Laser Technology

Moving fabrication in-house, step by step

By Tom Klemens

Commitment, a strong underlying work ethic and buying good equipment foster fabricator’s growth and success

January 2013 - When Norb and Jeff Dretzka set out almost three decades ago to breathe new life into their father Leo’s underground construction business, the market was strong and manufacturing was the furthest thing from their minds. But opportunity came knocking in 2003 when they started a manufacturing division that now supplies a variety of vehicle components to the U.S. armed forces. Although Norb Dretzka passed away in March 2012, the manufacturing operation continues to achieve new successes under Jeff Dretzka’s leadership.  

With their father, the Dretzka brothers established Underground Pipeline Inc. in 1984 in New Berlin, Wis., and the firm quickly grew to be a regional leader in the Milwaukee area’s sewer and water line construction industry. Even so, seasonal slowdowns in underground construction meant UPI’s skilled workforce was predictably underused during the winter, putting a strain on both UPI and its employees. In 2003, as part of their long-term planning, the brothers sought to expand the business to ensure its ongoing viability.

ffj-0113-laser-image1Another small business owner told them about his recent work as a supplier for the Defense Logistics Agency. He suggested UPI, especially as a Native American-owned business, investigate opportunities there. The Dretzkas did, and soon UPI Manufacturing became a supplier.

“We started with some small distribution type work,” says Jeff Dretzka Jr., who is the company’s vice president. UPI’s first DLA contract came in December 2003. “We were selling parts we were familiar with, such as lifting device equipment. We did a lot of rigging and a lot of lifting of pipe and equipment, so we knew about that.” Early on, UPI put together some small hook and swaging sleeves and other lifting eyes. “Our first contract was for $553,” he says. It wasn’t large, but it started the ball rolling.

“Initially it is difficult working with the government because it requires substantial resources,” says senior sales engineer Dave Larson. “It really makes it tough because you’re always running out of something—like orders or WIP money—and that’s where a lot of small companies fail. But Norb and Jeff had the intestinal fortitude to go ahead.” Being able to fulfill the initial contracts as an extension of a successful, existing business was key to making it through the ramping up period.   

“We learned a lot from that first job and just started pursuing similar things,” says Dretzka. “My job was to find the work and deal with the government and find out what they needed that we could supply.” By using the DLA’s Internet Bid Board System, the company was able to determine which items being solicited were the best fit for its capabilities and bid on those.


One noteworthy product UPI Manufacturing was contracted to produce was a 31⁄2-in.-thick, bulletproof window for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles being used in the Iraq War. “These windows were, at the time, placed on a high-priority back order status,” says Jeff Dretzka Sr., also  known as Chief. “We were able to ship 245 of these windows for our troops four and a half months early.” 

That was the beginning of the company’s success, according to Larson, who says it also provided a great boost to morale. “We were very proud of the fact that we were making windows that would protect the troops over in Iraq,” he says.

In 2004 the company moved into a 4,000-sq.-ft. facility in nearby Fort Atkinson, Wis. “The war was going and the government was going through a lot of  inventory,” says Jeff Dretzka Jr. “We were focusing on the HMMWV platform and sold around 20,000 pieces of HMMWV side windows and windshields.” 

While UPI continued its pipeline work, the manufacturing arm of the business was getting a lot of fabricating work, as well. “We had built a lot of strong relationships with custom fabricators and weld shops in the area,” Dretzka says. “But once the receipts started adding up to where it made sense, we brought more in-house.”


By 2006 the company’s contracts reached $6 million and it again needed more room.

“We decided to build a 28,000-sq.-ft. facility a little further out, in Eagle [Wis.],” says Dretzka. In 2007, still with just seven employees, the company moved into its new facility. Seeing a slowdown coming in transparent armor demand, the company transitioned into producing other components. “We bought some Toyoda machining centers and started machining forgings for track link components for tanks and armored personnel carriers,” he says. “We hired some good engineers and machinists to help us out and went from outsourcing a lot of machining work to doing our own, when it made sense.”

In 2008, UPI Manufacturing installed a 100 hp Flow Mach 3 Waterjet cutting machine with a 6-ft. by 24-ft. bed. The company continued outsourcing its laser cutting and press brake forming, bringing the parts in and welding them together. Dretzka says, “With our machining capabilities, that was a direct good fit because we could machine our own fixtures and save money there.”

When the company started signing contracts for gun racks, it became time to bring additional activities in-house.

On purchasing equipment

“Having the Chief as an employer is great for all of us,” Dretzka says. “He’s very analytical and wants to get the best equipment he can for what he can afford. He doesn’t skimp on anything, he doesn’t buy used, beat-up equipment. We buy mostly new equipment and he spends a lot of time analyzing the different options.”

In shopping for a laser and a press brake, the company looked at five lines of lasers and six press brakes. After five months of analysis, including seeing the different machines and talking to vendors and people running the equipment, it came down to Bystronic and one other vendor. “We started dealing with both of them to see who would give us the biggest bang for the buck,” Dretzka says, “and Bystronic did it.”

As the company investigated equipment, it also expanded its Eagle facility by 39,000 sq. ft. to accommodate a Bystronic high-speed, fully automated laser production work cell and a 350-ton Bystronic press brake.

“Our vice president of development previously owned a shop in Ohio and had a Bystronic machine he used for cutting and bending armor,” says Dretzka. “And that’s what we’re focusing on with our vehicle components.” Other users also were complimentary of the Bystronic equipment. “Everybody alluded to the fact that the cost of running them is less than others, not because of gas efficiency but because of maintenance costs,” says Dretzka. “Maintenance cost on a Bystronic laser is a third of what it is to run some of the other companies’ lasers.”


Factors like that are very important to a company like UPI Manufacturing. “We want to be as productive as possible,” Dretzka says. “We run three shifts, and all of our equipment is running around the clock—not every day of the week, but we have operators in place on all three shifts.” That makes the operation more competitive, he notes, by reducing overhead costs. 

The company purchased a 4,400 W Bystronic BySpeed Pro laser cutting system with a ByTrans Extended. “It is a sheet loading and unloading machine,” says Dretzka. “Beyond that it can also pick the parts up as it goes, and separate and palletize them. It’s almost like a robotic unit.”

The company also has a tower system, integrated to the ByTrans Extended. “We can add 11 more shelves that hold up to 11 different types of sheet and plate,” Dretzka says. “At 6,600 lbs. apiece, we can essentially hold 72,600 lbs. of steel just at the laser unit.

“The press brake dynamically adjusts for material thickness variations and recalculates the bending on the fly,” he says. “While you’re bending, it analyzes the material and makes sure you’re in tolerance. The programming software automatically applies the correct bend deductions based on the tooling and the radius information and also relays this information to the flat part program, which will be processed at the laser.”

Each step forward, Dretzka says, has been inspired by the company’s mission statement and motto: “Motivated by patriotism, empowered by God, committed to victory,” and, “Deeds, not words.”

Naturally, expanding the business and incorporating all the recent upgrades prompted another change. The company has added more than 30 new employees to its team since January 2012. FFJ

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