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Laser Technology

Feeding football fans

By Nick Wright

Above: The first sparks of Albers’ new Ermak Fiber Optic Laser installed June 2014.

Custom fabricator outfits Minnesota Vikings’ stadium kitchens

July/August 2015 - By any measure, the Minnesota Vikings are getting a premium upgrade to the home field. Compared to the Metrodome, the New Minnesota Stadium will have double the square footage, more than 110 suites and additional seats. With capacity expanded on the concourse as well as the C-level suites, there will be more fans to feed when the stadium opens for the 2016 NFL season.

Albers Commercial Kitchen Services Group in nearby St. Paul is there to help. Adept at fabricating stainless steel for such big projects, the company was founded in 1966 as Albers Mechanical Contractors. Claiming to be the only full-service food service equipment stainless fabricator in the upper Midwest, its recent growth, diversification and projects resumé seem to back up the assertion.

Albers is devoting over 26,000 man hours fabricating and installing stainless steel kitchen equipment for the stadium between March 2015 and July 2016. The custom components, which will be installed in the executive suites and the other locations, are formed from mostly 14-22 gauge, grade 304 No. 4 finish sheet stock.

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To handle a steady influx of business, Albers expanded its fabrication facility by 13,000 sq. ft. up to 31,000 in 2012, and logged triple-digit sales growth with its existing equipment. By 2013, however, company leaders realized that to perform the large, complicated jobs being won, an upgrade to high-production automated metalforming equipment was required. At the center of this project is a new fiber laser and press brake line from Ermaksan, a Turkish fabrication equipment manufacturer. Its Ermak USA Inc. subsidiary is in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

After conducting research at Fabtech in 2013, “it was clear to us a laser was worth building a business plan around,” says Albers Mechanical Contractors Vice President Tom Westby. “We looked at it from every angle and, at the end of the day, the laser has allowed us to produce more with the same fabrication staff on the floor all within the same facility footprint.”

Foodservice fab

Albers Mechanical Contractors, the parent company of the stainless fabrication arm, is locally owned and pushing 50 years of service. Its diversified activities—including plumbing, HVAC, sheet metal and more—has buffered Albers from tough times, allowing it to keep skilled tradesmen employed through down cycles. It provides skilled union tradesmen for any sized project. Right now, the company employs 75 people on one shift.

Albers Commercial Kitchen Services Group fabricates custom stainless casework, tables and other National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) approved components for the food service equipment industry. Its components are built into, around and support the equipment that dealers sell. These are the appliances, sinks, shelves and worktables that make up the inner workings of a commercial kitchen, known as the “back of the house,” Westby says. Conversely, “front of the house” is where the public sees and interacts with the fabricated stainless casework, design and millwork that is supposed to instill a sense of sleek, efficient cleanliness among hungry patrons.

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Around the time Albers completed its plant expansion in 2013, it faced pricing pressures from external markets that led it to seek to be even more competitive, in part by reducing overhead. When Albers bought the Fibermak fiber laser cutting table and Speedbend press brake, the machines replaced older machines, including a shear and hydraulic press brake, says Joe Ryan, regional sales manager for Wisconsin and Minnesota at Mac-Tech, the Milwaukee-based distributor that sold the Ermak machines to Albers.

The fabricator now attributes the simplification of its workflow to the Ermak machines and its manufacturing management style. Previously, according to Westby, a client’s CAD files would have to be translated into a shop drawing. Once approved by the client, those drawings would get sent to the shop floor in paper form. Plus, Albers was producing parts by hand that should have been cut by machine. Converting an electronic file to a human hand added about 2,000 man hours a year to the process.

Now, instead of a CAD file being transcribed by a human, it’s uploaded directly to the Fibermak’s software, Lantek Expert. “The laser processes the CAD file with instant, accurate and extremely fast results,” Westby says.

Metal shearing is rarely required because the 3 kW Fibermak cuts 400 to 700 in. per minute rather than hours. Before using the laser, Albers’ employees would chew up about 900 man hours per year cutting parts, not to mention the time costs of notching, punching, grinding and other press brake prep—processes that are each greatly abbreviated with the Fibermak.

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The hydraulic Speedbend press brake, for example, reduces a five-angle bend from 30 minutes to about five minutes. Albers’ 1995 mechanical brake required two workers to operate, adding 600 hours per year to costs.

The Fibermak laser is part of the manufacturer’s Gen-2 series of fiber laser machines, which cut up to 0.79- in.-thick mild steel, 0.39-in.-thick stainless and 0.2-in.-thick copper. The cutting head is servo-driven while a linear motor drive operates the table below. Fibermak servo motor machines move to the tune of 1.5 G acceleration and 2.4 m/sec, while the linear motor machines accelerate up to 2.5 G and 2.8 m/sec. This provides a serious time advantage passing through the parts. Albers’ cutting bed measures 7 ft. by 14 ft. on which it can cut a 6 ft. by 13 ft. sheet. It has a double bed for rotation of sheet stock.

Faster completion

Once each component is assembled and welded, it’s ground, polished and fitted with electrical components in-house by Albers’ master electrician. From that point, the piece is moved into a millwork shop for fabrication of any wood components. The final piece goes through a quality control process, after which it’s packed and shipped to the construction site.

The layout, shear and brake operations before the Fibermak were certainly old school by today’s standards. Albers fabricates in work cells, which speeds up processes within the same facility footprint. “Projects that used to take six to eight weeks to complete are now running through the shop in three to four weeks,” says Group Manager Brandon Hansen, who researched the company’s machinery options at the 2013 Fabtech show. That truncated timeline gives Albers an edge when bidding large-scale jobs like the Vikings stadium.

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Past projects have earned the company and its partners recognition. Take Boelter Companies, a foodservice equipment design and supply firm in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for which Albers built a polished copper severy (a compartment in a vaulted ceiling), two mirror-finish wine coolers and a polished stainless boardroom table. With those components, Boelter won the Design Project of the Year 2014 for the FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in the Radisson Blu at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. The awards are given by Foodservice Equipment & Supplies magazine.

Since the Ermak Fibermak and Speedbend machines have increased its capacity and capabilities, Albers is now expanding its geographic market range, according to Ryan at Mac-Tech.

Once the New Minnesota Stadium fabrication and installation project is complete, there’s no reason Albers cannot figure at the forefront of further industry distinction. Meanwhile, fans hope quarterback Teddy Bridgewater can lead a campaign to the SuperBowl while they eat everything from soup to nuts. FFJ

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