Press Brakes

Defend around the bend

By Lynn Stanley

With press brake technology, fabricator fortifies trucks, boosts bottom line

May 2013 - The Greek philosopher Plato said necessity is the mother of invention. Dean Johnson, a rancher in Vale, S.D., and CEO of Prairie Industries LLC, would agree. In 2000, he started Johnson’s Welding Services in a small, uninsulated, unheated building. “My dad, Ron Johnson, had a kidney transplant and we were looking for an extra revenue source that could help support our family while he recuperated,” says Johnson.

Necessity intervened again when an auto accident inspired Johnson to design and develop the Truck Defender, an innovative, heavy-duty aluminum bumper. It also was necessity that prompted Johnson to purchase JMT press brake technology, a move that has catapulted the young company into a growth spurt and helped produce a crop of 250 dealers across the U.S.

ffj-0513-press-image1Johnson says he got the idea for the bumper on a family trip. “We were driving through western South Dakota late at night when my wife, Becky, hit a deer,” he says. “We were about 80 miles from the nearest town. The deer damaged the pickup but we were still able to drive. It got me thinking, though. I wanted to put something on her vehicle that would protect her and our family in the wide-open spaces, but I didn’t want to hang 300 lbs. of steel on the front of my pickup.”

Johnson chose aluminum to solve the weight problem yet deliver durability. “The U.S. used to be the iron capital of the world,” he explains. “Steel was it.” But aluminum’s ability to reduce component weight for fuel economy and emissions benefits has pushed the metal to the forefront. Johnson says he has observed a gradual shift from use of steel to aluminum in horse trailers and vehicles for the over-the-road truck market. “Now we’re seeing aluminum in bumpers and other components,” he says. “If aluminum is properly engineered it can meet or exceed the strength of steel at half the weight.” The lighter weight metal also significantly improves wear points on parts like steering columns and axles, tie rods and CV joints.

Innovation at work

Johnson’s Truck Defender quickly caught on and for every bumper he made, he sold three more. “I had to decide whether I wanted to be a wholesale manufacturer or a retail outlet,” he says. “I’m not a sales person, so the product needed to be able to sell itself.” Johnson changed his company’s name to Prairie Industries LLC in 2004 and built a new facility on his ranch to house the business. Since then, he has added on to the original structure twice and has 20 to 25 employees in addition to his dealer network.

Prairie Industries builds and ships 110 to 130 Truck Defender units per month and is one of just a few U.S. aluminum bumper manufacturers. “We’re pretty proud of that,” Johnson says. The heavy-duty, reinforced aluminum bumpers can be installed on semis, emergency vehicles and pickup trucks made by Chevy, Ford, Toyota, GMC and Dodge. The aluminum grille guard has a No. 8 mirror finish and weighs between 100 and 125 lbs. The fabricator offers nearly 300 patterns, with over-the-road trucks making up about 50 percent of the company’s business. Eachffj-0513-press-image2 time OEMs make a change to a model profile, the company adds the new patterns to its database. But Johnson says the company is still producing bumpers for early to mid-90s vehicles. “Auto, pickup and semi consumers used to trade up about every two years,” he says. “But cost increases are forcing people to keep their vehicles longer and take better care of them.” While the Truck Defender provides lightweight, effective protection against animal collision, the bumper’s aesthetic qualities also play a big role in over-the-road truckers’ efforts to keep up appearances. “Everyone wants a shiny, pretty truck,” Johnson says. “And the DOT tends to be less concerned with people who appear to take care of their trucks.”

New bending partner

Prairie Industries sources aluminum sheets cut to pattern on a plasma cutter. Blanks are formed on a press brake and then sent to assembly before being polished to a mirror finish. “Our equipment was paid for and things were running smoothly when the motherboard on our press brake burned out,” Johnson recalls. “I was told it would take 25 days to get a new motherboard. The manufacturer didn’t have a new machine in stock and said it would take six months to build and ship a press brake to me. That timeframe would have broken me. My employees couldn’t go without paychecks for that long.”

Johnson’s search led him to JMT. The Salt Lake City company is the exclusive U.S. distributor for JMT press brakes, shears, plate rolls, angle rolls and saws. JMT also imports a variety of other metalworking equipment lines and brings nearly a century of experience in operation, maintenance and service to customers.

“JMT had a new machine assembled and ready to ship,” says Johnson. “They understood the urgency of my situation and assured me they could make it happen fast. I went to the bank and within two hours the money was transferred and I was the owner of a JMT ADR-series 12-ft., 242-ton press brake. JMT shipped and installed the press brake, trained our operators and had me up and running again at 100 percent in just four days.”

The press brake installation, which took place in 2012, was followed up a month later with advanced training. “What impresses me about JMT is that if I call with a question or a problem I am never asked to hold and I never have to wait for someone to return my call,” Johnson says. “I get an answer within 15 to 20 minutes. When you have 25 people working for you, the time you spend waiting on the phone is money.”

Increased production

Employee attitudes reflect JMT’s work philosophy of being strong on service. “We work in teams,” says Lance Lamberton, regional sales manager for JMT. “Everyone on the sales and service staff backs each other up because the customer has to come first.”

ffj-0513-press-image3Constructed with ST 44-2 grade steel from Ukraine, the JMT press brake supports exceptionally large strokes, daylights and throat depths for efficient production of simple to complex shapes. Machine accuracy also is critical for Prairie Industries, which air bends parts from 30 degrees to 180 degrees. “If we want accuracy of 0.003 in. or 0.004 in., we have to be dead-on when we bend,” says Johnson. “The accuracy and efficiency of the JMT press brake has increased production by 30 percent. Higher throughput, accuracy and quality have allowed me to recoup my investment in just seven months.”

Press brake accuracy also contributes to faster fit-up and assembly. “We’ve seen our biggest increases in this area,” Johnson says.

“When someone can make the same parts at a more reasonable price, it increases their profits,” Lamberton says. “We design and build high-precision equipment at a cost-effective price.” The ADR-series press brake has an accuracy rating of 0.0004 in., which is finer than  human hair. Yet parts for the press brake are nonproprietary. “If Dean has a valve go out five years from now, even though he is in a rural area, he can pick that part up locally or we can ship it overnight,” he says.

Over the last year, Prairie Industries has realized other benefits. “Western South Dakota is not a manufacturing hot spot,” says Johnson. “The economy here is driven by agriculture. My dad and I started the welding shop because we wanted to stay on the ranch and the business allowed us to do that. Now we’ve evolved into a company that’s also making it possible for me to change the lives of my employees,” he continues. “The press brake’s ROI has allowed me to secure health insurance for them and raise their wages. JMT stands behind their equipment, but I also feel they are standing behind my company helping to make it an ongoing success.” FFJ

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