Wednesday | 16 December, 2009 | 8:33 am

Making headlines

By Abbe Miller

December 2009 - Anyone who made it to Page 2 of The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 10 probably read Justin Lahart’s article, "Pace of Job Losses Sets Stage for Quick Labor-Market Rebound." And that means two things. First, there are still devout readers of print news, and second, those readers now know of Wisconsin Steel & Tube Corp., Milwaukee, a company that "sells pre-cut steel bars and tubes to manufacturers and machine tool shops [that] has seen business pick up recently as customers move to replenish inventories and is moving to add workers," according to the article.

In addition to reporting that Wisconsin Steel & Tube recently hired a new salesperson, offering hope amid high national unemployment, Joseph Teich, the company’s president, said, "We’re a lean company--we don’t have a VP of this and a VP of that."

Even when Teich isn’t talking to The Wall Street Journal, he’s still touting the fact that Wisconsin Steel & Tube is a lean company.

"We have a great niche with our customers," he says. "Eighty percent of them are contract customers. We do just-in-time programs for them. We specialize in stocking material just for them. If you came into our warehouse as a spot-buy person, a lot of times, we wouldn’t have what you needed."

To quickly deliver what its contract customers need, Wisconsin Steel & Tube purchased a Nishijimax NHC100NB cutoff system outfitted with a transfer table and auto deburring machine set up as an integrated unit from Pat Mooney Inc., Addison, Ill., the U.S. sales and service agent for Nishijimax NHC Cutoff Systems.

In terms of sophistication, the Nishijimax isn’t necessarily comparable to typical sawing equipment. With upgrades, such as the transfer table, increased efficiency and productivity are quickly realized. "The machines are almost a 2-axis CNC machine," says Pat Thornton, president of Pat Mooney. "They’re smart machines that can be programmed to do different functions that further allow you to mate the equipment with loading and unloading and possibly another additional operation.

"Traditionally, people would load bars one by one and then cut them up and then put them in a rack or a bucket and then take them to another machine where they would do additional operations," he says. "Now we can put on an entire rack of bars or tubes and have them load one by one, completely cut up. And then they move to a transfer table, which sometimes takes them to a packaging holder. Or they can run it through a double-ended grinding machine that we can provide. Now, that bar comes out as a finished part as opposed to it taking two or three different trips to get there."

In-house and in stock
"One of the main reasons that we got this equipment is because of its range," says Teich. "We can cut from 7/8-inch to 4-inch material or so."

And Wisconsin Steel & Tube is taking advantage of the machine’s capabilities, as the Nishijimax specs call for a cutting diameter range between 3/4 inch and 4 inches. The machine is also capable of handling bar, tube and pipe stock up to 3,000 millimeters long.

"Most people still process metal with band saw machines," explains Thornton. "They have their place as they’re far more universal in application; they can saw from a 1-inch round to a 16-inch round. Therefore, you can saw bigger material. But when customers have a lot of work that can fit into the capacity of the Nishijimax, they can cut materials three and four times faster than you can with a band saw."

Its impressive speed was part of the selling point for Wisconsin Steel & Tube. The company shaved three-quarters of its processing time off each part.

"It’s so much quicker," says Teich. "In the past, it was taking us about 60 seconds to cut a part, but now we have it down to 15 seconds. And it comes right down a conveyor belt to an operator who can barely keep up with the parts as fast as they’re coming. The parts go directly to the deburring machine, or if they’re too small, they go into baskets."

And in terms of time saved, the ability to keep material in-house for processing was a main driver for the addition of the Nishijimax. Not only can the company process material the moment it’s received but there’s also no waiting game involved in terms of getting it shipped back to the facility from the processor.

"We were farming out quite a bit of our material to be cut to length," says Teich about the days before the Nishijimax became a staple at the Milwaukee facility. "We took a look at how much we were sending out and in what range, and that’s when we came across this machine. It could handle a wide enough range--probably 70 percent of our stuff that we used to send out we could keep in-house and cut ourselves. Freighting it out and then freighting it back in and drop-shipping wasn’t the best-case scenario. Now we have better control over the entire process. The next machine will probably be narrowed to a particular job. But this one allows us to do a variety of work."

Labor rebounds
"In terms of real estate, if you figure that oftentimes a customer might have two or three band saws doing the work of this one machine, they’re actually saving space or freeing up that space for other equipment to add more value to their product," says Thornton.

Freeing up space wasn’t the case for Wisconsin Steel & Tube, however, and neither was freeing up manpower. Its objective of bringing work back on-site was fulfilled with the Nishijimax, and in the process, it created a position that hadn’t been there.

To keep the company in smooth working order, Teich employs about 44, and he’s glad the new cutting system has been keeping its operator busy since the machine was brought into the facility in June 2008. He’s also glad it has changed the face of his company during tough economic times.

"In prior years, we were basically just repackaging steel," says Teich. "We’d buy it in big bundles, and we’d make it up into smaller bundles and ship it out. There’s so much competition out there today that you have to be specialized. The more ways that you touch a product, so to speak, the more you can get for that product. You have to be creative nowadays."

As for The Wall Street Journal article, which Teich says is framed and hanging on the wall at Wisconsin Steel & Tube’s main office, its message was that with all of the job losses that came with the recession, rehires will be linked with a recovery. Wisconsin Steel & Tube couldn’t be prouder to have its name associated with such a positive piece of news." MM

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