Material Handling
Monday | 24 April, 2023 | 12:00 am

Facilitating Flow

Written by By Corinna Petry

Screen Shot 2023 05 02 at 4.27.37 PM

Above: One of the most efficient tools in LJ Fabricators’ arsenal is a Boeckelt Tower system, sold and installed by Metalforming LLC, Peachtree, Georgia.

April, 2023- System helps fabricator develop standards and repeatable processes to create consistent, high-quality products.

Communication is key in any organization, but when components of a material handling system can talk to each other with minimal human intervention and get the information right, that’s a bottomline bonus.

LJ Fabricators is a family owned, fully integrated job shop in Rockford, Illinois, that is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Co-owners are President Greg Johnson and Vice President Chris Johnson. “Our father, Larry Johnson, founded the company in 1983,” following a career within the metals industry, Greg Johnson says.

The company started out with small-volume fabrications and today is both a job shop and a contract manufacturer. “We are hired by customers to make their products to their own specifications. Those specs are given through engineering drawings. We use carbon and stainless steels, aluminum, copper and brass,” he says. Industries served by LJ Fabricators from its 60,000-square-foot facility include those manufacturing agricultural equipment, mining equipment, food and beverage equipment, machine tool and packaging, and even water fountains.

For example, says Johnson, “in food and beverage, we make stainless housing covers that cover equipment in the fast food industry. We make the outside housing, and the customer installs the rest of the components. “We have a variety of manufacturing services here, including engineering, production planning, laser cutting, punching, deburring, finishing, bending and rolling. We perform hardware insertion and offer MIG, TIG, spot, resistance and robotic welding.” The company also has the quality equipment needed to inspect finished parts.


In college, Johnson majored in business administration and personnel psychology. Before graduating, he says he thought, “it might be cool to work with Dad.” The company was expanding and his father “found a place for me to fit in. I have been here since 1996. I learned a lot on the job from my father, from my brother and from our employees,” he recalls. Johnson found some gaps between the tools the company already had and their functionality. “We had technology but we weren’t focused on that. For example, we weren’t using our ERP system to the fullest, so I upgraded that. We had to learn how to do everything that could be done with that, and then teach the process to others,” Johnson says. Much of LJ Fabricators’ success is “due to our father giving us a foundation to build the company up from. It’s harder to start up a new company than to maintain one. Our employees are the key, however. They are smart and they care,” Johnson says. The company employs more than 40 people.


“All of our growth has been organic. We never did an acquisition,” says Johnson. “We grow through technology it could be software, but also we buy capital equipment to make our customers’ products.” One example is automation. LJ Fabricators now programs its press brakes offline, so when material arrives at the machine, the program is ready to set up the job. “Before, operators did the parts programming at the machine,” which took much longer. “Technology has helped us to develop standards and processes that could be repeatable, which helped us to grow the company and provide a consistent, high-quality product,” Johnson says. “We have a 10,000-watt fiber laser and 15,000-watt fiber laser cutting system. With those, we have certain automation features for unattended production, and robotic parts sorting without an operator. “We do strive to be on the edge of technology not always the first, but we will adopt what’s been proven in the field,” he says. “Every year for the last decade, we averaged over $500,000 per year of reinvestin in capital equipment. If we don’t do that, we fear we will be left behind.”

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A RFID location sensor connects to forklift.

B Transponder connects with database.

C Software identifies location of each sheet to be processed.

D Trumpf Inc. fiber laser cutting system



One of the most efficient tools in LJ Fabricators’ arsenal is a Boeckelt Tower system, distributed by Peachtree, Georgia-based Metalforming LLC. The fabricator was having some difficulty locating the right material for its many jobs, and unearthing certain sheets was time consuming. “Our previous system consisted of stacking material on the floor, having bundles atop each other with boards in between,” says Johnson. “If I wanted material fi ve bundles down, I had to remove the top four bundles. And I had to physically go to a location and read all the tags.” Since installing a Boeckelt Tower automated storage and retrieval system which instantly identifies where all the material is held and picks material for each programmed job  “we gained efficiencies on material handling,” Johnson says. “We go on the computer or a tablet on the forklift, move to the storage towers, light up the LED and go get our material.

A fiber laser cuts parts from a select sheet at LJ Fabricators, Rockford, Illinois.

It allows us to get material to production cells sooner, to be punched or laser cut.” Johnson saw the system demonstrated at Fabtech and has since installed six towers. Each shelf has 6,600 pounds of capacity, up to 4 inches in height. LJ Fabricators primarily stores 5- foot by 10-foot sheets. “Our towers are 21 feet tall. So there are 22 locations in each tower, times the six towers, for a total of 132 locations.”

Screen Shot 2023 05 02 at 4.27.47 PM


Each location has an LED light so as the forklift operator identifies the material wanted, the Boeckelt system lights up the LED on the shelf where that material is located and the software program also informs the driver of that location.

“There is a transponder at the back of every shelf. On every pallet going into a location, there is a hockey puck-sized reader that comes into contact with the tower, reads which shelf the needed material is located and compares that with the database,” Johnson explains. “If a pallet was moved to another location, the software knows that the location has changed. No other software has this feature and the LED location technology. What makes Boeckelt bettter,” he says, “is the software and the RFID.” Radiofrequency identification is a form of wireless communication that identifies individual objects. “Our for has the same software, too, so we can light up locations from the forklift. When you pull the shelf down, the system knows the cassette is gone, and knows how much material is in each cassette.” Another important feature about the Boeckelt material handling system is that the X and Y locations have pins, according to Johnson. This allows operators to push material into 0-0 location “so that it stacks nicely. When you have to load material, you feed it in the same location every time; we want to have that consistency, so when we pull it out, we don’t have to move it around.” Johnson says LJ Fabricators employees like using the new system. “It’s a consistent way to find material. We can use a sheet up and open up a location.” By comparison, “one sheet in a disorganized stack tends to age.”


The Boeckelt system includes a programmable logic controller. “One PLC can accept 255 locations. So once I bought the second set of three towers, I didn’t have to buy more software. So you can start small and add on as you need,” Johnson says. “The other thing is all the material does not have to be in the same location. You could put your towers wherever. Yes, you must add cable to power the software, but you can look at all your towers from one computer.” Johnson credits Metalforming LLC and Boeckelt with being able to “work through any problems.” He says all his locations are already at capacity and he would consider installing more towers as his company’s job volumes increase. MM

LJ Fabricators, 815/397-9099,

Metalforming LLC, 770/631-0002,


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