In 2004, AmeriTex Machine and Fabrication LLC opened its doors to the public. It was the long-time dream of its founder and patriarch, Lawrence Fennell, fondly known as Paw Paw.
With a love for his country, his home state of Texas and all things metal fabrication, AmeriTex was born.
With his two sons at his side, the company took on any metal fabrication work its customers threw at it. No job was too big or too small, but at times, some materials could be too thick, causing the company to contract the cutting work to an outside partner. Today, however, with the acquisition of a 20-kW Phoenix fiber laser from LVD, there’s nothing the team at AmeriTex can’t tackle. Zack Fennell, manufacturing engineer and COO at AmeriTex, says his grandfather would be proud.
“His passion was custom metal fabricating – what we refer to as job shop work where we’ll build anything out of metal that comes in the door,” he says. “It’s what my grandpa considered the fun stuff. And today, we still like the quick-turn items. For one, the cash flow with quick-turn items is great, but for two, it keeps our work fun and interesting.”
The original goal for AmeriTex was to move away from the electrical integration work Lawrence’s first company, Cleveland
Mfg., focused on. Cleveland Mfg. was founded in 1976 and was a successful business for nearly 30 years; it just wasn’t what Lawrence had envisioned for his life’s work. He wanted to keep the projects quick but interesting and not get too deep into assembly work.
“Making custom metal parts leaves us open to a huge array of customers that do their own electrical integration and assembly, build out their items and do their own testing, and that allows us to stick to the metal work,” Fennell says. “That has helped us cultivate strong relationships with a lot of customers where we essentially serve as their fabrication shop. We’re an extension of them, and they can count on us for getting them what they need when they need it.”
To achieve that goal, AmeriTex has assembled a fleet of LVD equipment, including a DynaCell press brake, three automated ToolCell press brakes, a 10-kW Electra fiber laser cutting machine with a tower storage system and load/unload carts, and LVD’s Cadman software to manage it all. With this equipment plus cutting-edge welding and finishing equipment, the company fabricates a range of materials, including thick plate for a number of industries. And soon, all of this equipment will reside at the company’s new 100,000-sq.-ft. facility in Conroe, Texas, about 10 min. away from where AmeriTex has been located for the past 14 years.
“Our current facility is on 36 acres in three buildings that are fairly spread out whereas the 100,000-sq.-ft. facility in Conroe will all be under one roof,” Fennell says. “We have plans to further develop the property at the new location, but we’re most excited about having everyone together in one building.”
As AmeriTex moves into its new location, it is also making a transition to new equipment from LVD. A 20-kW Phoenix fiber laser cutting machine is slated for delivery and installation in the upcoming weeks. With the acquisition of the Phoenix, thick-plate cutting work will increase, allowing AmeriTex to process those jobs faster and with the utmost precision.
Thick plate club
Even though thick plate might not be the first thing that comes to mind with quick-turn work, Fennell says it’s an important aspect of their overall capabilities. When the goal is to “build anything out of metal that comes in the door,” AmeriTex has to be ready for literally anything.
“We may have a month where all we do is thick plate and then another month where all we do is thin stuff, so we try to cover our bases to be able to handle it all,” he says. “And that’s where our investments in the Phoenix and Electra come into play.”
The 10-kW Electra 4020, the first LVD fiber laser acquired by AmeriTex, features a larger table size, is linear-driven and, therefore, is incredibly fast and quite powerful. And while the Phoenix features the same large-format table, it’s a rack-and-pinion machine, which inherently provides slightly slower motion. With its 20 kW, however, it will offer twice the power of the Electra. And with the use of nitrogen or mixed gas for 1/2-in. or 3/4-in. plate, Fennell and his team expect to be cutting two to three times quicker than they originally expected. Overall, the two lasers should complement each other very well.
“On standard sheet metal, you don’t really need the full 20 kW from the Phoenix, so it will primarily be dedicated to plate, handling all of our material between 1/4 in. and 1.5 in.,” he says. “We get a lot of steel in the 1/4-in. to 3/4-in. range, so we’ll double our cut rates on stuff like that once the Phoenix is installed.”
Prior to investing in the LVD lasers, the team at AmeriTex only had a handful of options to consider when presented with a thick-plate project: cut it in-house with one of their older laser machines or plasma or outsource it. No matter the route, the team was either waiting on the lasers to complete the big plate-cutting jobs or the subcontractors to deliver the cut parts.
“Once the Phoenix is up an, we’ll be able to cut up to 1.5-in. material in-house,” Fennell says. “Normally, we don’t quote anything over that, so we should be fine. It was the 1.25-in. to 1.5-in. range that we had to sub out the work for. And funny enough, while we already do a lot of contract cutting for quite a few customers, that work is going to increase.”
Considering that ultra-high-power lasers like the Phoenix are relatively new to the market, it’s clear to see that AmeriTex stays up to date with new technology. Not only does that
philosophy help to streamline internal operations, it maintains the company’s competitiveness.
“There’s nothing better than being able to tell customers, that we can cut this thickness or this size hole in this thickness of plate,” Fennell says. “As soon as they know about our new capabilities, we start getting parts that push the limits of the previous technology. The new technology could be higher power levels, different lenses or cutting gases, anything that makes all those complicated parts easier to cut and faster to cut.”
Thick-plate customers and applications come in all shapes and forms at AmeriTex, but many new customers will be taking advantage of the smaller, cleaner holes that can be cut in even thicker material. And as the cutting accuracy rises, the need for secondary operations falls. As an example, in the past, AmeriTex might blank cut a profile from thick material, but would then have to send it to a separate machine to drill the holes and perhaps to a third machine for deburring. All of that will be eliminated with the Phoenix.
To speed things up even more, AmeriTex also invested in the TAS tower system from LVD, which is a storage and load/unload system that features 60-plus shelves of storage. The TAS system will also have a direct unload table in the front of the machine for quick-turn projects. Fennell says the TAS will be incredibly beneficial especially when compared to standard tower systems “where every part you cut goes back in a tower where you have to bring the whole shelf down to unload it.”
In terms of more advanced part management, LVD’s Cadman software will be a big piece of AmeriTex’s overall goal toward adopting a smart factory philosophy. The company is in the process of implementing the full Cadman system reader that tracks parts as they move through the facility.
“As the laser completes a job, the parts will automatically be moved to the press brake,” Fennell says. “And we’re planning on adding our other manual workstations to Cadman, as well. Having welders run in Cadman is also something that we’d like to test, where the jobs coming off the brake can populate on the weld stations, as well. The goal is to run the whole shop on one system. Tracking parts as they move through the facility is essentially the future of fabricating, so, we’re definitely giving it a go.”
With its fleet of sophisticated equipment and its soon-to-open new location, AmeriTex looks much different than it did back in 2004. Fennell says that other than his grandfather, father and uncle and a partner that is no longer with the company, there were only a handful of employees in the early days.
“In 2004, we were in a pretty run-down facility in Willis, Texas, but don’t get me wrong; the facility did what it needed to do,” he says. “When 2008 came around, after a few years of growth, they were able to put some money into a really nice facility, which is where we’re currently operating.
“My grandpa passed away in 2018, but during those last 10 years of his life, he spent more time with the people on the shop floor than running the business,” he recalls. “For everyone in the shop – and it didn’t matter their age – not a single one of them called him Lawrence, he was PawPaw. He was our mascot, our patriarch, and we miss him so much.”
With PawPaw at the helm, AmeriTex doubled in size every year until the recession of ’08, but even then, the company experienced steady growth. Fennell says that aside from Covid, there’s wasn’t a single year where the company went backwards. “We’ve always been trucking forward,” he says. And from the looks of it, like there’s no stopping them. PawPaw would be proud, indeed.