By Paul Kwiatkowski
Although the basic requirements of structur- al steel fabrication may not have changed much over the last 20 to 30 years, many of
today’s structural fabrication shops look quite different than they did back then. They generally are
smaller in both footprint and staff size, yet still remain highly capable and competitive.
Market pressures and technological advances
have spurred this big change. Traditionally steel fabricating companies primarily were large operations
with hundreds of workers. Although most moved
toward faster production rates by installing automated, special-purpose equipment, such as saws
or a beam line, they were best equipped to handle
large jobs. So when the next big project didn’t come
through—maybe the new skyscraper project went
to a competitor—things could get rough.
Today, the vast majority of structural steel fabri-
How Do These Shops Compete?
cators operate out of smaller facilities and employ
just 20 to 50 people. This model allows these com-
panies to pick up smaller jobs and change direction
quickly, both of which make it easier to deal with
economic slowdowns. The increase in the number
of small and medium-size fab shops also has given
the industry as a whole more flexibility. Smaller
projects have local suppliers readily available. And
when a large project comes along, it’s not uncom-
mon for several smaller fabricators to form a team
to take on the job.
The fabricator’s end product—structural steel that
has been welded and prepared to go into a building
or a structure—is very long, heavy, and takes up a
lot of space. As a result, transportation is a big issue
in many of these projects.
For that reason, structural steel projects often are
sourced locally. This means customers are shopping
for someone to fabricate their steel in a market that
has a lot of similar-looking competitors. Most structural steel fab shops are pulling labor from the same
area with similar demographics, education, and
wages. The facility costs, operational costs, and taxes also are relatively the same. In many instances,
the fabricators in these local markets even are using
similar software in their businesses.
If everything is the same in these kinds of shops,
how does one fabricator win the next job?
It turns out the shops focusing on the amount of
time they spend on a piece of steel—trying to lower
their labor-hours per ton—are the ones that generally do well. In this type of competitive environment, the labor-hours per ton may be the only cost
they really can control.
on structural steel
New technology helps to make fab shops
smaller and more productive
All-in-one structural steel processing systems have
been designed to handle 95 percent of the material
typically sent through a shop. This involves all coping,
beveling, notching, holemaking, and cutting to length.
The impact of lean manufacturing
Following Automotive’s Lean Lead
Adoption of lean manufacturing techniques has
prompted much of the recent turnaround in the
North American automotive manufacturing industry.
These now widely known and accepted principles
also can apply directly to structural steel fabrication;
in particular, eliminating waste, eliminating waiting,
and eliminating unnecessary material handling.
Nesting software and programs that automatical-
ly prepare cut lists have been a huge help in reducing
waste. They have come into use as powerful parts of
the migration to 3-D structural design. Coupled with
other software tools that track steel inventory, these
program components already have succeeded in
helping many fabricators optimize material use.
Large doses of both waiting and material handling
were long accepted as necessary evils in traditional
fabrication shops. However, when shop owners
and operators begin to think in lean manufacturing
terms, they realized working to reduce both has major benefits to the bottom line.
A batch-processing approach in the fab shop, for
example, often creates significant waiting. If company management automates one part of the shop,
that area then overproduces in comparison to the
other areas. If a beam needs to go through five processes and only one of those processes is fast—
processing 100 pieces per day when other processes
can handle only 10 pieces per day—that creates
major bottlenecks on the shop floor. The fab shop
is not getting any advantage from that automation.
Either the fast process runs out of parts and sits idle,
or it oversupplies the next workstation.