By Tim Heston
At the 2017 FABRICATOR’s Leadership Sum- mit, David Underwood began his presenta- tion in a way you wouldn’t expect a marketing person to do. He talked about airport parking.
Underwood is president of TopSpot Internet Marketing ( www.topspotims.com), a firm that serves
many small to medium-sized manufacturers, including custom fabricators. Instead of opining about
search engine optimization, social media presence,
or about what makes a good website, Underwood
began with an experience he had in a parking garage at Houston’s Hobby Airport on his way to the
For previous trips, Underwood typically would arrive at the airport parking garage, see the “spaces
available” sign lit up on a certain level, then drive
around and around trying to find an open space. All
too o;en he had to exit and drive to another level.
In March Underwood had an entirely di;erent
experience. When he pulled up, signs not only told
him how many spaces were available in each aisle,
but lights by each parking space showed him where
that open space was. The garage now had sensors
that detected whether a parking space was free or
occupied. When the space was free, the light turned
green; when a car pulled into the space, the light
That simple innovation changed Underwood’s experience entirely. He used this story to illustrate how
good marketing is all about what he called the “user
experience.” In the metaphorical sense, marketing
material needs to have those lights pointing to the
open space—the solution to the prospect’s problem.
Underwood’s parking story is a great metaphor
for custom metal fabrication in general. Few think
about either unless something goes awry, such as
when a driver can’t find a parking spot, or a plant’s
production gets behind because of a fabricator’s
poor delivery or quality performance.
A quick disclaimer: What follows are my observations, not drawn specifically from Underwood’s talk.
One chief observation: A fabricator’s customer has a
lot of options, and that’s what makes e;ective marketing so critical. As a person who needs to catch a
plane, Underwood (the parking garage’s “
prospective customer”) has a lot of options too. O;-airport
parking would be one, analogous to another fabricator with longer lead times and lower prices.
He also could have taken a taxi and eliminated
the need for parking altogether. Similarly, a custom
fabricator’s customer, such as an OEM, doesn’t need
to outsource metal fabrication. A;er all, a fab shop
needs to make money, so as with any sourcing, there
are price markups. The OEM could purchase its own
lasers and press brakes and hire welders. In-house
fabrication would theoretically make parts at cost.
But “at cost” is o;en more than what a custom fab
shop o;ers, even when ignoring overhead calculations and looking at it from a purely part-velocity
perspective. Consider an OEM that brings all fabrication in-house. The main assembly plant doesn’t
have room for the machinery, so the OEM puts its
fabrication department in a plant about a mile
down the road. It’s e;ectively a service center that
sends fabricated products to the assembly plant.
A;er setting up the shop, managers at the OEM
notice some trends emerge. Rework—which seems
a little less painful and easy to hide, considering all
fab work is now in-house—is on the rise. Sometimes
the wrong job, or a job based on out-of-date revisions, lands on the assembly plant floor. Work process development, communication, safety compliance, training—all that and more costs money.
It’s analogous to someone taking a taxi that gets
lost on the way to the airport. Sure, the taxi fare
is cheaper than using long-term parking, but the
driver makes you miss your flight.
Read more from Tim Heston at www.thefabricator.com/author/tim-heston
If the OEM chose to outsource with a world-class
supplier, parts could have arrived at the receiving
dock and gone right into production. The price may
have been higher, but the short order-to-ship cycle
would have done wonders to the OEM’s cash flow
and overall capacity.
Of course, now we have services like Uber.
Simply look on your smartphone and you know
exactly when you will be picked up and when you
will arrive, all for less than a taxi fare. Following
the parking garage metaphor, this is a little like an
OEM that has integrated metal fabrication into its
assembly in an e;ective way. The OEM no longer
needs to park (source metal fabrication); it just calls
an Uber (uses well-integrated in-house fabrication).
Consider Total Door Systems, a Michigan door
manufacturer The FABRICATOR covered in February (and archived at thefabricator.com). Instead of
having a separate fabrication department that sent
batches of parts to the assembly line, Total Door has
a punch press and press brake integrated directly
into its single-piece-part-flow line that produces a
variety of doors all engineered to order.
A custom fabricator may not be able to make life
easier for a prospective customer in this situation,
at least not on a regular basis. So the fabricator’s
marketing targets another audience, one in which
part complexity, mix, or other characteristics do not
make in-house fabrication cost-e;ective.
The custom fab shop’s marketing e;orts, including its website, search engine optimization, literature, and all the other tools, don’t just give a list
of processes or machinery or make generic claims
about its fantastic quality and delivery performance.
Instead, search engine optimization draws the target customers to the website through specific keywords (for example, ones that incorporate specific
dimensions and thickness requirements for a NEMA
enclosure). Website content shows processes in action and illustrates how the shop responds quickly
to customer demands.
Marketing then gets specific. A website link directs people to di;erent content sections dedicated
to specific markets, like aerospace, defense, or automotive. It reveals specific pain points for each market, including what makes life hard for a purchasing
agent or manufacturing engineer at an OEM. And it
covers specific ways in which the fabricator could
ease that pain.
In short, marketing brings the prospect through
an experience that leads to just the right parking
space. In the best circumstance, the potential customer parks, gets out, and gives the fab shop a call.
The FABRICATOR’s Leadership Summit is part of the
Fabricators & Manufacturers Annual Meeting. The next
meeting occurs March 7-9, Scottsdale, Ariz. For more
information, visit www.fmanet.org/annualmeeting.
Good marketing finds
the right spot
Parking and marketing have a “lot”
in common (pun intended)