Women-Owned Manufacturing Company Puts Quality and Precision First
Just as there is a narrow perception in the world that a job in manufacturing is all about hardhats and elbow grease, there's a narrow perception in the world of what makes a manufacturing professional.
"We're a face for manufacturing that people aren't expecting," said Lori Tapani about her and her sister Traci's place in the manufacturing industry.
The Tapani sisters are co-presidents of Wyoming Machine Inc., in Stacy, Minnesota. Along with doing what typically comes along with the title of CEO, they also visit local schools and attend job fairs to meet with young women and speak about the varied possibilities of a career in manufacturing. For some, that might mean working at a computer as an engineer, and, for others, that could mean working with their hands and becoming a welder, like their recently-honored quality manager, Anna Wald, who received a Women in Manufacturing STEP Award for her excellence and leadership in manufacturing.
And at Wyoming Machine (WMI), a women-owned and operated sheet metal fabricating company, Wald fit in quite well, starting at the company as a TIG welder in 1993 and continuing today, when only six percent of welders in the country are women.
During her time at WMI, Wald became a certified welding inspector and rose to quality manager, where she has increased on-time deliveries, improved efficiencies, and reduced project costs. "It's been excellent to see a woman in our industry start from something as simple as welding to earn a living so that she could support her family, to being a certified welding inspector, a quality manager, and a nationally-recognized woman in our industry. It's a major accomplishment," said Traci Tapani, adding that Wald has helped with gaining the company's ISO 9001:2008 certification. "Anna takes a lot of responsibility for improving both cost and quality in the company on an ongoing basis. Day in and day out, she's identifying opportunities and putting together teams of people or working on it herself to find ways to make improvements," Traci Tapani said.
All three women do their best to educate others about the changing face of manufacturing, both in terms of the technology and science behind the profession and the fact that more and more women are making inroads. Labor statistics show that women are underrepresented in the manufacturing workforce at 25 percent and in manufacturing leadership ranks, even though they make up 50 percent of the workforce. The situation must be reversed to preserve and grow the industry, they said, and all three do their best to reach out to women about entering into manufacturing. They visit local high schools and colleges to speak with young people, often females, who are considering what they would like to study and what career to pursue. Once the sisters met with a group of about 100 high school girls who asked them questions about what they would have to wear on the job, such as work boots and hard hats. "Of course in some areas of manufacturing and industrial jobs, that is necessary, but not all," Traci Tapani noted, adding that there are many manufacturing jobs that entail engineering and even financial skills, where working on the shop floor is not part of the equation. "But they need to know that it's fine to ask those types of questions," she said.
The sisters joined their father, Thomas Tapani, at the company in 1994, and then took over in 2000, after leaving jobs in corporate finance. Having worked in the corporate world, Lori as an accountant and Traci in international trade finance, they quickly applied their skills to management positions at the company and were pleased to be able to act directly to better the company. "In finance, we weren't as nimble and quick to be able to make decisions and to really decide on our own what we wanted to do for the betterment of the business," Traci Tapani explained. "We both thought that with our skills in finance, we would be well-prepared from that perspective to run a business. And Lori and I are pretty close personally, so the idea that we could run and own a company together was appealing to both of us."
The sisters quickly warmed up to the chance to "engage with people who make real products and to enjoy a balanced, family-centered life," Traci said, noting that under their leadership, WMI has thrived, growing 6 percent annually. "The company's capabilities, innovation, workforce expertise, and pride keep us competitive," she said. "And the respectful, honest way we treat customers and each other keeps us successful," added Lori.
The Changing Face
When the sisters first started working in manufacturing, they quickly noticed that unlike with their previous professions, most women attending manufacturing conferences and tool shows were spouses, not CEOs. "A lot of times, you'd go to a machine tool show and if there was a woman there, they were only a guest of somebody else. And so a lot of times, people didn't even notice us or take the time to speak with us and, quite honestly, that still happens," Lori Tapani explained. There is a certain level of frustration when people in this male-driven profession won't give you the time of day, Traci added. "I've been working in this industry for 20 years and I know a lot about the equipment and I'm really competent in my job, and people won't even sit next to me (at shows). They keep a certain amount of space around me because I was one of only a very small number of women at this event and I think they don't know what to do with you. They think, 'Can I talk to her about something technical?' or 'What is she doing here?'"
Rather than trying to "prove themselves," Lori and Traci volunteer in the larger fabrication community, where people can meet them and learn what their capabilities are, as well as their company's. "I think it's about doing your job, and over time, people come to recognize that you're bringing something to the table," Lori said.
Working as a high-mix, low-volume manufacturer sets them apart from the competition, Traci Tapani said. "We're very good at managing lots of orders of smaller quantity in a wide variety of things. We're also adept at dealing with a wide range of material thicknesses, which is different from many people in our industry. They might specialize in heavier materials or thinner materials, but we actually process materials across a wider range. We can do from foil thickness all the way up to ½ inch plate. So many of our customers need products across all of those different ranges, and our capability to deal with them means that they just have to go to one shop—versus numerous shops—to get what they need in those materials," she said.
Wyoming Machine creates metal components for manufacturers that make products ranging from medical equipment to heavy machinery. They are specialists in laser cutting services, including metal and plastic; welding; turret punching; CNC metal forming; and machining. Services also include prototype manufacturing, design evaluation, CAD, and outside finishing services. The company currently operates with 55 employees in a 55,000 sq. ft. facility.
The company has been doing laser cutting since the 1980s and can form material up to ½ inch thick on long parts. "We have a lot of capacity when it comes to forming, in terms of the size parts that we deal with," said Lori Tapani. "And very high-quality welding. We make high-precision types of parts, both large and small, and have highly-skilled MIG and TIG welders, so we can do parts that are not only structural in nature, but also where appearance is highly critical. That means grinding to blend in welds to produce a high-quality appearance part when we're done."
As an ISO certified and ITAR registered company, WMI also meets the WBENC's (National Women's Business Enterprise Certification) standards as a Women's Business Enterprise. The women have been asked to speak by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and Traci is now chairperson of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association. It has helped with gaining some recognition in the industry as women and as manufacturers.
"When we first came into the industry, we were kind of like oddballs, and we felt a little less sure of our own capabilities back in those days," said Traci Tapani. "We felt less sure about our place in the industry and what we should be doing. Now, we've kind of reached a point where we realized what was going to be in our best interest was to get comfortable with the fact that we don't fit in, and maybe never [did] fit in, in this industry. Once we got comfortable with that, and I think a lot of other women would say the same thing, it just becomes a lot easier," she said. "We spend less time worrying about how do we fit in and conform to what men in our industry are doing and, instead, we just act like ourselves and are comfortable with the fact that we might stand out."
The sisters recalled going to Washington, D.C. with Anna Wald to receive her STEP award. "Women at these events are just like other women in corporate America. We wear high heels and skirts if we like it and let our femaleness be really present, but we're comfortable with that in this environment now," Traci Tapani continued.
Lori Tapani and Anna Wald stressed the importance of recognizing that there is a lot of diversity when choosing a profession in manufacturing. For Wald, that meant working on the shop floor so she could use her hands, which, having grown up on a farm, she was skilled at doing. "I think it's important for people considering manufacturing to make sure what they choose matches them," Wald said. "The instructors and people helping them to move in the direction of manufacturing need to make sure that the people will be comfortable with that type of work. For me, it (welding) was the perfect match because of my background. Some people would not be so comfortable in that position. But some people like to work on the shop floor, so it's kind of a mix and match to make sure you're going on the right path early on."
Wald also acts as the company's in-house welding instructor, so when the sisters want a welder who's up on certain welding codes, they look to Wald. "That's a very specialized knowledge and skill," said Traci Tapani. "In the past, we had to hire somebody from the outside to help people learn what they needed to know to actually get certified and get to that next level. And Anna takes on that role right now, as well as actually performing certified weld inspection. We would have hired that out in the past, but now Anna is capable of doing that."
Having a high-mix, low-volume business base works well with keeping customers here, rather than seeing them look for an overseas supplier, said Lori Tapani. "If the customer is really innovative and their products are constantly being enhanced, they need to know that they're working closely with a supplier who can implement those changes and do the updates," she explained. "And it's not very conducive to having it manufactured someplace (overseas), where you have to buy it by the carton and you now have a long lead time.
"If you would like to implement a change, it's difficult to stop all production offshore and make those changes," Lori Tapani continued. "Another thing that comes up frequently is the welding. The quality of the offshore welding is not the same, and so some of our customers who have tried that (going overseas) have very quickly come to realize that having their welding done offshore is not something they want to do."
This technical information has been contributed by
Wyoming Machine Inc.
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