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Prototek Sheet Metal Fabrication

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Quick-Turn Precision Prototypes Keep High-Tech Products Coming

Rapid Sheet Metal Prototypes

New product developers in industries ranging from aerospace and defense to telecommunications and medical devices are benefiting from a New Hampshire company's precision sheet metal fabrication and machining services

Prototek Sheet Metal Fabrication (www.prototek.com) has been providing quick-turn sheet metal fabrication and machining services to a variety of industries--many of them high-tech--since 1987. The name "Prototek" is derived from prototype technologies, reflecting the company's niche. "We specialize in rapid prototypes of precision sheet metal parts for companies that maintain strict deadlines," says Prototek President and CEO, Bruce Isabelle. "We've never lost this edge."

The Contoocook, N.H., company operates an ISO 9001:2008 certified, 40,000-square-foot facility that offers  state-of-the art bending, welding, and laser cutting, as well as CNC punching and machining departments. Its key technologies include a pair of Amada LC-C1 Laser/Turret combination machines that enable faster setups and part processing, and an Amada LC-2415 YAG laser that can cut up to ½ inch-thick aluminum, steel, and stainless steel. Parts manufactured by Prototek include everything from base plates, brackets, and enclosures, to bushings, clamps, heat sinks, nozzles, shafts, and weldments.

"People come to us when they need high-quality fabricated parts very quickly," says Prototek General Manager Keith Isabelle. "Companies need the type of work that we do in anywhere from two-to-three days to a week, and that can't be done by sending the work overseas. It would probably take five or six weeks to get a prototype like ours made overseas."

In the last three years, the family-owned company has added in-house plating, painting, powder coating, and a full CNC machine shop with nine CNC milling and turning centers. In addition to its ISO certification, Prototek is ITAR, DFAR, and FAR certified.

In a recent phone interview, Prototek's Bruce Isabelle, Keith Isabelle, and Nick Isabelle talked with Design-2-Part Magazine about the company's beginnings, its technological strengths, and its vision for future growth.

D2P: Bring us back to the beginning--how did Prototek Sheetmetal Fabrication get started?

Bruce Isabelle (BI): In early 1987, my father, my brother Brian, and I got together and decided to purchase--for $30,000--the assets of a precision sheet metal company that was failing, and we started our own company. We each contributed $10,000 to the purchase. In early October of that year, we rented 667 square feet in the Concord Center, Concord, New Hampshire. We were officially in business on October 19th, 1987; the date is also known in history as Black Monday, the day the stock market crashed! The stock market had its biggest loss in history in just one day, and we thought we were doomed.

Our specialty was going to be rapid prototyping of precision sheet metal for larger sheet metal shops that did not have the resources to do small quantity production. We started the company with 5 kick presses, a 4-foot DI-ACRO® hydro-mechanical brake, a 4-foot Wysong shear, and a 9-inch mini belt timesaver. Our sales over the first few months were less than $2,000 a month. Business at this point looked bleak, but we pushed on, hitting the phones for days at a time.

I decided to start calling on high-tech companies that produced their own products, companies that specialized in commercial printing products, and companies that designed and subcontracted out the precision sheet metal parts for their products. The purchasing departments of most of these companies were content with their current vendors and had no desire to change. However, after months of cold calling, I spoke with a purchaser that had a need for quick turn parts in just a couple of days. I assured him we were the company he was looking for, and got our first real customer in late December, 1987. We still have that customer today!


D2P: How is your company able to provide quick turnarounds on parts?

Keith Isabelle (KI): We've standardized our operation quite a bit to turn parts and components around very quickly. Prototek has a time limit that every one of our departments must meet. It doesn't matter what the work load is in that department on any given day; they still have to get the job done.

Our estimating team has a maximum of 24 hours to get all quotes out. Many need to be done within an hour or two. When a purchase order comes in, we have that day to get the jobs entered in our system and into engineering. Again, it doesn't matter how many orders come in, or what the work load is, the jobs must be entered that day. The same system goes for every department until the parts get to shipping.

We treat almost every job that comes in like it's hot, meaning that it's due in a few days.

Everything goes through engineering in one day. Even if a job is due in a month, which is rare, we have it on the shop floor in one day. A complex component with four or five different parts might take three or four days, or less, to complete and ship.

All of the bills of materials come right from the job entries we do every day, so we can order materials that night or the next day to get the materials in a day and a half at the latest. So by the time we need the materials, we will have them in the plant. Plus, we have a good Kan Ban system in place for materials and hardware. A lot of the materials and hardware that we use on a regular basis are kept in stock. 

D2P: Can you talk about your Amada LC-C1 Laser/Turret combo machines and how they enable quicker parts processing?

BI: We've found that the LC-C1 laser is a perfect fit for Prototek. In the past, you could buy a combination machine; however, it was a turret with a laser add-on. The old technology was slow, produced a lot of slag, and just wasn't versatile. This machine is a laser/punch combination machine with a 45-station turret with the laser built in.

We set up each LC-C1 with the most common taps, counter sinks, and common round punches while the laser cuts everything else. For prototyping, this was essential in reducing our setup times by as much as 90%. One of the LCs is set up with four common imperial taps, and the other with four common metric taps. This saves us countless hours, and they come out perfect every time. Some precision face plates are cosmetic parts and require multiple countersinks that can now be done as fast as it takes to punch a hole.

KI: What makes it quick is the fact that it is a punch press/laser cutter combo machine. This machine brings together the best of both worlds. A turret press will punch every hole one at a time, much faster than the laser, but the quality of the outside edges is sometimes compromised on a punch, and there is much more deburring. With this machine, we don't have to do any deburring. So it's faster to punch the holes and laser cut part edges. The machine can also do countersinking and tapping, which took away a lot of our secondary processes.

D2P: What are some of the ways that you can help customers reduce costs through design assistance?

KI: Whenever our estimating and engineering team comes across features that are difficult to fabricate or are inefficient in nature, we call the customer and try to sway them towards a more expeditious, simpler way to make their parts. It helps the customer get cost savings on their product in the future, and helps Prototek fabricate parts more quickly, making deliveries a snap.

Our customers have also called our engineers and me to help them with their design reviews so that they can catch any potential issues before the first prototype is made. Today, there are controversial millimeter wave and backscatter, full-body scanners in airports to ensure that no weapons or chemicals are brought into flight on commercial airlines. I helped with the design review of that system back in 2005 or 2006, and Prototek helped make the first prototype.

Although we don't do a lot of design work, we can do it if a customer needs it. So we really are a one-stop-shop. My brothers--Brian and Bruce--and I are all engineers, and we have about eight engineers on staff at any given time. We need a lot of engineers to push the work through the shop so fast.


D2P: What role does your machining equipment play in your sheet metal fabrication work?

KI: We added the machining equipment because a lot of sheet metal parts have pockets and different machined features in them. We pretty much make anything on our machines that we need for our prototypes and short runs. We make our own fixturing, and we can make tooling for our bending operation. On one project, we made a camera system that rides over an NFL football field. We made the sheet metal and machined parts for the assembly that rides down the track.

D2P: What's your vision for Prototek's future?

BI: Prototek is always looking for new technologies in high tech equipment that will allow us to reduce setup, streamline departments, and produce higher quality parts in less time. In the next year, we will be adding a much larger laser/punch combination machine; the Amada EMLK. We will also be expanding our finishing departments to keep up with the manufacturing side of Prototek.

D2P: Are there any new markets that you're looking to get into?

Nick Isabelle: Alternative energy would be a great new market for us, as it's something we believe should be more mainstream and production ready. We would love to play a part in this, and always have the resources to take on more work. As we are looking into providing our own alternative energy for Prototek, we believe it to be appropriate for any size business or residence, and that it should be more widely available. With the rate [at which] technology is increasing, we believe we would be perfect for jumping head first into a market with such high demands on quality of parts and rapidity of delivery.


David Gaines contributed reporting for this article.


To the Front Lines and Beyond

Three years ago, Prototek began making heavy-gauge steel parts--ranging from antenna mounts to new wheel wells--for Humvees and other military vehicles. "The military needed these parts quickly, and they needed a lot of them," says Keith Isabelle, general manager at Prototek. "We had a tractor trailer-load of parts leave Prototek every week. The demands sometimes seemed impossible to meet, but that was the challenge that kept us growing." 

It wasn't until a year after the company started making the parts that Isabelle learned that they had helped to save many lives. "As soon as the parts were delivered, they were put on a plane and shipped out to Afghanistan and Iraq," he reveals. "The trucks were modified with our parts right there in the field." 

The company also produced new shocks and mounts for military vehicles overseas, where harsh conditions were causing vehicle suspensions to fail. "A local company had the best new design, and we were elected to make the parts due to fast demand," says Isabelle.  

At one time, projects for the military constituted 40% of the company's total sales, according to Isabelle. They now account for approximately 5-10% of sales.  

Aerospace / Aviation

About 5-10% of Prototek's sales are to the aerospace and aviation markets. "Most of the parts that we've fabricated for aerospace have been springs and clips made from 301 stainless or beryllium copper," says Isabelle. "We've also made parts and assemblies for satellites. On the aviation side, we've produced aluminum components for helicopter air conditioning systems and helped design and fabricate custom instrument panels." 

Alternative Energy

Prototek was one of the earliest sheet metal fabrication companies--if not the first--to make prototype parts for electric car charging stations. The company is also currently making prototypes for some undisclosed product developers in the greentech space. Outside of this work, Isabelle says, the company hasn't yet done a lot of projects for alternative energy. "This will be the next market we go after," he says.  

Medical Devices

At times, Isabelle says, the medical industry represents 25-30% of Prototek's monthly sales. While anodized trays and covers for surgeons' instruments constitute the bulk of this work, the company also makes stands, enclosures, and housings for state-of-the-art medical devices. "Quite often, the material for these parts is low-carbon, 316 stainless steel, in order to avoid corrosion," he says.

The work ranges from elaborate sheet metal prototypes to short production runs that enable customers to bring new products to market. "We've built stands to hold cameras and laser machines, and enclosures for eye scan equipment," Isabelle continues. "We have to make them to high levels of production quality. Customers want things quickly, so it does cost more money to build a complete sheet metal component with machining and assembly, and finishes."

Telecommunications

Prototek has made card cages, chassis, brackets, enclosures, and various other sheet metal parts for the telecommunications industry. Although the company continues to do work for telecom, the work for these applications has slowed in the past 10 years. "It has only been about 2 - 3% of our total sales in the past few years," says Isabelle. "Ten to 20 years ago, telecommunications was about 15% of our annual sales."

Semiconductor Equipment

The volatility of the semiconductor industry over the years created a situation where Prototek either had a lot of work or nothing at all for this market, according to Isabelle. "For the past five years, it seems to be a larger part of our sales," he affirms. Besides making skins for the tools that make the semiconductor chips, the company fabricates miscellaneous sheet metal and machined internal parts for these tools for various customers. Isabelle estimates that 20-25% of the company's sales come from this industry.

--D2P

This technical information has been contributed by
Prototek Sheet Metal Fabrication

Click on Company Name for a Detailed Profile

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