custom metal fabrication

Just the Same, Only Different

“Custom metal fabrication” doesn’t quite capture the nature of business over at Northern Metal Fab. Unlike many in the metal fab industry, the Baldwin manufacturer rarely makes more than a few of the same product. What you might be surprised to learn is that this variability has given them an edge around which they’ve built a flourishing custom metal fabrication business. And yes, they tout an impressive list of repeat customers.

How does a company stay profitable and innovative when it’s output Is constantly in flux? Simple. “It’s basically the same, only different” says Engineering Manager Henry Fuerstenberg, talking about the company’s approach to manufacturing engineering. This is best illustrated in product-line changes for long time customers. While some are minor, many are essentially a completely new design. But by following a rigorous and detailed approach to the manufacturing engineering, Northern Metal Fab can swiftly translate a customer’s design to production ready data for the shop floor to reality.

Simply put, the profit’s in the process.

The Path to Custom Metal Fabrication

Over the last 30 years, Northern has served an expanding list of industries including water treatment, railway maintenance, mining, bulk handling and marine applications. Most recently, the company received certification to build pressure vessels. The common factor amongst these industries? Large, complex, custom metal fabrications with typical production quantities less than five units. “We’re on the extreme end of high mix, low volume production,” says President John Hehre. In fact, the company’s “high volume” is typically less than fifty units.

Employing over 50 certified welders, Northern Metal Fab is a weld shop at its core. The company supports it’s welding workforce with cutting edge technology and top-of-the-line machinery and equipment. From large scale laser and plasma/oxy-fuel cutting tables, press brakes, plate rolls, saws, and a machining cell, to complete blasting and finishing areas, the shop is set up to scale, flex and pivot to easily meet project requirements. John Felix, Vice President of Operations, explains that “Our fully integrated capabilities in large scale fabrications allow us to control the entire fabrication process from sourcing raw materials through in-house finishing and assembly capabilities.”

The opportunities for growth are clear. With over 140,000 square feet of manufacturing space, a 20,000 square foot covered warehouse, and acres of outdoor storage, the company certainly has the physical capacity to scale. “Opportunities with existing customers continue to expand, and we’ve been successful in adding new customers over the past few years,” commented Sales Manager Ron Larson. Jeff Jacobson, Vice President of Finance and HR, adds, “Our biggest constraint to growth is, like all manufacturing companies, our ability to attract and retain a highly skilled workforce.” Attracting qualified candidates requires continuous attention to competitive pay, benefits, training and a collaborative working environment.

Of course, no company story would be complete without a nod to its roots. Founder, entrepreneur and visionary Mark Lightfoot led the company from 1987 until he lost his battle with cancer in February of this year. Mark’s “larger than life” presence will be sorely missed, but his legacy will continue to live on through business as usual at Northern Metal Fab. Although changes in the company are inevitable, you could easily say they will be “just the same, only different.”

Follow the company on LinkedIn for news, updates and job opportunities.


large metal fabrication in paint booth

The Mega Mall of Fabrication

Job shops are a dime a dozen in the market but as far as metal fabrication goes, Northern Metal Fab Inc. in Baldwin, Wisconsin has the capacity, the resources, the talent and the expertise to deliver on the largest, most complex projects – from product prototypes to custom water treatment tanks, which is one of its specialties.

Redefining Metal Fabrication in Baldwin, Wisconsin

Established in 1987, Northern Metal Fab recently celebrated its milestone 30-year anniversary. The company has spent three decades meeting the needs and challenges of its customers, as the foremost manufacturer of sheet metal, heavy plate steel, stainless steel, aluminum parts, weldments and assemblies in domestic and international markets.

With 140,000 square feet of production area, 20,000 square feet of cold warehouse space, and seven acres of paved exterior storage space, Northern Metal Fab is equipped with 19 overhead cranes, a forklift capacity of 27 tons, vertical saws, press brakes, plate rolls and milling machines. The company has expanded numerous times throughout the years and now boasts parts fabrication bays, assembly and welding bays, and finishing and coating capacities which give the team the ability to control the entire metal fabrication process.

“Fully integrated capabilities in large fabrications allow us to control the entire fabrication process from sourcing raw materials through our in-house finishing and assembly capabilities, and provide assurance of quality products and shorter lead times,” explained Chief Operating Officer John Hehre.

Northern Metal Fab offers part fabrication, welding, assemblyfinishing, shipping and installation. “I used to joke that we’re the megamall of fabricators,” said Owner and Chief Executive Officer Mark Lightfoot. “We’re a job shop so we’re used to adding value to everything we do and we’re always doing something different.”

Hehre added, “When you look at job shops, we’re at the extreme end of the high-mix, low-volume production model. High-volume for us is 30 a month. We frequently build one of something.” He referred to unique projects as “snowflakes,” as no two snowflakes are alike.

For example, “If we build a water treatment tank, one might be 10 feet by 10 feet by 30 feet and the next one is still a water treatment tank, but it might be 14 feet by 14 feet by 40 feet and inside could be completely different,” he said.

Its size, capability and state-of-the-art equipment and processes makes Northern Metal Fab a trusted partner for customers around the world. A recent investment in a 2017 Mazak Optiplex 4020 six-kilowatt fiber laser has elevated the company’s capacities even further and redefined what is possible. “It’s fairly new technology and its certainly going to give us capabilities we didn’t have before and that is going to help with growth,” explained Hehre. “The new equipment will allow us to buy raw material further upstream and process it ourselves and decrease lead time. Our customers are demanding shorter and shorter lead times and we’re trying to accommodate them.”

Project Engineers are responsible for shepherding the work from receipt of order through delivery. They provide the primary interface with customers, which is invaluable on more complex projects which may span many months and may require mid-project changes. Project Engineers are also responsible for translating the customers’ designs into metal fabrication drawings and instructions. The engineering department at Northern Metal Fab relies on the latest versions of SolidWorks and AutoCAD, both of which are fully integrated into the work centers on the shop floor. This means, as Hehre noted, “the guys can pull up all of the drawings out on the shop floor. They can pull up the model for reference and we have quite a few terminals with big screen monitors.”

Northern Metal Fab services a diverse range of customers from multiple industries such as water treatment, air and bulk handling, energy, mining, heavy vehicles, marine, research equipment and carbon fiber manufacturing. Of the many impressive projects in its portfolio, Northern Metal Fab has built a series of carbon fiber ovens that were required to meet a tight production deadline in the automotive industry and an 18-foot-wide stainless steel dredge that required alterations to its facility to get through the 16-foot-wide doorway. The team also participates in experimental projects that allow them to flex their metal fabrication muscles.

“We basically designed and built two big experimental wind tunnels. We had to design them, build them and ship them to England and then install them,” Lightfoot explained. Measuring in at over 20 feet tall and 40 feet long, shipping and installation was a challenge that required the full range of Northern Metal Fab’s expertise.

“We had to close the street down and we had to have special permits. It was very challenging and essentially, they were prototypes. There was no design to start with and it had to work when we installed them,” said Sales Manager Ron Larson. The installation even required going through a second story window in downtown London.

But regardless of how large or complex a project is, Northern Metal Fab delivers flawlessly time and again. Oversized loads, containerization plans, custom designed pallets, crates and cribbing – be they domestic or international, products arrive on time and as expected. “We shipped water treatment tanks that were 40 feet long to Sri Lanka a year or so ago,” Hehre explained of the company’s outstanding shipping capacity.

Quality is monitored throughout the entire manufacturing process, from concept to installation, which is a benefit derived from Northern Metal Fab’s vertically integrated processes and in-house skill set. To be able to deliver exceptional quality, the company pays exquisite attention to detail. “We get pretty immersed in the projects we do,” said Lightfoot. “We do a lot of thinking our way through the process up front. We look for mistakes or areas we might have problems and focus on those areas,” to ensure that customers are pleased with the outcome of projects.

Quality standards are monitored in-house by a dedicated quality assurance (QA) team that is headed up by a full time QA manager and QA technician, both of whom are Certified Weld Inspectors. Northern Metal Fab is a member of the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association (FMA), American Welding Society (AWS) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). All the welders are certified to AWS standards.

Of course, Northern Metal Fab is faced with a variety of design challenges, as project concepts come down the pipeline with various levels of detail and complexity. As Hehre said, “We get everything from somewhat more than the back of a napkin to very detailed drawings and inspection test plans.” When inspection test plans are available from a customer, Northern Metal Fab follows them rigorously, but if they are not pre-determined, a customized testing and inspection protocol is developed and followed to ensure quality standards and regulations are met and exceeded.

Certainly, training plays an important role in Northern Metal Fab’s success. With a tenured staff, there is a good source of mentorship and on-the-job education. “We’ve got some really good teachers here that spend time with our employees and move them along,” acknowledged Hehre. He also drew attention to Northern Metal Fab’s skill-based pay system that was implemented to incentivize employees. “Employees are critical to our success. The variety and the complexity of some of the welding that we do… the folks that are here are very important. It’s difficult these days to hire skilled workers and we need welders that are better than the average welder. I’ve worked with a lot of different companies over the last 30 years and I would say Northern Metal Fab has more than our fair share of above average talent.”

More Than a Metal Fabrication 'Job Shop'

In addition to being drawn to exciting projects and competitive pay, Northern Metal Fab is an employer of choice because of the safe workplace it provides for its employees. Its safety manager is tasked with overseeing operations to reinforce the company’s health and safety program.

In the interest of further diversification in response to the demands of its customers, Northern Metal Fab has intentions of entering the pressure vessel industry, which will require certification from ASME and will depend on audits and inspections to ensure compliance with the stringent standards and procedures. “We haven’t pursued that in the past for lots of reasons, but given some changes in some of our customers’ industries, we feel it’s important to go after that and our customers are practically begging us to do it. That will be a pretty big push over the next six months,” noted Hehre.

“With all the expansions and additions and the growth within our systems through the years, for a company of our size, we’ve tried really hard to stay ahead of the industry curve,” explained Lightfoot. Larson reinforced that point by saying, “We’ve always been at the top of the line with technology since I’ve been here.”

In addition to investing in its equipment and capacity, the company has undertaken efforts to streamline its operations internally to accommodate growth in the interest of improved efficiency and output. There are numerous advantages to partnering with Northern Metal Fab on any metal fabrication project — large, or huge. Get in touch with Northern Metal Fab today and let us take you "from design to reality."


Written by Jessica Ferlaino
As featured in Business in Focus
February 2018