Kris Kunsman closely examines an appliance part and compares it to the blueprint diagrams. The part consists of five separate pieces, welded together with some intricacy. Holes have to line up opposite one another, certain bends have to match.
Kunsman, the chief welder at PMI LLC, a growing Bloomer metal fabrication company, has to work out the logistics of producing the part for the customer. He needs to load data into computers on laser metal cutting machines and robotic welders, and have the part come out within specifications, while accounting for unintended effects of bending and welding metal.
“Heat warps metal,” he explained, noting how the prototype was being measured for the effect and compared to the blueprints.
Welcome to the modern American manufacturing floor.
October is Manufacturing Month nationwide, a time when the whole industry works hard at fighting old-fashioned and unflattering images of the American factory. People still think of laboring in dirty, dangerous settings doing simple repetitive labor for low wages and not much chance of advancement.
In truth, modern American manufacturing is much more sophisticated, often takes a level of training beyond high school, and offers lucrative careers for people who have the proper training. Though some of the old-style repetitive work still exists, companies that want to grow are modernizing, behind the efforts of skilled workers like Kunsman.
PMI, which bought a second laser cutter in the seven-figure range this year, is a case in point.
Breaking out of the box
PMI (Processed Metal Innovators) is a spin-off from another successful Bloomer company, AJ Manufacturing. AJ was making a particular part for the vacuum cleaner company Electrolux when that customer asked for some additional work involving the bending and stamping of metal.
To do the newly-requested work, AJ created PMI in 1998 as a separate company that is now wholly independent.
“Since that time, almost 15 years ago, we’ve added several large customers. We’ve expanded our facility and we’ve gone from a $6 million to a $20 million company. Our growth has been fantastic,” said company President Chris Conard.
It didn’t happen by accident. In planning its future, PMI executives did some intense strategic planning, facilitated by experts from Chippewa Valley Technical College.
“That was absolutely essential to taking our business to the next level,” said Conard.
PMI focused on becoming a comprehensive metal fabrication shop. Already PMI brought in huge coils of steel directly from the mills and cut and bent it. Instead of just shipping out the products at that point, PMI prepared to go further into the welding and assembly functions that would logically come next.
“We wanted to have a cradle-to-grave program,” said Conard. “We wanted to make a product and sent it out for the end use customer.”
And so PMI upgraded its equipment, and its work force. With the addition of CAD (computer assisted design) systems, laser cutters and robotic welders, PMI needed people to understand how to operate the machines.
“They need to understand numbers and decimal points, to understand calipers, how to do radius,” said Conard. “They need data entry and some engineering skills.”
To bring people up to speed, PMI turned to Chippewa Valley Technical College again for help in setting up a training program. Today the company has a full-time training department.
Kunsman joined PMI about six years ago, out of Bloomer High School. The company then worked with him to allow him to attend CVTC classes to upgrade his skills.
He completed the Industrial Mechanics program, which includes a welding component, in 2010. Encouraging employees to gain additional training –and even helping with financial assistance – is typical of modern manufacturers like PMI.
“They were really good to me when I went back to school,” Kunsman said.
The modern welder needs to know more than how to make a clean weld.
“Math is one of the biggest things,” Kunsman said. “And knowing how to read the blueprints is probably the most critical thing. You need to understand the symbols on every page.”
This month, PMI is looking to take another step up through Critical Core Manufacturing Skills training, with CVTC.
CCMS consists of 12 skills identified with direct input from Wisconsin manufacturers. A CCMS trainer works with a company to improve employees’ productivity, adaptability, team and problem-solving skills.
“It’s a great program to get better quality employees. It makes people better all-around workers, and when you invest in training for people, they know you are interested in them,” said Conard.
Investing in equipment, facilities and people has been the formula for growth for PMI, which has gone from six employees in 1998 to about 120 today. Like American manufacturing in general, the company has moved up to the next level.
Learn more about other training opportunities offered through CVTC's Business & Industry Department.