By Michael D. White, author and freelance writer
From the hammerings of the first Iron Age blacksmith to the sounds of today’s computerized and automated forming machinery, over the eons, the fabrication of metal—copper, tin, nickel, titanium, brass, iron, aluminum and steel—into an endless variety of shapes and uses has formed the backbone of virtually every manufacturing process that’s known.
The term “metal fabrication” refers to the comprehensive process behind building a metal structure for workplace needs. Metal fabrication means not only the design and construction of custom products and structures as diverse as desks, light fixtures, shipping containers, dune buggy frames, hospital beds and file cabinets, but the manufacture of products by cutting, bending, extruding, folding and punching.
Many, if not most, industries depend on metal fabrication to function, as without it, they would not have the parts they need to work effectively. Industries ranging from transportation and construction to the automotive and medical fields depend on metal fabrication for their very existence.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. is home to more than 59,000 locally-owned and operated metal fabrication operations of all sizes from mom-and-pop shops to giant firms with global footprints.
In 2020, Bloomberg issued a research report on the metal fabrication industry. The study found that the U.S. accounted for more than 29 percent of the global sheet metal fabrication sector, valued at an estimated $1.1 billion. China, the world second largest economy, it added, is forecast to reach an estimated market size of $676.5 million in the year 2027 trailing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.1 percent through 2027.
The sheet metal fabrication services market alone, it forecasted, will be valued at $4.4 billion by the fall of 2026, but, the industry, as a whole, is not without its challenges.
COVID-19, the elephant on the shop floor, has caused untold grief in countless industries and created serious kinks in the global supply chain that serves every industry imaginable, including metal fabrication—an industry sector having to weather chronic raw materials shortages and roller coaster demand swings.
According to Eric Miller, President of Miller Fabrication Solutions, the pandemic deeply impacted supply chains, and, as projects and other industries were screeching to a halt, it was just a matter of time before it made its way down the line to metal fabrication.
Miller commented on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the metal fabrication industry during an interview last spring on Marketscale Radio’s Voice of B2B program.
“As infrastructure projects get tabled or large commercial construction gets stopped, those projects really impact our industries,” Miller said.
Miller had some luck, though, as the company’s manufacturing space had enough room to satisfy social distancing mandates. This allowed his team to continue with their essential work.
But, another major challenge loomed. “The people,” said Miller, “are the priority. We need skilled tradesmen to do what we do.”
The OEM metal fabrication industry will have its work cut out to bounce back from the pandemic and make sure it’s more prepared and resilient for future challenges. One of the challenges, pandemic or not, is making sure the company has enough skilled workers.
To provide further occupational training opportunities that include paid work and tailored instruction in the welding and machining trades, Miller Fabrication Solutions recently received certification by the state of Pennsylvania, offering what is one of the state’s officially-approved apprenticeship programs.
“Our apprenticeship program represents our firm commitment to developing the talent of American workers and job seekers,” said Miller. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, manufacturing is muscling its way back to health. As it does, hiring and retaining skilled professional workers will be a pervasive challenge. Miller’s apprenticeship demonstrates our consistent efforts to draw public attention to the benefits and promise of manufacturing as a key contributor to America’s economic health.”
The state’s approval confirms that Miller’s apprenticeships meet Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor & Industry (DLI) standards, making it eligible to receive grant money to help fund the training. The certification also makes it easier for people interested in welding and machining careers to find the opportunities available at Miller through the DLI website.
Apprentices learn the practical and conceptual skills required for a skilled occupation, craft or trade over a three-year period. Upon program completion, apprentices receive a national, portable credential from Pennsylvania confirming they are highly skilled trade professionals.
In January, Miller Fabrication Solutions took their recruiting strategy a step further with the announcement of a partnership with Clarion University to apply practical industry knowledge to a new robotics programming concentration in the University’s computer science and information systems degrees.
Dr. Jeff Childs, chair of Clarion’s Department of Computer Information Science, said the robotics programming concentration and the partnership with Miller “will help Clarion recruit students and help Miller Fabrication recruit trained employees.”
In taking the new approach, he says, “I’m more often reaching out to companies, asking them what knowledge and skills they’re looking for in new hires and then adding the relevant content in our courses, adding the partnership with Miller ensures our computer information science students that, when they complete the robotics programming concentration and apply to Miller after graduation, they’re prepared for the job.”
Childs connected with Miller Fabrication Solutions through the Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative, an educational consortium of Western Pennsylvania K-12 schools formed in spring 2018 to work collaboratively across the region “to create sustainable, world-class STEM education experiences that help prepare students for 21st century careers.”
Miller’s automation and robotics personnel helped develop the curriculum and made key recommendations on the programming languages used in automation and on the manufacturing application of automated robotic systems.
Besides assisting in framing curriculum for the five classes that comprise the robotics programming concentration, Miller’s own system programmers assist in classroom instruction, arrange student tours of the company’s operations and make equipment and facilities available for student use.
Training and Apprencticeships
In July, New York’s Empire State Development Office and Local 71 of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers (SMART), Local 71, cut the ribbon at a new apprentice training center.
Located in a soon-to-be expanded two-story, 7,200-square-foot building in Buffalo, the new facility will house the SMART 71 program and serve as a base for the union to effectively teach on-site construction experience to sheet metal workers, service technicians, bus operators, engineers, conductors, sign workers, welders, production employees, etc.
The $1.3 million New York state-SMART union partnership involved the merger of three separate properties into a single state-of-the-art facility that will provide all of the modern-day tools, equipment, and amenities needed to provide up-to-date continuing education and apprenticeship programs in construction, sheet metal production and other fabricating industries, the union said.
Launched in August 2017 in DuPont, Washington, the SMART Heroes program was established to provide free sheet metal industry training to active-duty U.S. military men and women within a year of discharge who plan to enter the civilian workforce.
In April, the facility saw its 21st class of ten active duty military and three veterans graduate, while its second training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado—which began offering the same training in August 2019—graduated its eighth SMART Heroes program class.
SMART Heroes is a free, seven-week intensive course that’s equivalent to a 224-hour, first-year sheet metal apprentice training, a news release says. After graduating from the program and being honorably discharged from the military, participants can choose to begin a second-year apprenticeship at Sheet Metal Workers Local 9 in Colorado Springs or enroll in one of 147 other training centers across the country.
The curriculum for the SMART Heroes program was created by the Virginia-based International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal, air conditioning and welding industry. The ITI, together with SMART and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, created the program in collaboration with SMART Local 9 Colorado and its training center and Helmets to Hardhats.
In Shawnee Mission, Kansas, the Johnson County Community College metal fabrication and welding program offers students two paths to pursue careers in the metal fabrication industry—a two-year program leading to an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Metal Fabrication and Welding Technology diploma, or a Metal Fabrication and Welding Certificate earned after completing a basic 29-hour course spread over three semesters.
The employment opportunities for graduates of the nation’s metal fabrication training and apprenticeship programs look bright as the industry itself adapts to melding both ‘old school’ and new technologies to meet the demands of industries and consumers so heavily reliant on their work.
Despite the pandemic and other chronic supply chain issues, the opportunities for growth—and finding skilled workers—are improving nationwide with the best chances for employment arising from apprenticeship training and welding certification programs.
According to Industrial Insights, almost 700 metal fabrication jobs are now available in California, while Illinois is currently seeing a 147 percent increase in available metal fabrication jobs that offered just over $40,000 annually last year.
Kentucky’s metals industry in 2021 alone has contributed to $870 million in new investment and over 1,500 jobs for Kentucky residents. Currently, the Commonwealth is home to over 230 metals-related facilities that employ approximately 25,000 workers.
Metal Specialist LLC: A custom metal fabricator, the company said it will create 33 new jobs in Duplin County, as it plans to invest more than $2.9 million to build a new operations and manufacturing facility in the town of Wallace. Founded in 2010, Metal Specialist is a fabricator and distributor of ‘Energy Star’ metal roofing products for the agricultural, commercial and residential roofing industries. The company said it will build a new headquarters operation to include a manufacturing plant for custom metal fabrication with expansion plans for a 14,000-square-foot distribution center on five acres of land in the South Park Industrial Park.
Steffes: The North Dakota-based steel fabrication company will invest $20.9 million to expand in the community of Shelby. The investment is expected to create 130 jobs in Cleveland County. Steffes specializes in steel fabrication and electrical service for industries. The company has been in business for more than 40 years. According to the Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership, the average salary for all new positions will be $47,392, nearly $7,000 more than the average annual salary in Cleveland County. “This expansion is the realization of the company’s strategic vision,” said Todd Mayer, co-president of Steffes. “The combination of customers and friends in this area combined with the workforce potential and community support made Shelby the best fit for us.”
U.S. Wind: A wind farm developer plans to bring steel production back to Sparrows Point, establishing a manufacturing hub to serve the growing wind energy industry that would start with a proposed expansion of offshore turbines in Ocean City. U.S. Wind, the Baltimore-based subsidiary of Italian renewable energy firm Renexia SpA, announced its vision Tuesday for 90 waterfront acres at Tradepoint Atlantic, a 3,300-acre logistics center in Baltimore County, where it plans to assemble turbine components and start a company called Sparrows Point Steel.
Metalworx: The metal fabrication company in Summerville, has been acquired by a custom manufacturer based out of New York. The contract manufacturer located at 340 Deming Way specializes in precision machining, engineered and manufactured components, fabrication, assemblies and products. The company serves clients in the medical, forestry, defense, aerospace, power generation, transportation, communications, steel, wind energy, packaging and other industrial and technology based industries.
MAB Fabrication Inc.: The company, which manufactures awnings and steel structures for greenhouses, garden centers and big-box stores, will locate a new production operation in Walton, creating 24, full-time jobs for Kentucky residents in the coming months with a $6.9 million investment. MAB leaders plan to locate in an existing 165,000-square-foot facility on Beaver Road in Walton. The project comes with MAB’s continued growth as the company looks to increase its manufacturing footprint and better serve customers throughout the U.S.
LCI Industries: Early in 2021, the company, through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Lippert Components, Inc., which supplies components for the recreation and transportation product markets announced the acquisition of substantially all of the business assets of Trazcor, Inc., a specialized metal fabrication company located in Goshen, Indiana. Trazcor produces custom aluminum sidewalls and panels for the recreation and transportation OEM markets. In addition, it also supplies custom fabricated products to the utility trailer and marine industries. The company’s 80,000-square-foot Goshen facility has the capability to process aluminum coil in multiple forms and sizes. Lippert vertically integrated their own metal fabrication needs in 1998 with a facility in Goshen which now encompasses more than 153,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
DeWys Manufacturing Inc.: DeWys Manufacturing recently launched a new division, DeWys Metal Solutions, which “will provide customers of all sizes complete custom metal fabrication services.” The Marne-based company said it is forming the new business to “enhance brand identity and strengthen strategic company goals,” the company said. Founded in 1977, DeWys has more than 230 employees involved in advanced welding, computer numerical control (CNC) machining, contract manufacturing, engineering and product development, laser cutting, machining, manufacturing and product assembly, metal forming and bending, powder coating, precision sheet metal, stainless solutions and turret punching services.
General Motors: The auto giant recently unveiled plans to invest $40 million at its Pontiac Stamping Plant. The investment will be used to renovate the existing facility, and install new, highly flexible fabrication machinery and presses to support future electric vehicle production and various product applications. Renovation work will begin immediately. GM anticipates the investment will create 20 new positions. The Flex Fab sheet metal fabricating technology will enable repeatable, custom and precise stamping, reducing costs for low-volume applications, the company said, adding that the investment would “bring the latest in flexible, sheet metal fabrication technology to the Pontiac team.” Pontiac Stamping currently employs 191 hourly and 31 salaried employees. The hourly workforce is represented by UAW Local 653.
BP Metals: The company, currently based in Blaine, Minnesota, said in July that it is serious considering opening a second manufacturing facility in Isanti, with future plans possibly including the move of its entire operation to the community, located just north of Minneapolis. The Isanti City Council has approved the site plans for the proposed 4.86-acre manufacturing facility in the I-1 Industrial Park District, in which light manufacturing is a permitted use. The company said the new 9,600-square-foot facility would provide custom sheet metal fabrication services and open warehouse space of 8,611 square feet. BP said it is looking to keep the Blaine location for the time being, with the potential to expand the Isanti location in the future and move the operations entirely to Isanti. The facility, it said, would employ 15 or more workers in three shifts per day, with the facility operating 24-7.
Bollinger Shipyards: A designer and builder of steel military and commercial vessels, Lockport, Louisiana-based Bollinger recently acquired Gulf Island Fabrication Inc.’s Shipyard facilities in Houma, Louisiana. The acquisition expands Bollinger’s new construction and repair capacity and capabilities and gives it access to a larger workforce skilled in steel construction, the company said. Gulf Island has been engaged in building towing, salvage and rescue vessels for the U.S. Navy, as well as regional class research vessels for the National Science Foundation and Oregon State University. The Houma shipyard includes 18,000 square feet of administrative and operations facilities, 160,000 squart feet of covered fabrication facilities, and 20,000 square feet of warehouse facilities.
Steel Fabricators: Arkansas-based Lexicon Fabricators and Constructors is expanding its national presence with the acquisition of Steel Fabricators of Monroe. The 130 Louisiana-based employees will join the company’s American Institute of Steel Construction Certified fabricator divisions: Prospect Steel and Custom Metals. Established in 1973, Steel Fabricators of Monroe operates on a 20-acre site that includes more than 160,000 square feet of warehouse, training and maintenance, and fabrication space that features fully automated CNC equipment, electronic tablets, bar coding technology and the latest fabrication software.
QuaLex Manufacturing, LLC: The sheet metal fabricator has said it plans to expand operations in Ridgeway, located in South Carolina’s Fairfield County, with a $2 million investment expected to create 60 new jobs. The company employs metal-working experts in stainless, aluminum, galvanized and raw steel and offers high-strength welding and fabrication. QuaLex Manufacturing’s expansion will increase the company’s sheet metal operations for its air conditioning clients. The expansion is expected to be completed by late 2021.
White Cap Construction Supply: Ground was recently broken on a 9.71-acre, 45,000-square-foot facility in Ft. Myers that will include an 18,000-square-foot metal structure for steel fabrication and be equipped with an overhead crane and steel-bending and fabricating machinery. The new facility, slated to open in early 2022, will include a 32,990-square-foot warehouse and administrative offices. The company said it expects to hire “dozens of workers.”
Bio: Michael D. White is a published author with four non-fiction books and well more than 1,700 by-lined articles on international transportation and trade to his credit.
During his 35 year career as a journalist, White has served in positions from contributor and reporter to managing editor for a number of publications including Global Trade Magazine, the Los Angeles Daily Commercial News, Pacific Shipper, the Los Angeles Business Journal, International Business Magazine, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News, Pacific Traffic Magazine, and World Trade Magazine.
He has also served as editor of the CalTrade Report and Pacific Coast Trade websites, North America Public and Media Relations Manager for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and as a consultant to Pace University’s World Trade Institute and the Austrian Trade Commission.
A veteran of the United States Coast Guard, White has traveled in both Japan and China, and earned a degree in journalism from California State University and a Certificate in International Business from the Japanese Ministry of Trade & Industry’s International Institute for Studies & Training in Tokyo.