Fabricating a foundation

March 1, 2006
FOR Guy Seifert, business begins with bending metal. The president of Structural Metal Fabricators (SMF) has used his company's fabricating expertise

FOR Guy Seifert, business begins with bending metal.

The president of Structural Metal Fabricators (SMF) has used his company's fabricating expertise to launch a series of interrelated divisions — including truck equipment distribution — under the SMF umbrella.

“Fabrication is really the anchor of our business,” Seifert says. “We can't make our truck equipment operation work without it. The same is true for our other divisions, too.”

Fabrication, in effect, feeds everything.

The company traces its roots back to its days when it was a shop offering light-plate fabrication services. Early customers included the power industry, quarries, and cement plants in eastern Pennsylvania. From that base, the company expanded into these additional operations:

  • Field services

    This division caters to the same industries as the fabrication operation, but it provides installation and maintenance on site.

  • Contract labor services

    This operation sells labor, which is Mine Safety and Health Administration Qualified, for seasonal and project needs.

  • Truck equipment

    Primary customers include power companies and telecoms. Among the lines SMF represents are Knapheide service bodies, Aristocrat dump bodies, Stellar hook lifts, Atlas and Liftmoore cranes, Everest snowplows, and ArmLift aerial devices.

“We aren't that big,” Seifert says. “But we can make a living on what the big companies let slip through their fingers.”

New shop

What constitutes “big” is relative. A lot of distributors would like to be the size of SMF and occupy the new 53,000-sq-ft facility that the company opened in July.

“This expansion allows us to better serve our many industrial, municipal and commercial customers in the Lehigh Valley and beyond,” Seifert says. “We also have increased our product capabilities for equipment fleets of our telecommunications customers in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.”

The location is easily accessed. It is just minutes away from the Lehighton/Mahoning Valley exit of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, approximately 20 miles north of Allentown and 60 miles north of Philadelphia.

“We moved here (Palmerton, Pennsylvania) because we could not acquire the building that we used to occupy,” Seifert says of the company's leased facility in nearby Northampton. “So we created a building that is slightly larger and better designed than our old one.”

Although the new shop is comparable in size to the old one, 20 additional people have been added since the move. Total employment at SMF is approaching 80 employees — including 40 who work in the truck equipment operation. And even though the building has been in service less than a year, Seifert is planning to enlarge it.

“We build about 600 units a year, including body or van upfit, but not counting altered vehicles,” Seifert says.

A major increase in service work has placed an additional load on the shop. Contributing significantly to this increase is a recent contract the company received from a major metropolitan city. Under the terms of the contract, SMF will provide service for all the city's bucket trucks.

SMF may have its roots in fabrication, but that does not mean that the company designed the new facility purely as a place to process steel. The company gave considerable thought to the appearance of the facility and to the comfort of those who go there.

“We wanted customers to come here and have the same reaction as kids getting dropped off at Disneyland,” Seifert says.

Lobby design

Much of that thought went into the design of the lobby, where customers can view displays of SMF products in a showroom characterized with picture windows all around and a vaulted, two-story-high ceiling.

“We wanted the building to have a nice lobby where we could greet customers,” Seifert says. “We didn't want our customers to have to chase a flea-bitten cat off a chair in order to sit down.”

Seifert recognizes his company has an opportunity to make inroads in eastern Pennsylvania and wants to make the most of it.

“We are in the middle of an area with few truck equipment suppliers,” Seifert says. “There's no other truck equipment shop within 10-15 miles of here. No one nearby builds hydraulic hoses or installs snowplows.”

That does not mean, however, that the company has no competitors.

“We are usually handicapped when we compete for municipal jobs because we are going up against low-overhead shops,” Seifert says. “But we aren't going to compromise quality. There's only one way to build trucks, and that's the best way we can.”

SMF reaches out far beyond its immediate truck equipment market. As an example, the company services the reel handling equipment for Verizon in 28 states.

“We cover the area from Virginia north and as far west as Chicago,” Seifert says.

SMF also has an expanded territory for the ArmLift division of TG Industries.

“We don't do stick booms,” Seifert says. “But we do install knucklebooms.”

Some leading customers for these products include Conrail and SEPTA (Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, an omnibus agency that handles a wide range of transportation equipment, including rail and bus systems).

Getting equipped

The new facility is in full operation. It was constructed over a period of one year ended in July 2005. The company reduced its construction costs for the new shop by serving as the building contractor.

The new SMF shop features expanded, state-of-the-art capabilities for the company's four divisions, including larger departments for truck equipment service and repair, hydraulic pull testing, and a 15' × 15' × 60' heated down draft paint booth.

The 43-acre site includes a 53,000-sq-ft office and plant building as well as parking for more than 250 truck chassis.

The truck equipment operation shares the building with the company's original business — fabrication. The fab shop is equipped with a variety of machine tools, including two 10-ft shears, 360-ton and 160-ton press brakes, 10-ft plate roll for producing 36-inch diameter tanks and cylinders, eight-inch capacity Marvel saws, and a full range of MIG, TIG, and stick welders.

The availability of such equipment, acquired to meet the needs of the fabrication operation, gives the truck equipment distributor capabilities that would not exist otherwise.

“We can build some sophisticated projects that start with a simple hand sketch,” Seifert says.

Getting organized

SMF has organized its shop into teams. The chassis prep team does all the tasks necessary — including frame alterations — to get the truck ready. Others handle specific tasks such as paint, hydraulics and electrical, and body installation.

The system keeps technicians doing what they do best. As Seifert explains, “Shoemakers make shoes.”

The system also makes it easier to find qualified shop personnel.

“I can hire a welder or a fabricator, but I can't hire a guy who does it all,” Seifert says. “We used to have the same guy do everything, but we had problems with quality. And it's really tough trying to find versatile truck equipment technicians. Today it's hard to find guys who show up for work and are skilled in multiple areas.”

The SMF body installation team includes a lead man, one or two welding specialists, and a fitter/welder who makes custom parts.

On the electrical side, SMF has one technician who specializes in AC installations. The rest handle DC applications.

The paint team also has areas of specialization, with some preparing the body and others applying the paint.

“The idea of specialists has really worked well in our truck equipment operation,” Seifert says. “We have specialists in our fabrication department, too — guys who roll plate, those who weld, those who operate shears and press brakes. But if we had more volume, we could develop teams for fabrication, too.”

Passing through

The SMF shop follows a standardized procedure to send trucks through the production process:

  1. Chassis check-in. The chassis is received and matched to the customer.

  2. Job number is assigned. All parts and labor charges are posted to this number.

  3. Weigh-in. SMF weighs each chassis as it comes in and as it leaves. “We want to know what the truck weighs, not what the dealer says it weighs,” Seifert says. After the initial weigh-in, the chassis is parked, a work order attached, and it is issued a production slot.

  4. Production. Here the teams take over. The body prep team, for example, attaches the hoist to the body, and puts the body on a cart that carries it to the company's downdraft paint booth. Bulkheads are installed, as are grab handles and mudflap brackets.

The chassis, meanwhile, is moved to either electrical, hydraulic, or paint.

“We paint the body and chassis separately and then touch up later,” Seifert says. “Paint and electrical are our bottlenecks. The way we have the production flow set up, we have some flexibility. We can route trucks through the shop according to our workflow.”

Controlling quality

Completed trucks move to the final team — quality control. The same person (along with a helper) checks each job as it leaves the shop. By having the same person perform the QC checks, Seifert believes SMF can maintain a consistent assessment of quality.

A standard sheet, based on one developed by the National Truck Equipment Association, is used to check compliance with all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.

“We use this for everything we alter,” Seifert says. “We attach photos of the truck to the sheet so that we have a record of what we did and what the truck looked like when it left our shop.”

The quality control team, in addition to checking that all work matches what the customer ordered, assembles the data for the manuals, weighs the completed vehicle, and makes sure the truck is washed before being delivered to the customer.

As a distributor of utility equipment, SMF must test its completed trucks to certify that they comply with ANSI standards. To conduct those tests on site, SMF built test facilities at its new location, including a five-degree test pad for checking lateral stability and a deadman site for conducting pull tests on winches.

Making the sale

SMF covers its territory with a staff of nine, including four outside sales people and five inside.

Included in the outside sales staff is a representative for the SMF fabrication operation. Of the remaining three, one specializes in selling utility equipment. The other two sell general truck equipment.

Perhaps more unusual is an inside sales staff that outnumbers the outside sales team. That is because Seifert includes engineers on the sales team.

“We spend a lot of time engineering,” he says. “We want to get it right on paper before we try to get it on a truck.”

SMF also is careful about the jobs it sells and the customers who buy them. In this regard, the company has two rules:

  1. A job is not a job unless the company can make money on it.

  2. A customer is not a customer unless he pays his bills.

“If anyone has any questions,” Seifert says, “see Rule 1 and Rule 2.”