening are great examples of that last portion of the investment. That’s where you’re going to make all of your money.”
Throughout the years, Lockwood has invested in the evolution of Trumpf equipment as his company evolved. Currently, the company leverages a Trumpf 8-kW fiber laser with a LiftMaster Compact material handling system as well as a TruBend 5320 hydraulic press brake and a TruBend 5030 panel bender. The most recent press brake, the 5320, replaced an older press brake of the same model.
“The 6-axis backgauge has been around for 20 years, but the big advantage comes when you couple that with 3-D modeling and offline programming,” Lockwood explains. “That’s what the new 5320 provided. Without those features, you’re forced to fixture or tab your parts and not just cut them clean to the geometry that you need. The 6-axis backgauge provides the ability to pinch a part in mid-air and grab it on a taper or on an angle, sometimes even off of an odd-shaped bend that you’ve already done.”
ACB Laser has been a game-changer at Fabricating Solutions, as well. ACB Laser, Trumpf’s angle measuring system, which stands for “automatically controlled bending,” relies on sensors to measure the actual angle of a bend and guide the ram to produce perfect results every time. Without the ACB Laser system, precision can be compromised based on variations in material that press brake operators are prone to encounter, such as strength or springback.
“Measurement and angle control used to be done with hard physical tooling,” Lockwood says. “You would tool that part, calibrate that tool and align it. Your limitations were pretty vast, including whether there were holes near the bend or enough sensors to go across multiple tool stations.
“We use ACB Laser on thick plate where hard-tooled ACB isn’t possible,” he continues. “With the ACB Laser, we can bend material that’s 1/2 in. thick with a 1 1/2-in. inside radius. Material fluctuation becomes greater the thicker the material becomes, so angle control becomes even more critical in these situations. Consider the cost of having to scrap a thick blank or the labor-intensive task of putting it back into the machine to fix it.”
Another reason for always investing in the latest and greatest are the advancements made to the operator interface. Lockwood describes Trumpf’s graphics as “photo realistic” and “fool proof.” Coupled with the ACB Laser, lower skilled operators are able to produce quality parts with ease.
Lockwood and his team have trained a lot of people on offline programming – both staff and customers – to the point where they’ve joked about launching a new branch of the business, Fabricating University. In all seriousness, though, Lockwood believes that the earning potential of his staff is on par, and sometimes higher, than that of a college graduate.
“With overtime, a 21-year-old can make $50,000 a year with no student debt,” he says. “But it’s not just the younger generation that’s benefiting from our high-tech work environment. I have older employees that have been technology deprived, too. They get excited about new technology because it can do all of these things that they’ve spent too much time struggling to achieve in the past.”
Whether it’s new hires or long-term employees, Lockwood’s attitude is contagious, as his rate of retention shows. Employee turnover is inevitable, but Fabricating Solutions is training its people faster and better than most thanks to sophisticated equipment and leadership that truly cares about their futures.
Lockwood admits, however, that anybody can buy the same equipment he has. The differentiator, therefore, is employee “buy-in.”
“If my team buys in to using it and maximizing it, we’re going to win,” Lockwood says. “People are just as important as the machine. Sure, the owner can buy it, but the team and the people have to buy in.”