Productivity matters: Laser Issue
How One Metal Fabricator in Rural Indiana Made the Switch
Winamac, Indiana — population 2,436 — is the kind of small, all-American town that still has more farm supply stores than fast food restaurants. Drive through downtown past the old Isis Theatre and the posters for the Annual Antique Power Show, and you might get the sense that there isn’t much happening in Winamac. But out among the cornfields on State Route 39, change is in the air at Metal Fab Engineering, Inc. After decades of running his business on compressed air and cylinder packs, Les Ezra is making the switch to a Praxair Microbulk Gas Delivery System (GDS). "I started Ezra Welding Shop in 1968, and in 1993, we changed the name to Metal Fab Engineering, Inc. when we started making parts for automotive restoration,” Les Ezra, Company Founder and President. Metal Fab Engineering’s move to lasers may have been driven by a need to produce consistent, high-quality parts for old Model As and early Fords. But one thing Les didn’t anticipate was the interest in one-off, job shop work.
“When we got our lasers and other new machinery, people found out about it and started asking us about doing work outside the automotive we are known for.”
– Les Ezera, Metal Fab Engineering, Inc.
Today, Les employs 15 people and those “outside” jobs make up about 50% of Metal Fab Engineering’s total production. Using two Mazaks and one Mitsubishi, he has operators running three lasers in a typical shift — producing everything from antique auto parts to aftermarket motorized scooter carriers and custom conveyor systems. “What’s really kept Metal Fab Engineering going has been the popularity of reproduction steel bodies for 1934 Ford Roadsters, ’31 Roadsters, and even some ’34 Coupes,” he said. “However, as you can imagine, there’s limited growth in the antique auto parts industry. We’re basically running out of cars.”
Maximizing Productivity with Existing Equipment
With the prospect of diminishing returns looming over the automotive side of his business, Les began to consider ways in which he could maximize profits from equipment already in use. Upgrading his gas supply from traditional 12-pack cylinders to a new, more efficient Microbulk GDS seemed like one way he could improve his bottom line. Unfortunately, Les faced a unique challenge. His local supplier didn’t offer Microbulk. For two years, he kept asking about an upgrade. Then, in the summer of 2012, things came to a head when the supplier couldn’t keep up with the amount of nitrogen Les needed. “Over the summer, it got pretty intense getting our nitrogen packs here. The company we were using was running low, and there were times we worried about whether we’d have enough gas to keep the lasers running. That’s when I called Larry at Praxair.” Dennis Cardwell, Praxair’s Territory Manager, arranged a time to meet with Les, talking about his short-term needs and long-term goals, and to see if a Praxair Microbulk GDS could help Metal Fab Engineering. After considering all the variables — and taking into account the pros and cons of a 1,500-gallon bulk tank offered by another vendor — Les decided to upgrade to Praxair’s 750-gallon Microbulk system.
“With this tank, Les can run for an entire month on one delivery,” explained Cardwell. “Since each gallon of liquid nitrogen represents
about 100 cubic feet, Les now has the equivalent of 75,000 cubic feet of gas in a full tank, and it’s delivered consistently to his lasers when he needs it.” Having this expanded capacity on site provides peace of mind for Ezra as Metal Fab Engineering picks up more job-shop work, which often requires the clean cuts and increased speeds associated with nitrogen-assisted cutting. The upgrade also means employees no longer have to handle 12-pack cylinder clusters that weigh upwards of 2,800 lbs. Injuries on the floor commonly associated with change-outs — from pinched fingers to slip-and-fall events that can occur while transporting cylinders with hand carts — have basically been eliminated. So, if it can work for Metal Fab Engineering, why doesn’t every company make the switch to Microbulk? “Many companies worry that a transition to Microbulk will become a major project, and in most cases, the last thing shop owners want to do is disrupt business,” said Cardwell. “They worry about having to pour a new concrete pad, install new piping, or fence the area — the kind of concerns that typically relate to large bulk tank installations.” Cardwell points out that Microbulk installations call for a different mindset. He says in most cases customer sites can accommodate Microbulk without major improvements. Case in point: Metal Fab Engineering. “We looked at two options,” explained Ezra. “One was a bulk tank that held 1,500 gallons, and the other was Praxair’s 750-gallon Microbulk system. For the bulk tank, we were going to have to spend around $5,000 to take out our current cement and pour a thicker pad with rebar to spec. Then we’d have to completely surround it with a cage. With the Microbulk system, it sits on our existing cement slab with guardrails around it.”
Steve Mueller, Praxair’s Microbulk Manager, says these kind of pleasant surprises are fairly common. “Microbulk may not be the best option for every shop,” Mueller admits. “But in the right applications, it’s typically a straightforward upgrade that results in a lot of happy customers who just wish they’d done it sooner.” In Les Ezra’s case, the most surprising part of the switch to Microbulk had nothing to do with convenience, increased safety, and more consistency. It had to do with Praxair’s approach to his unique situation. “I was surprised that a company as large as Praxair could give me so much attention. They treated me like I was some huge company. “Here I am a small business with only 15 employees, but I felt as if they treated me like I was General Motors or something.”
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