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'Agile Metal' Blog


By Steve Schaffer, President

A project we completed for an equipment manufacturer (OEM) demonstrates the positive side effects of being closely involved in the customer’s production process for seven years and, along the way, building collaborative relationships with their operations, engineering and purchasing groups.

The backbone of custom fabrication is a combination of knowing metals, solving problems, and finding the most effective, most efficient way to put something together. In this instance, we not only put our specialties to work fabricating component parts for a newly launched line of equipment. We collaborated on an innovation now being used as part of our customer’s logistics process to improve manufacturing efficiency, productivity, quality, and on-time delivery.

You can read more about the logistics project here. You’ll get a sense of two key advantages – the “side effects” – that result from a smooth-running customer/supplier teamwork, excellent communication, and a shared commitment to innovation that can drive the business forward.

Effect #1: We have the visibility – a full line of sight – to think several steps ahead. Just like engineering a component that integrates into an assembly – or designing a part for improved manufacturability – everything is interrelated. If there is an improvement opportunity connected to a second or third step or feature, there are similar chances to optimize at the fourth and fifth step or feature. The further out that we can accurately visualize challenges and consider the best options, the stronger the final solution.

Effect #2: We arrive at things that matter faster and more efficiently. There’s a lot that goes on in a manufacturing process . . . as well as supply logistics that feed it. It’s a target-rich environment for chances to make product improvements or optimize processes. But not all process steps or actions are created equal. When it comes to focusing our strengths and specialties on creating solutions that can make the most difference, there’s no replacement for being able to observe the customer’s business up close.

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Schaffer Thinks Big

By Curt Carlson, Operations Manager

Large-format, heavy-steel fabrication has been a Schaffer Manufacturing core competency since Barry Schaffer started the company in 1993. Since then, we've made it a priority to continually “up our game” for customers needing a single-source supplier with the versatility to fabricate large parts and weldments and machine the projects post-welding.

Our latest advance at that level is the addition of a SF-4120 vertical machining center (VMC) from Vision Wide Tech (VTEC).  With 161 inches of X-travel and 79 inches on the Y-axis, the new VMC definitely is on the “very large” end of the work-envelope range. The capacity makes the new high-speed, high-efficiency and high-precision machine another Schaffer production floor system that is uncommon around the region.

The new VMC comes into play for customers in multiple industries, including products using large “framework” structures. OEMs requiring large frames with post-welding machined surfaces, for example, can ask Schaffer to fabricate the frame and then put the large-size weldment in the VMC for the precise and accurate machining that application requires.

The same machine versatility is important for another Schaffer specialty – processing Hardox® wear plate. The VMC’s large work area enables us to reduce the number of set-ups required when machining large-feed bed liners, oversize perforated plates, screens and other large mining plates. Customers benefit from production cost savings and high-end accuracy, even when processing large components or weldments.

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Turret Punch Creates Possibilities

Selecting the optimal fabrication method (laser, fiber laser, water jet, CO2, oxy-fuel, punch) is always a function of variables like operating cost, sheet utilization, material type, thickness, edge-finish requirements, and tolerancing. But the best solutions in outsourced fabrication also depend on a supplier offering multiple metal handling options. In other words, owning a tool that fits the project – instead of forcing the project to fit the tool.

Unless you need to stay current with metal punch technology – especially high-end turret-type CNC systems – you could be surprised by the caliber, versatility and breadth of sheet metal fabrication that punching makes possible.

Punch technology is an important production option to consider because it accommodates several variables – and integrates multiple techniques – to create tailored, optimized metal fabrication. When it comes to the versatility and flexibility necessary to customize a fabrication solution, you probably need to see today’s high-end CNC turret punch to believe it.

  • Speed has always been a key punch attribute. Today, Schaffer utilizes a punch with a stroke rate up to 1200 hits per minute. Depending on material thickness the punch can be faster than a fiber or CO2 laser.
  • The accuracy that minimizes variation from hole-to-hole is +/- .005. The dimensional precision is +/- .002.
  • Because the system can hold up to 210 automatically loaded and numerically controlled tools, Schaffer can utilize multiple tools in a highly tailored program of operations.
  • The versatility includes tools for punching forms – during a single hit – to create features that normally would be considered secondary operations. From counter-sinking and tapping extrusions to bends and even louvers. The punch sequence can also include part deburring.
  • The capacity for a 60x120 sheet dramatically improves nesting capability and sheet utilization.
  • Tool-control software and automation provides production versatility along with consistent precision. A punch program, for example, creates a tailored punch operations sequence that optimizes manufacturability. Individual control of tools, like a counter sink, ensures precise, repeatable tool force to achieve consistent depth of a feature.
  • A punch is not limited by material type, meaning that it can handle non-laser materials like copper, brass or screen materials.

There is little or no resemblance to the old-school punch that you might envision blanking out flat, uncomplicated parts. Today’s CNC turret punch is a sophisticated fabrication method that enables analyzing, planning and refining the best-possible manufacturing approach.          

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Schaffer Continues to Make ‘Automation’ a Priority

By Phil Sorensen, General Manager

Aggressively adopting advanced technology has been a strategy – across all Schaffer Manufacturing metal fabrication operations – since the early days of the company.

When it comes to utilizing machine automation to achieve tightly controlled, high-volume production, it’s well established that European manufacturing has the longest track record. So, one way that Schaffer evaluates automation technologies and best practices is to stay current on what is taking place in European factories

Schaffer confirmed its decision to be a leader in production automation – even as a small fabrication company – following our first trip to observe several German manufacturers and the advanced technologies they routinely deploy. Seeing the most advanced technology in operation on the plant floor continues to inform our equipment and technology strategies.

In fact, as a Schaffer team prepared for another Germany trip in early May this year, the company was setting up the first U.S.-installed TRUMPF TruPunch 2000 to be combined with SheetMaster Compact automation for unmanned loading/unloading of raw material and finished parts. The new punch offers all of the optimized part quality and machining flexibility that puts TRUMPF on the leading edge of punch technology. Automation enhances the Schaffer capability to offer OEMs cost-effective sheet metal solutions (on steel up to ¼-inch) for medium- and large-scale production runs.

Schaffer was also making metal processing automation a priority in 2014, when our TRUMPF 2D TruLaser Series 5030 machine became one of the first 5,000-watt fiber laser systems to go online in the Midwest region. The powerful and precise fiber laser technology enables fast processing of mild steel, stainless steel and aluminum up to 1” thick. In addition to optimizing precision by removing manual operation variability, automated laser production gives Schaffer OEM customers access to “lights out” operating efficiencies that can help them achieve a lower per-piece cost on high-volume sheet metal projects.

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Fabrication Gets Involved at the R&D Stage   

By Jim Carnes, Engineering Manager

Sourcing the metal fabrication that is involved in bringing a new product to market can be significantly more effective when an OEM goes beyond routine, cost-focused supplier quotes and holds out for a “big picture” production partner. Especially in terms of applying design-for-manufacturability expertise to turn a prototype-stage print into a well-planned production strategy. 

The Schaffer Manufacturing collaboration with an OEM introducing a new product is an example. By being involved at the prototype stage – working back and forth with the OEM’s development team – Schaffer could propose design and engineering refinements that improved the product on multiple fronts.

For example, bringing manufacturability into the discussion early impacted outcomes like achieving critical tolerances and ensuring the durability required by severe-duty use in the field.

  • Adjusting dimensions. Adding width to a cross member helped compensate for weld shrinkage, which is an element in bringing the work piece into tolerance. Over a distance of 40 inches on the 500-pound weldment, calculating shrinkage would be critical in holding tolerances for perpendicularity, flatness and parallelism.
  • Modifying weld type. The print called for a bevel-type weld. But a J-groove would allow the weld puddle to get into the sharp angles better.

Taking a proactive approach to the print also enabled Schaffer to develop comprehensive strategy for the actual production. 

  • Logging weld temp readings. Starting with weld pre-heat temps and continuing with every weld bead interpass on each joint, high-tensile WELDOX® specifications required incorporating production systems to monitor and document temperature-range compliance.
  • Handling bulky parts. Putting large, heavy weldments into the optimal position for a proper weld attack required special “positioner” equipment to easily rotate awkward-to-handle parts and keep the fitting process from increasing production time.

Holding a supplier accountable to play an R&D role in products that have never been manufactured can leverage the production floor to improve everything from quality and precision to cost avoidance and performance in the field.  

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Fabrication is Not Just a 'Black Box'

Posted by Jim Carnes, Engineering Manager

There is a saying here at Schaffer Manufacturing that metal fabrication should not be a “black box” operation. In other words, you don't simply feed in the print and out comes the part. If a supplier is brought on as a fabrication specialist, an OEM deserves engineering-based ideas that optimize a part for production. In fact, when a fabrication supplier doesn’t routinely provide feedback about manufacturability engineering, the customer is missing critical opportunities.

Bottom line: You should expect the Schaffer engineering capability to help drive outcomes ranging from lower costs and faster turnaround . . . to improved component quality, integrity and performance.

Schaffer engineering involvement on customer projects includes: early collaboration at the design/prototype stage; enhancing a “final” print to optimize manufacturability; digitizing old prints to take full advantage of modern 3D technology; or working from a designer’s 3D CAD model to reverse-engineer an optimized, fabrication-ready manufacturing print.

In other cases, engineering and production outsourced to Schaffer involves dealing with a particularly complex or challenging aspect of the overall fabrication – not necessarily the entire project – that exceeds the manufacturer’s in-house capabilities.

Here are a few key takeaways from Schaffer experiences working with fabrication customers to optimize part design and engineering:

  • Frequently, engineering is a capability that the customer executes very capably in-house. Schaffer is there to complement, not replace, the OEM’s own operation. We are an extension of the manufacturer’s engineering department.
  • At same time, customers need to be confident that Schaffer can take the engineering ball and run with it. If not, the OEM might as well handle the work internally.  
  • One of the best scenarios for real engineering progress and best-possible outcomes on the manufacturing floor is the willingness to share and integrate our respective areas of expertise. Success always comes down to total transparency, collaboration and communication.
  • This collaboration should be ongoing. In the context of metal fabrication, finding the best way to cut, weld and assemble is a continuous improvement project. We know from lots of experience that engineering can create improvements, value and new payoffs reflected in successive rounds of prints and production.


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20 Years Says It’s Not Just ‘Metal In, Metal Out'

By Curt Carlson, Operations Manager

After several years of manufacturing mining-industry products in Wisconsin – using Schaffer-fabricated components – an OEM customer moved its operations to another state. The heavy fabrication and assembly work, however, has remained here with Schaffer Manufacturing in Wisconsin. The customer is unable to identify a new local supplier that can play our role in its supply chain.

Locating a contract manufacturing supplier much closer to the customer's relocated operations is the logical and preferred tactic. But the Schaffer relationship and results – which span 20 years – make it worthwhile for the customer to have parts fabricated in Wisconsin and then shipped out of state.

During this 20-year collaboration on how to optimize manufacturing, there have been literally hundreds of Schaffer-led refinements and adjustments. The examples range from major design-for-manufacturability improvements to production-floor adjustments that often are too subtle to receive much notice.

There is a lot that has gone on during 20 years of metal fabrication. Is there one theme that is common to everything that has happened over that amount of time and volume of production? In my opinion, from the customer perspective, there is a critical success factor. The work has to be about continuous improvement and best-possible outcomes and not just “metal in, metal out.” In other words, you need to be confident that a supplier conducts business by always keeping a critical eye on every detail. It makes no difference whether the work that day involves a routine, long-time supply project, or ramping up the first production on parts for a new product.

Attention-to-detail, in a manufacturing plant, gets executed using lots of different skills, processes, systems and techniques. But the approach doesn’t get any traction unless it is central to a supplier’s mission and culture.

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Posted by Steve Schaffer, Vice President

When you consider the entire supply chain roadmap involved in taking a manufactured product from development to delivery, materials and production labor easily represent the vast majority of the total cost. That fact explains the understandable objective of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to continually reduce those costs. These are big, obvious targets.

Some OEMs view outsourced metal fabrication as a commodity or “plain vanilla” service. The category is large and crowded. Lots of suppliers can theoretically do the work. So the buyers focus on finding the resource that will cut, weld, paint and assemble for less.  

But I think the population of truly qualified fabricators filters down quite quickly when an OEM emphasizes a long-term partnership focused on all aspects of value that the vendor can add, rather than pursuing the lowest price-per-part. In fact, if I prioritize the supply chain roles that Schaffer plays for small or mid-size organizations focused on total value, some of the most important contributions look like this:

•    Strategic procurement. Pulling parts from Schaffer-managed inventory enables higher-volume production that can reduce costs and improve lead time to days instead of weeks. You can now utilize systems, backed by Schaffer’s experience, to forecast your needs and schedule higher-volume, more cost-effective production.

•    Print optimization. A standard review during the quoting phase of a project begins the process of evolving a customer-supplied print into a complete, strategic plan for fabrication. Does holding a tolerance require an engineering change? Or will we use jigs and fixtures? Also, incoming prints might not reference welding best practices. We take the time to develop the right approach and ensure every stage of the process is clearly communicated on the print.

•    Design and engineering refinement. Are you open to fabrication-driven part improvement? If your weldment is currently designed as two welded pieces, is it possible to manufacture it as a single formed piece to eliminate welding time, increase strength and reduce the cost? Whether your part is in the prototype phase or you have been making it the same way for 20 years, the process of improving manufacturability should never stop.  

•    Outsourcing and single-sourcing. For most OEMs, realizing growth potential isn’t necessarily a function of building in-house capacity. The answer could be accessing a world-class vendor’s established and proven processes, systems and resources. Do you look at outsourcing as “losing control” of welding, powder coating, assembly and inventory management? Or is there greater upside in leveraging a vertically integrated supplier’s specialization, technical knowledge, capacity and infrastructure?

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Posted by Curt Carlson, Operations Manager

In custom metal fabrication, every movement on the shop floor is an opportunity to enhance lean manufacturing – by removing waste – in order to help customers take cost and time out of their supply chains. When the objective is production efficiency, every motion needs to be justified. Every aspect of each process is fair game for streamlining, acceleration or even elimination. Schaffer Manufacturing emphasizes two movement-related opportunities in particular: material handling and the impact of shop floor layout on work flow.

Material Handling. To determine the best approach for staging raw material, advancing in-process parts, or transferring work to and from inventory, Schaffer conducted a statistical analysis on material handling. The study confirmed that introducing a dedicated material handler into the process improves productivity by 10% at each workstation.

Utilizing material handlers is more efficient than machine operators interrupting production to stage or advance materials and parts. In addition, without a material handler in place, an operator might spend significant time, away from his station, searching for raw materials. Keeping product in motion can reduce manufacturing costs and improve delivery results for Schaffer customers.

Shop Layout.  “Velocity through the shop” is critical at Schaffer Industrial Finishing, our sister company specializing in powder coating. Completing powder coating work on a quick-turn basis – in 1 to 3 days on average – depends heavily on projects progressing through a strict linear flow. Components for powder coating – ranging from sheet metal retail fixtures and electrical enclosures to heavy equipment weighing thousands of pounds – arrive at and leave from the same door.

The physical layout – plus precise production scheduling and just-in-time processing – improves production velocity. Outsourcing to manufacturing vendors that deliver both quality and velocity enhances what OEMs with powder coating requirements can do for their customers.

In other cases, the physical layout needs to flex with the project; particularly when it comes to large weldments. There is always a reason behind machinery and equipment placement, but there is no “one size fits all.” Schaffer factory bays developed specifically to accommodate large, heavy fabrication projects utilize a modular system of welding tables, walls on wheels, and even shop floor supervisors equipped with mobile offices to position and reposition welding and assembly workspaces from one customer project to the next. 

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Posted by Steve Schaffer, Vice President

“They were slow to respond to inquiries, took months to return bids, and were largely unwilling to make investments to manufacture the parts he needed.”

That observation from a Fortune magazine article on the “reshoring” trend – and its positive impact on U.S. manufacturing health – describes what an American entrepreneur experienced when he made it a priority to find U.S. contract manufacturers to make parts for the new product his small business was launching.


In another example, an inventor found a U.S. supplier, but “the factory made mistakes, caused shipment delays, and was slow to respond. They often don’t even answer their phone.”

The CEO of an online manufacturing directory was equally pessimistic when talking about what moderate-sized OEM businesses find when they search for domestic manufacturing suppliers.

“The No. 1 reaction people have when looking into the U.S.,” he said, “is surprise and dissatisfaction about how few options there are.”

It’s not a very positive picture of two categories that Schaffer Manufacturing represents. We are a contract manufacturer and a small business. One that works every day to earn a reputation for delivering, adding value and consistently “coming through” in whatever way a customer needs us to make a difference. We never use “small” as an excuse for not delivering “big.” And that’s true whether the project is a few prototype parts or high-volume production.

Certainly, we’re confident about what Schaffer can do when it comes to metal fabrication. But I think an equally important part of our success and growth is that we look to partner with small and mid-size OEMs that have values – especially toward business relationships – that match the way we like to operate.

Collaborating with customers who share Schaffer values is a big reason we often make our own investments in develop solutions that meet challenges or solve customer problems. It’s why we are willing to do some investigation and experimentation in order to arrive at a better price, quality and delivery result than an OEM might experience with another source.

When a customer believes in open communication and is interested in a better or different way to make something, the relationship fits the way we like to conduct business. From there it’s about applying our expertise and resources to add the supply chain value we know we can create.

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