Laser Technology
Monday | 30 April, 2012 | 1:09 pm

Growing with greenhouse fabrication

By Meghan Boyer

A fabricator’s first laser system helps the company expand with new business

April 2012 - Abe Wiebe, owner and president of Universal Fabricating, along with company co-owners Abe Harms and Pete Neufeld, understand growth. The Kingsville, Ontario-based fabrication company has more than doubled in size in recent years and has begun taking on multimillion-dollar projects manufacturing large-scale greenhouses.

“In the beginning of 2010, we were operating with about 12 employees, and today, we operate with 42 employees,” says Wiebe, noting the company started in 2004. “Our sales went from $2.5 million in 2009 to $18 million in 2011. That’s our sales difference, so it’s pretty good.”

The company works with a wide range of materials, including stainless steel, aluminum and carbon steel. Universal Fabricating began manufacturing greenhouse structures in 2010. This was in addition to the custom fabrication work the company continues to manufacture for clients as well as work in the automotive industry and production of fixtures, machine guarding and staircases.

Universal Fabricating’s growth in both the number and size of projects created additional equipment needs, so Wiebe invested in the company’s first laser system, a 4 kilowatt Lasermak CO2 flying optic laser cutting machine from Ermak USA Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill. The company received its laser in September 2011.

Because the Lasermak is the company’s first laser system, it’s a new experience for Wiebe and his workers, says Emre Varisli, vice president of Ermak USA. So far, the experience has been beneficial, he says, noting “the laser is returning its costs back, so they are happy with it.”

Greenhouse fabrication
When Universal Fabricating manufactures a greenhouse, everything for the structure is created at the company’s facility, says Wiebe. The large-scale projects include not only the structural work that supports the walls but also the metalwork inside the growing facilities, which includes pipe stands and energy trusses, he says. A recent 80-peak greenhouse the company completed will be used to grow tomatoes, Wiebe notes.

The greenhouses are comprised mostly of carbon steel and structural tube, says Wiebe. “There are a lot of fine details that you don’t realize go into it. It’s getting laser cut, then we’ve got to bend it up,” he says. “There’s really no limitations to what we can do with the laser machine.”

In the first three months of owning the laser, Universal Fabricating ran it 1,000 hours. The company’s initial projection was to run the laser roughly 2,000 hours a year. “Right now, the goal is about 4,000 to 4,500 hours in the first year alone,” says Wiebe. The machine has a dual table, and it can run while the operator is loading it.

The company previously used manual tools to complete its work and outsourced some projects. “We have an ironworker here, and that’s basically how I started in the beginning,” says Wiebe. Instead of outsourcing work, the company now has the ability to take additional jobs. “We have a lot of people that come in, give us a file and say, ‘Can you laser cut this?’ And that’s what we do: We throw the material on the laser, cut it for them and give it back,” he says.

With its Lasermak laser, the company can cut carbon steel up to 60 inches wide and 120 inches long by 3⁄4 inch thick and stainless up to 3⁄8 inch thick. “With that capacity, we can do 99 percent of our requirements,” says Wiebe.

The lasers come standard with linear drives, which contribute to high output, says Varisli. “One problem with the laser market is builders are still promoting and depending on older technology, like the rack and pinion or ball screw systems,” he says. “What we do is try to direct our customers to the latest technology, which is why we always promote our linear drive machines.” This helps increase customers’ output and gives them a competitive edge.

Among the benefits Universal Fabricating has experienced from its laser is reduced fabrication time. “On our prepping alone, we cut about 60 percent of our time down,” says Wiebe. The parts are coming out of the laser system just as the programmer has input them, which ultimately requires workers to perform less secondary work on them. “It’s just crazy that we didn’t do this five years ago,” he says.

An increased emphasis on just-in-time delivery and quick turnaround of parts necessitates fabricators work efficiently and accurately, says Varisli. “Everybody is looking for a few pieces, but they want them yesterday. It’s really important that your machine can keep up with this, so it should be flexible and it should be fast,” he says.

The selection process
When choosing his company’s first laser system, Wiebe looked at a number of different options. “We looked at price and quality of machines, and [the Lasermak system] had a little bit of both,” he says.

Quality service also was a major deciding factor, says Wiebe. Ermak has “a good sales and service team. We had the pleasure to go see one of their units in Milwaukee. [The company was] pleased with it,” he says. “Ermak is very reliable, and if there are minor issues, they help you with the problem in a timely manner.” Ermak’s North American headquarters in Illinois is roughly six hours from Universal Fabricating’s facility should a technician ever need to visit, notes Wiebe.

Universal Fabricating worked with an Ermak distributor in Canada, Koen Verschingel at Ferric Machinery Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, says Varisli. “They told him about a laser project they had been thinking about for some time. We talked about it and tried to understand what equipment they would need and showed them what we can offer them” that competitors cannot, he says.

The laser marketplace is highly competitive, in part because of the large investments companies must make in the equipment, says Varisli. “Although the number of players is not as high as the press brake market or shear market, I believe it’s more competitive,” he says. “When you are selling a press brake, you have a couple of meetings and you’re done. But for a laser, you really have to go into a lot of details and you have to show the customer what is different in you than the others. The decision process takes a longer time.”

With its first laser system, Universal Fabricating’s operators received training from Ermak representatives on how to use the machine. “When we provide a machine to our customer, we not only train the customer on the software side but we try to do as much as possible on the application side,” says Varisli.

Ermak, which introduced its laser systems to the North American market only recently, is continuing to grow in the region. More than 100 Lasermak machines have been placed worldwide. Ermaksan Turkey, Bursa, Turkey, the sister company to Ermak USA, developed its CO2 laser roughly six years ago and recently debuted its fiber laser, Fibermak. Ermaksan has been providing the industry with press brakes and shears for roughly 50 years, notes Varisli.

“We have had really good business here in the U.S. and also in Canada,” says Varisli. Ermak’s U.S. headquarters in Illinois, which the company opened in 2011, has helped the North American expansion.

“We are beginning to reap the benefits of this facility [in Illinois] because people are understanding that Ermaksan is investing and willing to invest more in the North American market to gain a solid foot. The perception in people’s minds is changing,” Varisli says. “For 2012, if the external factors remain stable, like the European economy, I am not expecting anything less than 20 percent growth for Ermak.” MM


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