The art of making metal parts cool

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2011 - 5:04 PM

Du Fresne Manufacturing blends function and flash to stand out in a commodity metal fabrication market.

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An Amada fol 5,000 watt laser makes continuous cuts in a piece of sheet metal at Du Fresne Manufacturing Co. in Vadnais Heights, MN, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011.}DAVID JOLES*djoles@startribune.com - Du Fresne Manufacturing Co. makes specialty polished metal surfaces ranging from elevator consoles to supercomputer cabinets.

A small piece of the new One World Trade Center office tower in Manhattan is taking shape at Du Fresne Manufacturing in Vadnais Heights.

It's a portion of the skyscraper's futuristic elevator system: a smooth, glossy metal surface with a difficult-to-make 180-degree arc at the top and sharp 90-degree bends at the corners that show no signs of welding. The $280 piece of stainless steel looks as if it had somehow grown in that shape instead of being bent and twisted by machine tools.

"It goes with marble or granite walls," said Robert Du Fresne (pronounced Du-Frane), the president and owner of the metal fabrication business. "It's work of art, actually."

The component will become the metal frame surrounding a high-tech touch-screen elevator call station in One World Trade Center, the first building being constructed on the old World Trade Center site. When visitors press floor numbers on the screen, a computer will summon an elevator to take them to a specific floor, avoiding the delays of stopping at several floors on the way up the 105-story tower.

Attractive designs made with state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment are part of Du Fresne Manufacturing's strategy to differentiate itself from about 35 other Twin Cities metal fabrication shops and others around the world. Its customers include giant 3M; Data Card, the Minnetonka maker of plastic credit card printers; CyberOptics Corp., a Golden Valley firm that makes automated inspection machines for the circuit board industry, and Conviron Ltd., a Winnipeg maker of environmental growth chambers for agricultural labs.

"If you're selling $100,000 pieces of equipment, they should look both functional and relatively nice," said Corey Felber, director of operations for global supply chain and sourcing at CyberOptics.

"Our product has a high visual component," said Marcelo Lubocki, Conviron's vice president of operations. "It's difficult to find a metal fabrication company that combines both reliability and complexity."

Du Fresne started in 1991 and today has about 100 employees and more than $12 million in annual revenue, said Robert Du Fresne, who grew up in his father's metal fabrication business in Maplewood, which has since been sold. On the shop floor, a panel bender machine stretches and bends sheet metal with evenly spaced blows that fall every half-second. A laser cutter slices designs in stainless steel at a rate of 700 inches per minute.

The shop floor is based on the Japanese manufacturing technique of assigning products of different size and complexity to different manufacturing lines, then putting a separate manager in charge of each line. Robert Du Fresne, who has a master's degree in finance and manufacturing from the University of St. Thomas, talks enthusiastically about developing the skills of employees, and notes that workers made 2,500 suggestions last year for small but beneficial changes in the way products are made.

"You can have creative machines, but if don't have creative people behind them you just get regular stuff," said Steve Rosenthal, the corporate manufacturing engineer.

The company suffered during the recession, when business ebbed and employment dropped to 57. As a result, Robert Du Fresne is now focused on speeding up his turnaround time from three weeks to one week as a way to retain customers, partly by adding equipment and reducing inefficiencies in manufacturing lines.

"I worry that if we don't get it down to one week, some customers could shift the work in-house," he said. "But the customers can't produce these things in a week."

Turnaround time does matter to customers such as Mark Petrich, the purchasing manager at Sensata Technologies in White Bear Lake. He's tried other metal fabrication shops, but settled on Du Fresne to make the sheet metal for his firm's DC-to-AC electric power converters.

"Du Fresne turns orders around in a few weeks, which is a huge deal," Petrich said. "And they are always cheaper, and have better quality."

Even when mistakes are made, the company fixes them, said Lubocki of Conviron. "When we have an issue with them, we trust it's going to be solved. We don't have to chase them; it's just done."

Jim Stephan, Du Fresne's vice president of sales and marketing explains: "We're in a commoditized metal fabrication service market, so we have to offer something that customers can't easily get somewhere else."

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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