The North Texas metal fabrication shop has taken a big leap forward by leveraging automation.
QMF Steel Vice President Steve Lester started buying robots to do repetitive jobs at the Texas metal fabrication and manufacturing plant he owns with his wife, Sherrill.
He quickly became obsessed with how efficient the machines are at jobs that many humans don’t want to do. They also can do some jobs that take as many as four employees to complete.
He’s found that his return on investment for one robot is about 28 days. “They don’t call in sick; they don’t complain about the work you put in front of them; and they don’t check their cell phones every three minutes,” Steve says.
But robots aren’t cheap. A new machine costs about $100,000, depending on the bells and whistles. It follow that QMF buys reconditioned robots that have just a few hours of use at a discount. When Chevrolet discontinued the Volt after the 2019 model year, QMF was able to acquire a robot that worked on that line for about a third of the price.
Robots increase QMF’s efficiency, but that didn’t cause the company to reduce its staff. In fact, Steve says he’s looking to add more robots to his army. “They help me grow,” he says. “You can take on work you couldn’t take on before. As you set up your program, you find yourself being able to run parts three to five times faster than a human. I generally put them on a job that a human doesn’t want to do.”
QMF is involved in projects ranging from hotels, colleges and parks to highways, stadiums and airports. Steve says he’d like to land more highway projects and increase is the company’s parts fabrication business.
The company also has worked on restaurants and breweries. “I like breweries — they’re fun,” he says. “They let you have a little more creative freedom and with cool equipment you can do a lot of fun things.”
The fabricated metal production industry in the United States had gross output of about $353 billion in 2020, according to Statista.
After surviving the closing of businesses after 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008-2009, and now through the pandemic, QMF President Sherrill Lester says what continues to make the company successful is prayer, keeping its ear to the ground on what is coming in the markets it serves, taking care of its employees, paying its mills and vendors on time and staying strong knowing that, “This too shall pass.”
“We can’t rely on someone outside our sphere to make us successful,” says Sherrill.
Challenges: Spiking commodity prices are troublesome for companies like QMF that have large contracts with long sales cycles, Sherrill says. “Our contracts are bid, in some cases, years in advance of the work and then the scope being performed months after the contract is negotiated and signed,” she says. “Escalation clauses can be included, but to what percentage?”
Like most companies, QMF is having a tough time finding reliable employees to operate its equipment. “Nobody can find qualified labor, and if you do, you’re not sure if they’re going to show up or not,” Steve says.
Opportunities: Because of the pent-up demand for metal products, the opportunities for QMF are increasing. “The backlog is building faster than in years past,” Sherrill says. “More contracts are getting executed quicker to secure subcontractors and suppliers.”
Because it’s continuing to add robots, QMF can turn out products much faster, which enables it to take on more projects than it could using all human labor. “Robots equal anywhere from three to five people,” Steve says.
Needs: QMF needs more space and more money. The company needs to add another 20,000 square feet to its existing 60,000-square-foot facility but has to come up with the funds to build it. “I just have to bite the bullet and do it,” says Steve.