When vetting potential metal fabrication partners, it’s not uncommon to request a facility tour of the top contenders. These tours can reveal a lot about a company’s business practices and capabilities, helping to confirm or discredit whether they’re truly able to deliver on their promises.
In full disclosure, we hope that Fox Valley Metal-Tech — a top metal fabricator in Wisconsin — is on your short list of potential partners. No matter who you choose, a facility tour should be conducted, whether in-person or virtual. A tour is a key aspect of the vendor qualification process.
What should you look for and what questions should get answered?
Take note of key safety guidelines, procedures, and practices to ensure that they comply with OSHA safety standards for machine guarding, electrical hazards, ear and eye protection, and other regulations. Ask to see reports of their safety records, and notice whether restricted areas, such as those requiring personal protective equipment (PPE), are enforced. Also take note of safety protocols outside the shop floor.
One way a metal fabricator can show that it cares for the wellbeing of its employees is by providing a climate-controlled facility. Not only does a climate-controlled environment make for happier employees, it also helps prevent fatigue and stress. When employees feel cared for, they’re more likely to take pride in their work and deliver better results.
Delivering a project within budget and according to specifications is a top key performance indicator (KPI), but there’s much more to consider. Are key performance metrics clearly displayed to serve as reminders for employees, similar to a Gemba board? Ask to view reports on the company’s on-time delivery, especially in light of recent supply chain issues. Also request data on their defect rates and ask about circumstances surrounding any recent returns. An important KPI, especially for defense contracts, is a company’s approach to security, so observe their internal security measures and talk through their cybersecurity protocols.
Will your project require a quality data package (QDP)? If so, talk through the process and their experience in compiling such labor-intensive data. One of the most appreciated metal fabricator KPIs is the company’s ease of doing business. When meeting with their team, try to gauge how good your working relationship will be moving forward.
When possible, ask to view current projects in production to assess their complexity and to see their fabrication craftsmanship first-hand. Ask about the challenges of fabricating the components and how they overcome them. View their processes and equipment in action, everything from machining and water jets to paint booths and testing procedures.
Complex metal fabrications often require extremely high tolerances, and not all metal fabrication facilities can deliver. Ask about training programs, the types of welding performed, and the number of welders who are certified according to American Welding Standards and Military Standards (AWS and NAVSEA). Certifications are an indication of a company’s investment in its workforce and dedication to quality.
Also, ask about their inspection services, design for manufacturability (DfM) reviews, simulation softwares, and various in-house capabilities like painting and assembly. If they provide all these services under one roof, it can help to eliminate bottlenecks and streamline processes.
Don’t forego introductions to numerous people from various teams. It takes a lot of individuals to bring your vision to reality. Inquire about their tenure at the company which can be an indication of their industry knowledge and experience. Have those in leadership worked their way up through the company, indicating that they’re deeply familiar with its inner workings?
Inquire about each individual’s work and, in the case of a welder or other craftsman, ask to see their workstation. Do they take pride in it? Don’t discount the importance of rapport among team members as it’s an indication of how well everyone gets along and the level of transparency among departments. Communication at all levels is critical when working on highly complex projects. Try to gauge how friendly, helpful, and engaged everyone is, along with how much they enjoy their work. It matters.
Tour the facility and notice how it’s laid out. Ask about workflows and how projects move through production. Check for clear paths and workstations that are free of clutter. Is the equipment clean and are tools set in an organized manner, or are they scattered on a workbench? Are work areas poorly lit? Is scrap piling up next to machining centers or spilling onto the floor? An organized workspace is an efficient workspace.
How a fabricator organizes and runs their warehouse or raw materials storage area can shed a lot of light on their operations, too. Ask to see the facility’s warehouse and where and how their materials are stored. Do they have an efficient and streamlined inventory tracking system? Are forklifts parked where they shouldn’t be? Some projects require material certifications. If that’s applicable to your industry, ask to see how they maintain material certifications and ensure that materials are properly earmarked for specific jobs.
Has the company made recent investments in equipment? Are they relying on outdated technology that uses a lot of manual processes, or are they using state-of-the-art equipment and robotics automation? A cutting-edge fabricator should point out any updated machining centers, tooling, laser cutting equipment, or other machinery. An important aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is the company’s commitment to preventative maintenance to mitigate downtime, so inquire about their maintenance schedule. It’s also critical to find out about their calibration and certification of inspection tools to ensure measurements and documentation are accurate.
Project management is the backbone of any successful metal fabrication company. How does work flow through the facility and what tools and technologies are being utilized? Ask to meet with their project managers to demonstrate how each step in the process is tracked. Most proficient metal fabrication companies use tools like enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to map out schedules and track touchpoints and interactions with various stakeholders to maintain accountability.
Ask to see samples of the types of real-time reports you will receive during status update calls. A fabricator should have multiple report options or have the capability to customize a report to extract the data you need.
A robust project management team will also ensure that quality control measures are in place. How is quality checked? Are there touch points along the way to ensure each step remains in compliance? A metal fabricator should have multiple inspection points.
Ask to see their inspection facilities and meet with their inspectors to talk through the inspection process. If your project requires outside inspectors, talk through the process of coordinating schedules and hold points. They will also need to provide supporting documentation like certificate records so that inspectors can get in and out quickly.
There is extreme value in first-hand observations and in meeting the skilled craftsmen and women who will work on your next metal fabrication project. Talk with one of our experts about scheduling a tour, and don’t forget to view our virtual tour for a glimpse of our facility and capabilities. Also check out our helpful RFQ guide below as you plan your next project.