The next time you’re in Minneapolis and looking for something to do, you might hop into your rental car and drive west for about two hours. It’s there that you’ll find Willmar, a city of 20,000 and the heart of Kandiyohi County. If you like to hike, swim, boat or fish, you’ve come to the right place because just over one-tenth of Willmar is water, with the rest composed of rolling hills and farmland.
Welcome to Willmar
The University of California women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson grew up in Willmar, as did dog musher Rick Swenson, the King of the Iditarod. Astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson attended Willmar Senior High School, and even though he was born in Iowa, considers Willmar his hometown. And local turkey farmer Earl Olson started food giant Jennie-O there. Turkeys are big business in Kandiyohi County.
The same is true for steel distribution and processing. In fact, right in the middle of town, on the north side of Highway 12 and hugging the shore of Foot Lake, sits a series of non-descript steel frame buildings, each with a sign on the front that says West Central Steel. Operations manager Brian Kath says you’re welcome to visit, although you might have to wait your turn getting into the parking lot; the trucks stay pretty busy bringing material in and out of the 245,000-sq.-ft. facility.
It’s been there since 1949, which is the same year that Earl Olson purchased his first turkey processing plant. Back then, West Central Steel was a scrapyard. Today, it employs 120 people and supplies customers with carbon steel and steel parts that are laser, plasma or torch-cut from structural steel, sheet or plate. Equipment includes a variety of CNC machine tools, including large-format laser cutters with 60-ft. and 80-ft. beds; tool changing plasma machines able to drill, tap and counterbore; a pair of 4-kW lasers attached to an FMS (flexible manufacturing system); and a PythonX structural steel processing robot.
As you might expect for a steel house, it also has plenty of sawing capacity, most of it from Amada Marvel Inc. There’s a Spartan P-100 automatic circular saw (i.e., cold saw) used primarily for blanking round stock. On the vertical bandsaw side, there’s a pair of 2150-PC3S tilt-frame saws, a 2150-P3C and a Marvel Series 25. This last machine, together with one of the 2150s, is fed by an automated lift and carry-style material handling system, also from Amada Marvel.
West Central Steel installed that system in 1994. The company has kept it busy ever since.
“Mild and structural steel, tube, angles, channels, beams – we cut it all,” Kath says. “Two shifts a day, five days a week, year after year. Each of our saws produces a lot of parts, which explains why we continue to be an Amada Marvel customer. I wasn’t there at the time, but we bought our first one back in the 1970s and have continued to upgrade our capabilities with new equipment from time to time.”
Kath adds that the most significant advantage to the automated sawing system has been the reduction of crane time.
“You load the table up with material for the shift and the crane is free to be used for other things,” he says. “Both saws can pick up whatever material they need for the job, carry it over to their roller, set it in place and cut the order, all on their own. When they get low on material, the crane operator sees that and brings more. It’s been a solid performer for us since its installation.”