Laser Technology

The jewel of sheet metal

By Nick Wright

Above: Venture’s Mitsubishi LVPlus laser cutting 20 gauge galvanized material heat shields.

Turning a failed shop into a lean venture

January 2015 - Jim Slattery likes to do things right. When he and his former employer didn’t see eye to eye on the lean principles Slattery was trying to implement, the University of Wisconsin graduate decided to use his 20 years of fabricating experience to start his own shop. It wasn’t easy. Rather than start from scratch, he bought out a failing fab shop in nearby Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and began the arduous process of converting it into a profitable business. 

“Their financials were so terrible, it took me six months to get a loan,” he explains. “When my wife Mary and I first walked in the door, we had $37,000 in sales and seven employees. The former owners weren’t able to pay the bills, so they couldn’t get any steel. By that time, all but a handful of customers had gone on to work with other fabricators.”

That was in 2005. From this grim beginning, Venture Manufacturing Group was born. 

Slattery now had free reign to roll out whatever lean practices he wanted, if only he could keep the doors open long enough to do so. Luckily, a friend tipped him off to a large OEM looking for good suppliers. The struggling shop owner called the buyer and the two immediately hit it off. “They’re now our biggest customer,” Slattery says. 


Getting work wasn’t the only challenge he faced. Slattery’s employees were used to processing parts in large batches, often when there was no demand. “On a whim, they’d release a job for several months’ worth of product,” he says. “There were racks and racks of finished goods sitting there, waiting for a sales order. I told them we’re not working that way any more. We brought in 5S [Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize and Sustain], and focused on setup time reduction and elimination of waste. It was a totally different way of doing things for them.” 5S is a lean method of boosting productivity with a clean, organized workplace.

Once things began to stabilize, Slattery sought to upgrade Venture’s equipment. He knew the shop’s existing 1,500-W laser was no longer competitive; the company would have to efficiently cut heavy-gauge material to stay in the game. And based on Slattery’s inclination towards lean, some form of automated material handling was a must-have on his new equipment wish list. 

After some sleepless nights and long days of shopping, Slattery decided on Mitsubishi because of its resonator design and flexible material handling system. He traded in his old laser and sold two tired waterjets for a Mitsubishi LVPlus (a 2-D CO2 laser) equipped with an EL-4 load/unload automation system. With a 5 ft. by 10 ft. table and 4,000-W laser, Venture was finally able to flourish. 

“Aside from starting the company in the first place, the Mitsubishi was our first giant leap of faith. It gave us the capability to cut 1-in.-thick plate and 1⁄2-in. aluminum and stainless steel, opening the doors to agriculture and construction equipment. That was when we became a real player.”


Automation helped with the transition. The Mitsubishi’s EL-4 twin shuttle tables carry up to 11,000 lbs. of material, allowing Venture to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, much of it lights out. Slattery considered purchasing an optional pallet stacker, but decided it made more sense to have an operator come in after hours for those jobs for which human intervention is needed to load more sheet stock and unload finished parts. 

This isn’t a high-volume shop, and Slattery prides himself on the company’s low inventory and work in process. “We do a lot of repeat work and lot sizes are kept small, from a couple dozen to several hundred pieces. Most of what we make today gets consumed tomorrow or the day after. It’s the same with raw material. Our steel supplier is 20 minutes away. It costs us a few cents more per pound, but we don’t have to carry much inventory. We tell them what we need and it’s here within a couple days.”

Venture has also worked hard to reduce setup time. It has three older Toyokoki press brakes and a pair of MC Machinery Systems Diamond series ballscrew-drive presses, the newest of which is a 94-ton BH electric hybrid machine with 104-in. capacity. The Diamond press brakes are extremely fast and accurate. The graphic display is user-friendly and easy to program, making them “almost foolproof,” Slattery explains. As a result, Venture has enjoyed a 25 percent reduction in setup time compared with using the older Toyokoki press brakes.

Part of that benefit comes as a result of the tooling system. MC Machinery brakes are available with a variety of options, but Venture has equipped its press brakes with sectionalized Euro tooling and quick-change lever clamps. The flexible setup adapts quickly to a variety of workpieces and shortening changeover time. 

FFJ-0115-laser-image3Several of the machines are “married” to a turret press. As Slattery points out, this cellular concept reduces labor; while the turret is stamping out parts, the operator is kept busy forming, spot welding or inserting hardware. “The idea is to get that labor for free while the machine is running, instead of the operator standing idle. We’re always looking at ways to eliminate operations and be more efficient.”


Until recently, Venture Manufacturing was located at 950 Green Valley Road, a 32,000 sq. ft., drab, gray building tucked between two railroad tracks. Venture recently relocated to the former Home Depot at the intersection of County Road B and Highway 151.

“I had my eye on the building for several years,” Slattery says. “It was closed in 2008, just two years after opening, along with several other Home Depot stores nationwide. It became an eyesore to the community.” After several months of negotiation, the owners finally agreed to sell the property to Venture, and reconstruction got under way. The parking lot was ripped up, 200 truckloads of topsoil were brought in, and workers created several acres of green space in front of the building. “The exterior is completely changed. You can’t even tell it was once a Home Depot.”

The renovations didn’t stop there. The building interior was reconfigured for optimal material flow and Slattery made a huge investment in air filtration, making the shop floor “almost hospital clean.” And with 100,000 ft. of floor space to work with, there’s enough room to duplicate every piece of equipment. 

John Wettstein, partner at Northland Laser LLC—Mitsubishi’s distributor for Wisconsin—says Venture’s new facility is beautiful. “When one of these big box stores closes, it’s a blight on the community. Jim Slattery and his team turned it into a great manufacturing space. It has very high ceilings and excellent lighting. It’s really good for the workers.”

Slattery says this last point, the workers, can never be overlooked. While the right systems and equipment are necessary components of any shop’s success, commitment from employees is critical. “Lean becomes a culture over time. We were ISO certified in 2009, but we’ve been emulating ISO since day one. Our cost of quality is less than a tenth of a percent. A big part of that are the people. Finding skilled workers is tough, and when you do, you have to be open and honest with them, and appreciate their hard work. Ultimately, they’re the reason Venture has grown into a multimillion-dollar company, and made our shop the jewel of sheet metal fabricating.” FFJ




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