Lean manufacturing fuels turnaround for metal fabricator

Milwaukee Metal Products Co., a metal fabrication, assembly and contract manufacturing shop on the city’s northwest side, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. However, achieving that milestone did not always seem a certainty in recent years.

During the economic downturn following the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the company’s largest client, Terex Corp., a crane manufacturer, stopped accepting orders for nine months, said Betty Jane “B.J.” Parrott, the company’s president. Milwaukee Metal Products makes aluminum fenders for Terex’s cranes.

“A lot of the stuff was just sitting,” Parrott said. “It was crunching us on space, and we weren’t getting paid for it.”

In the slowdown, Milwaukee Metal Products reduced its workforce from 23 to 14 people. Its annual revenues fell to $1.3 million in 2002 and remained relatively flat for the next few years.

The company began rebuilding in 2006. Today, it has 20 workers and will have about $2.7 million in revenues this year. Parrott expects to hire one more employee before the end of the year.

The resurgence has come through several sources – an increased demand for Milwaukee Metal Products services, its efforts at continuous improvement and product diversification, Parrott said.

In 2006, the company began working to turn itself around after attending a lean manufacturing workshop offered by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP), a nonprofit dedicated to improving and revitalizing manufacturing companies in the state.

“We started to break our production into smaller units with quicker response and less inventory,” Parrott said. “We hit lean (manufacturing) while we were down, and while we’re rebounding, we’ve maximized the people we’ve had and found the right places to add.”

In addition to its work for Terex and other large-scale manufacturers such as ASI Technologies Inc. and Badger Equipment, a Minnesota-based manufacturer of construction equipment, Milwaukee Metal Products designs and builds its own line of industrial crushers.

The company’s Ram Flat Compactor, a machine that crushes 55-gallon steel drums to a 4-inch flat round, is capable of crushing drums and compacting material inside them. Its Vyleater, a machine that crushes glass vials and slides used in health care, laboratories, drug testing and the military, crushes glass and removes hazardous waste to a separate receptacle.

Producing its own line of products has helped Milwaukee Metal Products diversify its sales, Parrott said.

“These two together have historically been about one-third of our business,” she said. “Terex has grown to more than one-third (of our business). The goal is to have our own products be one-third of the business, Terex should be another third, and the rest of the business should make up the rest.”

Recently, the company has built stands for several point-of-purchase marketing companies, and it continues to look for other places to further diversify.

“We want Terex to continue to grow,” Parrott said. “But our goal is to also promote (ourselves) to other customers.”

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