Laser Technology

Bright lights

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Online orders kept Foster Weld’s SmartShop | FC fiber optic laser from Laguna Tools busy during a tumultuous 2020.

Custom fabricator reflects on 15 years of business and the value of social media

May 2021 - Chris Foster is used to a challenge. What started as a two-person fabrication shop in his garage has transformed into a 5,000-sq.-ft. facility in Garden City, Idaho. Foster Weld began fabricating custom-made metal belt buckles, custom furniture and signage nearly 15 years ago. “We were small and hustling the first few years. [The business] began with my wife and I selling belt buckles on Etsy just as the handmade movement started becoming popular,” says Foster. “Then we started offering custom marquee lighted signage for small businesses and restaurants.

“Business took off as more and more small businesses found out about us through the internet,” he continues. “[Customers wanted] furniture as well as custom merchandise like bottle openers, buckles and the marquees. Those custom signs and marquees make up about 50 percent of our business; the rest is furniture and buckles.”

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In March 2020, COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt, and Foster Weld was no exception. Over the next two months, Foster had to lay off his employees and work alone in his shop; his wife and kids joined in to help as needed. “Custom sales disappeared,” he says. “COVID-19 slammed our customer base, and there was no longer a demand for signs as small businesses and restaurants were either shuttering up or went out of business altogether.” 

To further compound the problem, Foster had just invested in a new Laguna fiber laser—which arrived that same month. His electrician couldn’t come in to set it up because he had fallen ill with COVID-19. “My electrician was in the hospital, and I had a $200,000 fiber laser sitting idle on my shop floor,” recalls Foster. The electrician recovered but Foster lost a month while trying to find a replacement to hook up the machine.

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But, just as Foster’s problems seemed insurmountable, social media brought unexpected reprieve. “Our online belt buckle orders shot up,” Foster says. “People found us on social media through our Instagram account. Almost overnight we began receiving about 2,000 belt buckle orders per week.

“We had a couple of really big direct orders that allowed us to hit those big numbers,” Foster adds, “but it was still a humbling time period where we were gauging the temperature of the world for a few months based on incoming online orders.”

Once up and running, Foster’s Laguna fiber laser stayed busy. “It took me years to shift from buying used equipment and paying cash,” Foster says. “I was subbing out all our cutting, and it wasn’t until my accountant showed me that for what I was paying to outsource my cutting, I could pay for my own equipment.

Paying $2,000 to $3,000 per month for eight years adds up. That got me looking.”

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Foster Weld performs all laser cutting in house after years of outsourcing.

Power and accessibility

Foster knew he wanted an open bed fiber optic laser without sacrificing the 1.5 kW power he needed. Most options included a closed bed layout. After shopping around, he came across the SmartShop Laser | FC from Laguna Tools, a 37-year-old company with five locations throughout the U.S. “The beauty of the FC is the compact footprint,” says Adrian Martinez, laser division sales manager. “Many lasers in the market need twice the space for the table, so the FC is a smart option when space is limited. The open bed makes loading and offloading easy.”

The SmartShop fiber optic laser comes with a two-year warranty along with a lifetime of phone and technical support. All common wear-and-tear parts are located in Texas and can be shipped within 24 hours. “The technology with the fiber optic makes maintenance a breeze,” Martinez says. “All FC models will have an automatic oiler to keep components moving.” 

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Headquartered in Huntington Beach, California, Laguna has multiple models ranging from 1 kW to 12 kW. “We do shuttle tables, enclosures, tube cutters and custom sizes,” Martinez says.

Customer service was an important factor for Foster, and easy communication between he and Martinez helped throughout the process. “Adrian was easy to work with between financing and planning,” Foster says. 

After training with a Laguna technician, Foster says he and his team have made adjustments as needed depending on the job and material to cut. “The baseline information changes because there are different variables to consider whether we’re cutting different thicknesses or alloys—it’s going to be a different setup to cut stainless steel compared to steel or aluminum,” Foster says. 

Once up and running, Foster ramped up production to fulfill belt buckle orders. In May 2020, popular YouTuber Christian Guzman—he has nearly a million subscribers—called Foster with a $100,000 order. “That one order gave me the financial security to bring my guys back on,” he says. “Once the weather warmed up, [some businesses] started opening and people gathered at outdoor restaurants. In order to create that ambiance, we started getting orders in for lighting and signage again.

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“At the end of last year, we realized we actually ended up bringing in the same amount of revenue in 2020 as we did in 2019,” he adds.

Having the capability to cut everything on-site has been liberating for Foster. “I have three guys working with me, and we no longer have to wait for anyone else,” he says. “In fact, my old laser cutting provider had to shut down completely due to COVID-19, which means my customers would have been waiting and I would have lost all those belt buckle orders—I’d be out of business.” 

Foster remains engrossed in his work as orders continue to come in every day. “There will always be a new business opening up or a need to replace old decor,” he says, “or a new belt buckle, or someone that needs custom furniture for their business. 

“We’ve been lucky to be in business this long. We’ve built up years of good reviews, and customers are confident that what they will get from us is a high-quality creation. It’s not like having someone build it in their garage,” jokes Foster. “Before, I had to insist customers pay in cash. Now, I’m trying to get my credit card transaction rates down because those credit card fees per purchase add up.”  FFJ



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