By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the August 2009 issue of Facility Executive
Earlier this summer, Metal-Era, Inc. opened a new 32,000 square foot manufacturing and warehouse space at its Waukesha, WI headquarters. Production at the maker of metal roof edge and roof ventilation products is now humming along with management and employees seeing a multi year project come to fruition.
In 2007, Gene Mallinger, president of Metal-Era, began to consider adding to the company’s existing facility. At the time, the building consisted of 70,000 square feet, with 4,800 square feet serving office/administrative purposes. Manufacturing and warehousing were situated in two adjacent spaces—a 38,000 square foot area at the facility’s core and a 25,600 square foot space built in 1999.
“The company has experienced steady business growth since the last expansion, and the need for additional space became obvious,” explains Mallinger, who purchased Metal-Era in 1988. “In recent years, we’ve purchased a number of pieces of equipment which took up floor space. We were also running out of storage area, which was cramping our growth potential. We knew we had to expand.”
So, with the company’s core operations top of mind, Mallinger decided to go ahead with an expansion. He brought in James Luterbach Construction Company, Inc. of New Berlin, WI as general contractor/construction manager. That company had worked on Metal-Era’s 1999 expansion, and its architectural arm, Computerized Structural Design, provided services for this latest expansion.
While Mallinger would oversee the project, he relied on members of his management staff to handle much of the process. Tom Spaight, production manager at Metal-Era for nine years, had a significant role; his first task was to develop a layout of an ideal space for production and storage operations. Scott Kittelstad, Metal-Era’s vice president of manufacturing also contributed ideas and support for the expansion
“It was my job to decide what we needed,” says Spaight. “I created the basic shape and strategy for what we would do in [the expansion] area. Initially, I wanted to build the biggest addition that we possibly could, because we don’t know what the future holds. One thing we did know is that our research and development group had come out with several new products, and we were going to need space to make those. I wanted flexibility in the future; that was one of the goals.
“Over time,” Spaight continues, “I worked with my group to refine and improve the plan. And we ended up with something much better than what I started.”
Planning For Possibilities
Construction began in November 2008 on the Metal-Era site. The existing facility was “land locked” in the sense there was only one direction adjacent to the facility where land was available. Mallinger explains, “We had been talking about an expansion for about a year before construction began. Part of the situation was we had to purchase land next to our building to site the expansion. Luterbach owned that land, and we purchased it from the firm and drew up the final agreements in July 2008.”
The project team decided on a design/build construction strategy. This would facilitate the goal of completing the expansion within the desired timeline of about seven months; the Metal-Era team wanted the production space to be up and running by the summer of 2009.
Referring to the layout that Spaight initially created, Mallinger says, “We pretty well illustrated what we expected, and [Luterbach and Computerized Structural Design] came back with a number of revisions. That went really smoothly. Once the design was complete, we then needed to go through the city and state approvals in order to be able to start construction.”
Throughout the project, Mallinger was the primary contact to Luterbach. However, he points out that issues related to layout and other facility concerns were handled by Spaight. “Questions about the locations of doorways between buildings and electrical needs for equipment, for instance, went through Tom,” explains Mallinger.
As for production operations, Spaight viewed the expansion through the lens of possibility, and there were several factors at work. For one, the company’s growth in recent years had required Spaight to evaluate the efficiency of the production floor on an ongoing basis. He and his team members had become accustomed to adapting space use for maximized and streamlined operations. “We have had to become very flexible,” says Spaight, characterizing the bulk of the company’s production as a “low volume, high variable mix.”
Spaight says an immediate benefit of the expansion is the ability to reorganize equipment to flow the product path better. Describing a “typical” order at the facility, he explains, “Each of our products is essentially a kit for a specific roofing project. Within each kit, there is a combination of made to stock components and made to order items for the job. There is also a number of accessories that go into each kit.”
Prior to the expansion, made to stock items and made to order items were stored relatively far away from each other. For instance, employees were required to travel as much as 300′ from the main manufacturing space in order to retrieve made to stock items for shipping.
Now, Spaight and his team have been able to create a shorter travel distance throughout the entire production process, which included locating made to stock items closer to the main manufacturing area. This has contributed to a shorter lead time for orders.
In addition to equipment and process reconfiguration, the expansion enabled the production team to improve its storage and shipping capabilities.
“We were able to lay the expansion out the way we wanted to,” Spaight says. “Instead of storing incoming items outside, which was necessary sometimes when we had less space, now we can bring those items indoors. We are also using a portion of the expansion as overflow space for daily outbound shipments. When we are busy in the summer, we used to have to store items outside until the trucks came.
“We also were able to relocate the warehousing for made to stock items into that area,” he continues. “Additionally, we’ve wanted to add a number of items to our stock list in the past but couldn’t, because we had nowhere to put them. Now we can do that.”
Energy costs are a concern for virtually every facility manager these days. And Metal-Era’s management is no exception. Mallinger and Spaight had implemented energy conservation projects at the company previously, which had included lighting retrofits and additional wall insulation.
As had been done in the past, they worked with Focus on Energy, a Madison, WI organization that assists eligible Wisconsin businesses in identifying and installing cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
Says Mallinger, “In planning the expansion, we looked at what the impact of building materials on energy use would be. As a result, the expansion features insulated block for the walls, maximized insulation in the roof, and manufactured roof edges. The whole idea was to keep energy usage in the space as low as possible for the space. It’s always an issue; energy costs keep going up every year.”
In terms of lighting, Spaight says the design of the new space enables him to keep the use of artificial lighting to a minimum during sunny and moderately bright days. This was achieved by specifying a type of skylight not previously used by the company and applying reflective white paint on the walls.
Says Spaight, “The skylights in the new space are a whole different animal [from those in other parts of the facility]. These are prismatic and scatter the light instead of it passing through a semi opaque lens. Now, we do have more skylights in the new space as compared to the older spaces, but it still makes a big difference. We don’t use the lights at all during the day—except for task lights directly over workstations.
“It’s a great white light in there,” continues Spaight. “This is also very helpful when working with colored products, because we need to be able to identify slight shade differences.”
Up And Running
Throughout the construction process, Metal-Era’s manufacturing remained fully operational. “There were two things that helped us to do this effectively,” says Spaight. “For one, we’re terribly flexible. Also, since our volume ebbs somewhat in the winter, we had some time to adjust and move things around. The construction was sited near our shipping area, but I have a very resourceful shipping team leader. Overall, it was a relatively minor disruption.”
In May 2009, the city of Waukesha gave Metal-Era the go ahead to move into the new space. Spaight says the move took about three days, a timeline he credits his team leaders with keeping intact. “The maintenance team leader had it very well planned. We had riggers come in and move machinery to where we wanted it during one day,” he says. “Meanwhile, I tasked our welding team leader with moving his racks and stock into the new space. They did an excellent job of coordinating their groups to get it done in a short amount of time.
“This [project] has been a large morale boost for the operators on the floor, because they’ve seen the need for [more space] quite a while,” Spaight continues. “I think it’s rewarding for them to see the company has listened to their suggestions and implemented many of their ideas through this addition.”
At the management level, Spaight says the space provided by the new expansion is liberating. “We used to focus on the constraints and what was possible and impossible,” he says. “Now, we can focus on the optimal way to do something, because we have the space to do it the best possible way. It’s a huge weight off of my shoulders. We all want to improve and serve our customers better, but we had the reality of space and time. Now that the space problem has been eliminated, we can think beyond the limitations—at least for the next few years!”
This article was based on interviews with Mallinger and Spaight (www.metalera.com).