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Plasma Technology

Cutting home goods for the heartland

By Tom Klemens

Above: In addition to letting the company do its metal cutting in-house, the user-friendly equipment also enables a quick response to custom orders.

How an early reshoring initiative emerged from liquidating fire-sale-priced metalwork

February 2014 - When Kari Stacy bought Universal Ironworks in 2000, becoming a metal fabricator wasn’t part of the plan. The Phoenix-based company had been an importer of home décor and furnishing items, both metal and nonmetal, selling wholesale to 20 or so retailers throughout the Southwest. But as she worked through her newly acquired inventory, Stacy discovered several promising markets for decorative rustic-looking metal goods—as well as her penchant for marketing.

“I basically bought a 53-ft. truck full of product,” Stacy says. “It arrived at my house, and I put it all in my three-car garage, stuffed to the roof. Then I booked a booth at the Mesa (Ariz.) marketplace.” The overwhelming response suddenly capitalized her new career.

Going into business

Coming from a family with a history of entrepreneurialism—her father operated his own business and all her siblings are self-employed—Stacy decided to grow the business, but soon realized she could make the metal items cheaper than she could import them. That also would give her control of what was being produced, making it easier to respond quickly to customer preferences. “And I could put a ‘Made in USA’ sticker on it,” she says, something she saw becoming increasingly desirable on both the wholesale and retail levels.

Armed with a growing understanding of what her customers wanted, Stacy purchased a PlasmaCam cutting table and hired a local cutter to produce the decorative metal items she designed.

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Based in Colorado City, Colo., PlasmaCam has been providing automation for cutting with plasma since 1994. The company’s current DHC2 CNC plasma cutting system consists of a rugged frame with an integrated cutting grate, drive components with servomotors, CAD software, a controller and electronics. It works with most commercially available handheld plasma torches, the only additional requirements being compressed air and a Windows-based computer. Options include a 5 ft. by 10 ft. cutting table—4 ft. by 4 ft. is the standard size—and PlasmaCam’s digital height control package. 

It wasn’t long before husband Jay offered to take a more active role in the business. “So we picked up the machine, it went into our garage, and that’s where we started,” Stacy says. “And I remember Jay having no training from the guy who had been doing our cutting. He literally read the manual and got it to cut the first day. The first thing he cut out was a boot. We still talk about it.” That boot turned out to be only the beginning for Universal Ironworks, which in 2004 relocated from Mesa to Prescott Valley, Ariz., 100 miles to the north.

“A couple of years in, we did a show and we were just hammered,” Stacy says. “I called Jay and said, ‘Jay, you better order another PlasmaCam. We just hit the ski resorts in Colorado and we’re not going to be able to keep up.’ And so we got our second machine, then the next year we purchased another.” The company purchased a fourth in 2010, and in 2013 picked up a fifth PlasmaCam machine, lightly used, from a friend.

Today Universal Ironworks produces an eclectic mix of decorative metal products. “We make picture frames, magnets, ornaments, salt and pepper shakers, napkin holders,” Stacy says. “We also make three-dimensional elk, moose, quail—we try to hit a lot of different interests.”

The company’s standard product development process is simple. “I kind of think of it,” Stacy says, “then Jay can put it into the computer to make the cuts.”

A far cry from its humble beginnings in a three-car garage, the company now occupies a 5,000-sq.-ft. fabrication facility in Prescott Valley. Its primary material is 18-gauge steel sheet sourced from a Phoenix supplier.

When the steel comes in, it first goes to the rust farm. “Some people do corn and all that other stuff, but we lay out rows of metal,” Stacy says. The 4-ft.-square sheets are supported on lumber to provide a bow so the water runs off rather than standing on the metal. “We get darker rust marks on the ends of the metal, at the corners, because that’s where the water runs to. Then we flip the metal so it’ll rust both sides.” After up to two weeks in the yard, the steel is brought into the shop and stacked.

Production and distribution

In the shop, one person runs the machines, another clears the machines, and a third sprays the cut pieces with a clear coat so they can be touched without worrying about rust. Additional personnel handle other incidental tasks such as assembly, gluing on magnets, stocking and shipping.

Universal Ironworks offers its products through wholesale showrooms in Los Angeles, Denver and Las Vegas, but also sells to individual small businesses. Buyers run the gamut from large retail chains to small boutiques, as well as vendors who sell at special-interest events such as rodeos and farm shows. Through its vendors, Universal Ironworks products are regularly sold at the Minnesota State Fair, the Calgary Stampede, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

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The signature rustic look of Universal Ironworks’ products has resonated with many in the farm community. “4H and FFA—livestock, pigs, goats, sheep—they’re huge for us,” Stacy says. “But who would have known? You have to listen to your customer and pay attention to what people are asking for.” You also have to be willing to change, she adds, and that’s where the plasma cutters’ versatility comes into play. “We will spend days prototyping and maybe five items out of 20 work. The rest? You mark them down and move on. It’s a learning game of what people buy and what they don’t buy.”

In 2012, a selection of Universal Ironworks products became available through the online marketplace Etsy. Dubbed TheRusticBarnAZ, the site is maintained by Stacy’s sister, another entrepreneur. It offers other Americana-themed items in addition to the signature plasma-cut rusty steel paraphernalia.

The company recently began offering more personalized products as well. “We purchased a stamping machine from Infinity Stamps that can stamp names into steel, copper or nickel,” Stacy says. “So now you’ll see a name on a lot of the jewelry that we make.”

Another new twist is also in the works at Universal Ironworks—a line of products using corrugated metal. “When we were at PlasmaCam trading in our machine a couple years ago, we saw they were setting up to do corrugated. That will be something new for us,” Stacy says. “I love the texture of corrugated. It’s so rustic and shabby looking.”

Lessons learned

Stacy says one invaluable lesson she learned long ago from watching her father at work was the importance of building relationships. “My dad was self-employed, in the aluminum business and very successful,” she says. “And I would see him with customers and it was all about a relationship.”

Looking back at her own startup, more than a dozen years ago, she recalls it wasn’t easy. “I think it’s a relationship more than just product,” she says. “Like when you’re going to be in someone’s catalogue, they’re trusting that you’re going to manufacture for them and you’re going to have the product available through the run of the catalogue. It was hard to get started, but you just keep investing back into the business, you keep showing up at the shows. And when they see you and they see you again, they start trusting you.”

One of the reasons Stacy appreciates PlasmaCam is something that has come out of that relationship as well, namely its upgrade program. According to PlasmaCam marketing manager Megan Rhoades, the company occasionally offers trade-in options, such as when a new, upgraded version of the equipment becomes available. “We send information to all of our current customers, letting them know what the trade-in discount would be on a new machine,” she says.

“They have a great trade-in program,” Stacy says. “We drive to Denver quite often, and with PlasmaCam in Colorado City, it has been very convenient to trade in machines over the years.” FFJ

Sources

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