May 06, 2023

Small fabricator gets big results in structural steel

The year was 1967, the company was St. Louis Blow Pipe, St. Louis, and the plan was to expand. Primarily a sheet metal and plate fabricator, the company originally made industrial bellows systems for coal-fired furnaces, hence the name blow pipe, and had transitioned to making industrial dust collection systems and other equipment for electric power plants.

Adding a branch in Meridian, Miss., looked like a safe bet. Power generation was destined for expansion, the company had a large and growing customer in that field in Meridian, and the plan's potential benefits outweighed the risks.

Fifty years later, a few things have changed. The company name is Ci Metal Fabrication (for custom industrial metal fabrication), it serves additional markets, and it offers a bigger variety of fabricating capabilities than it used to. At the same time, much is still the same as it was in 1967. The company's strength is still sheet metal and plate fabrication, its southernmost location is still in Meridian, and it still does quite a bit of work in the power generation market.

Meanwhile, although computers and software have changed everything in manufacturing, notably in CAD and CNC, the company still relies heavily on manual processes. Draftsmen still have piles of paper prints on their desks, and the fabrication staff uses about as much brawn as it ever did. This is due, in part, to the markets it serves and the work it does; as the company's name states, its basis is custom work.

"We don't have any machines that spit out parts," said General Manager Steve Guisgond. The company relies on shears, plasma cutters, press brakes, and plate rolls to do the bulk of its work, which tends to be low-volume projects. A common part volume is 15 per year.

This isn't to say that the company doesn't use modern technologies. It augments traditional prints with CAD, and it has two CNC plasma tables, but that's about it. It hasn't come across any compelling reason to convert to a paperless, wireless, fully digitized, app-driven environment. By and large, most of the processes are manual and not much different from the way they were in 1967. 

In 1967 electric utility companies in the U.S. generated 1.218 billion megawatt-hours (mWh) of electricity to support its population, 198.7 million people, and its industrial base. Over the next five decades, the nation's population grew by 65 percent and its industrial output increased nearly 190 percent. In 2017 the electric sector generated 4.014 billion mWh, an increase of 230 percent over 50 years.

That sounds good in retrospect, but how did it look in 1967? Breaking ground to build a new facility to serve a single customer that serves just one market sounds extremely risky, but in context, it wasn't as perilous as it seems.

First, the company already had a longstanding rapport with that customer and was confident that the business relationship would continue. In other words, it wasn't looking for more work just yet; at the time it just was looking for more manufacturing space.

Second, St. Louis Blow Pipe had considerable insight about a few specifics concerning power generation. Although the race is on these days to lower the use of fossil fuels, coal was king then, and it still is. In 1967 coal-fired electric plants used 274.2 million tons of coal to generate a little more than half of the electricity in the U.S. In 2017 they used 663.5 million tons, an increase of 142 percent. Coal's main advantages are that it's abundant and inexpensive, meaning it's likely to continue to be a viable energy fuel for a long time to come.

"It has been said that enough coal is left in the ground to cover the entire planet in a layer 6 inches deep," Guisgond said.

The third insight is a downside to using coal: Coal dust gets everywhere inside a power plant, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. 

"Coal is hard on the equipment," said Corporate Safety Director Jeff Montgomery. "Coal-fired power plants need much more maintenance than other power plants," Guisgond explained.

A typical piece of such equipment is a submerged scraper conveyor. A vast construction mainly made from plate, this sort of conveyor system scrapes coal ash from beneath the power plant's boiler and conveys it to a receptacle to be hauled away. A conveyor system like this often is a custom-made project, and one particular conveyor system that Ci bid on originally was built with a discharge chute pitched at an angle.

Although a typical scraper is big—this one measured nearly 130 feet long and about 10 ft. high—Ci was accustomed to projects of this scope, so the size wasn't nearly as challenging as the specific design. No detail drawings existed to show how the discharge chute mated to the bottom of the boiler, so Ci had to devise a way to connect the two. The Ci staff didn't just devise a way to mate the two items; it designed several, giving the client options. In the end, the client reported that the installation didn't merely go as planned, but that it was actually easy, which led to additional orders.

"We’ve built eight such scrapers in the last few years," Guisgond said. "We did three on individual bids, then got a contract to build five more."

A description of the shop's capabilities tells how well-suited it is to such projects. At 57,000 sq. ft., the shop has three bays and is equipped with two 10-ton overhead cranes with 24 ft. under hook. In other words, it has plenty of room to build large projects.

The company's expertise is in shearing, rolling, forming, and welding a variety of tough, abrasion-resistant materials in thicknesses up to 1 in., including stainless steels; HASTELLOY® alloys; INCONEL® alloys; and two weathering steel grades, ASTM A588 and ASTM A606-4. It also does some noncode tank work in a chrome-moly alloy formulated for temperature and corrosion resistance, SA-387, and its welders are certified to do structural work in steel in compliance with AWS D1.1.

While the interconnectedness of the digital age continues to make communication easier and faster on many shop floors, a custom metal fabricator that uses a lot of manual processes doesn't have a great need for Industry 4.0. However, this doesn't mean that Ci hasn't taken advantage of some technology improvements since 1967.

In the old days, the staff learned what every other manufacturing staff learns: In any manufacturing shop, in any industry, anywhere in the world, cleanness is critical, especially when dealing with paperwork. Whether it's a matter of a part print, a work order, or some other documentation that gets routed around the shop, a frayed edge or an occasional smudge is normal, but nobody wants to deal with smeared, stained, tattered, or filthy paperwork on the shop floor. Keeping the shop clean is all the more necessary when you have paperwork literally on the shop floor.

"In the old days, we’d receive blueprints for an entire power plant," said Steve Pickard, the foreman of Ci's Meridian shop. The prints were huge and contained a vast amount of information, far more than the staff needed to make one item for the plant.

"We’d lay the prints out on the floor and look for the component parts we had to build, then transfer them to paper, then fabricate them," he said. Determining part shapes for cutting and angles for bending was likewise a step-to-step process, one that relied heavily on the staff's experience with trigonometry.

"We’d use a hand-held calculator to determine the sines, cosines, and tangents to figure out the cut angles for bent parts," Pickard continued. That sounds quaint, but it was a step up from a slide rule.

Times change, and these days Ci employees no longer wrestle with vast prints or a pocket calculator. Desktop computers and CAD programs have done away with the manual calculations, and the prints are smaller, containing just the information the company needs. The shop's concrete floor is no longer a makeshift drafting table.

However, the prints are still prone to smudging. The Mississippi climate can be brutal; from June through September, when the average high temperature is more than 90 degrees and the relative humidity is more than 90 percent, workers sweat, and sweat causes ink to smear. These days prints are kept neat, tidy, and smear-free in small, air-conditioned offices on the shop floor.

The company's plasma cutting capability has followed similar steps, taking a measured and deliberate path. The company has progressed from manual to mechanized high-definition plasma, but it doesn't have any specific need to expand its digital capabilities and plug its plasma machines into the internet of things.

Although the stereotypical view of life in a union shop is one of an unending battle between the union and management, Guisgond has found the union staff to be reasonable, flexible, and versatile. 

"The union contract had a seniority clause that probably made a lot of sense at the time it was written, but it turned into an obstacle," Guisgond said. "Layoffs and rehirings were based on seniority, and that's fine—that's standard for union agreement—but it also required posting new jobs internally and it set strict limitations on how much I could pay new employees."

Attracting new job candidates to manufacturing is always a struggle; low pay made it even more difficult to find the hardy few willing to work on their feet all day, which is especially challenging during Mississippi summers, and the seniority clause was starting to strangle the company. As is the case in many manufacturing shops these days, and most likely the overwhelming majority of them, Ci Metal Fabrication had a large number of employees approaching retirement age, and they understood the gravity of the situation. Guisgond worked with the union representative to soften the seniority clause and was able to fill three new positions in the last couple of years. That doesn't sound like much, but in a shop that has 23 employees, it's a big deal. 

Considering the difficulties that many manufacturers have in hiring and retaining workers, Guisgond has been extremely fortunate. Because several shops in the area focus on structural steel work, he occasionally gets a recruit with fabrication experience. Furthermore, all of the recent new hires have passed the formal and informal tests and evaluations—the drug screening, the initiative test, and the status quo test. 

"Some of the young guys are pretty aggressive in wanting to learn and advance," he said. "Also, they aren't shy about questioning why we do things the way we do things." A fresh perspective can go a long way in finding a better way, so after giving them some time to accumulate some experience by working with some of the veterans, Guisgond turns them loose.

"I assigned a couple of new guys to a conveyor project, and they knocked it out of the park," he said.

The staff likewise has shown remarkable flexibility in its willingness to cross-train.

"In most shops, you have welders or fitters or machine operators or general laborers," Guisgond said. Having specific duties makes an employee's work life stable and predictable, but downsides to this sort of shop life include boredom, a higher incidence of repetitive stress injuries, and a lack of staffing flexibility. Ci Metal has encouraged cross training, so now the six welders also do fit-up work, and the four fitters are certified to weld. The fitters also can get some help from the press brake operators from time to time.

"This level of cross training is unique for a union shop," Montgomery said. The big benefits are more day-to-day variety and fewer bottlenecks.

The company's flexibility also shows up in its customer base. Since the Meridian location was created, it has branched out from a sole customer to capture more work in the power generation market.

"The companies that design power generation plants send salesmen to the power utilities to propose repairs, replacements, and upgrades," Guisgond said. Although they don't receive a commission from Ci Metal Fabrication, these salesmen are the company's informal sales force.

"When a company like Ci has a record of on-time deliveries, it becomes a preferred supplier," he said. This is crucial. A power plant is a vast asset; building one is extremely pricey, as is the hourly rate of missed revenue associated with a shutdown. Ci's record of on-time deliveries has helped the company establish itself as a reliable source for power generation customers across the nation and outside the U.S. as well.

The company has branched out from power generation to capture some business in other markets. It does some work for large equipment manufacturers, making structural components from time to time for mining, quarry, and agricultural equipment, either directly with the manufacturer or indirectly through work subcontracted from some of the other fabricators in the area.

Although the company's work outside of the power generation market is just 10 percent of its business, it's a start, and for a company as versatile as Ci Metal Fabrication, a start is all it needs.