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Steel Manufacturing with Human Intelligence

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With technology and innovation making giant strides forward every year, it seems logical that many workers will fear for the future of their roles. As AI capabilities continue to develop and grow, there is a worry across the industry that robotic automation might replace workers in both factories and manufacturing plants. The reality, however, is far from it. In fact, it is extremely encouraging. With robots performing simple repetitive tasks, employees can instead have the opportunity to upskill, advance and ultimately take on better-paid positions. This is the philosophy at Americase Fabrication & Construction (AFC), an AISC Certified steel fabrication company based in Ennis, Texas. For Cole Morgan, President of AFC, automation, and robotics are a resource that should be welcomed throughout the industry. Morgan explains how automation has been crucial to the success of AFC and as a result, it has enabled the company to open new positions. “It has allowed us to continue adding high-paid, high-skilled jobs, because we can now get more business by allowing robots to do the unskilled work.” A relatively young company, AFC’s vision is to create opportunities for personal growth, enabling its dedicated workforce to develop their skillset and pursue career advancement. 

AFC opened its doors in October 2017 as a sheet metal shop in partnership with Americase LLC, a precision aluminum manufacturer based in Waxahachie, Texas. While the partnership has proved to be a huge success, reaching the start point was not always smooth sailing for Morgan. Having owned and sold a hot dip galvanizing company in Big Spring, TX, his aim was to pivot into the steel fabrication sector. A potential steel fabricator acquisition proved a frustrating endeavor until a chance conversation with a high school friend – who happened to be the owner of Americase LLC — resulted in the foundation of a steel manufacturing company.

Equipped with a laser and press brake, AFC initially operated out of a 3000-square-foot facility. Year after year, the company multiplied in size until, in January 2019, the company’s continued growth meant that it would require a larger premises. The following year, while producers across the country were being forced to shut down, the demand for solar canopy producers and installers was skyrocketing. Despite stringent restrictions that were put in place in other states, Texas-based AFC was permitted to continue. The company took advantage of this and began producing and installing both parking garage tops and ground-mount solar carports and canopies. As Morgan explains, this period in the company’s history has huge significance in terms of its current status. “We had always doubled in size each year, but the canopy business really jump-started our structural steel fabrication. In 2021, we purchased a much larger 80,000 square foot facility in Ennis, Texas, and set up our subsidiary company, AFC Solar, which completes installations in the field for the solar canopies.”

AFC Solar is currently one of the very few companies in the United States to both manufacture and install solar canopy turnkey solutions without using sub-contractor installers or sub fabricators. Keeping these scopes in-house helps achieve maximum quality and service, and keeps projects on schedule. This success is evidenced by the fact, despite being founded in 2021, it currently employs almost 70 people. So far, the company has fabricated and installed an incredible 50 MW of solar carport garages and canopies across the East and West Coast.  Zach Ward, VP and Managing Partner of AFC Solar comments, “Without the increased production capacity that AFC has achieved with their fabrication automation, AFC Solar would not have been able to grow our labor force this quickly providing high quality construction jobs. So, the investments in the shop roll downhill to providing even more job opportunities. The robotics have also increased the quality of the steel fabrication we are seeing out in the field allowing for quicker installations.”

Unsurprisingly, the decision to move into this sector has not affected the upward trajectory of AFC itself. With continued growth, the company is also currently focused on the fabrication of miscellaneous OEM (original equipment manufacturer) metal products such as railings, stairs, light structural, and laser cut parts. For Morgan, this is where the brilliance of robotics steps in. “We have in-house powder coating. We actually own the largest powder coating oven in Texas, and we are now making parts for other manufacturers such as air compressor, HVAC and trailer companies. We fabricate high-volume parts that can be done robotically. From there, our clients take the parts to their own shops and complete the final assembly.”

“So far, the company has fabricated and installed an incredible 50 MW of solar carport garages and canopies.”

It goes without saying that for a company to succeed in this business, cultivating relationships is of huge importance. According to Morgan, AFC operates with a “old-school” customer-focused approach. For him, this physical presence when completing a project ensures that the customer remains satisfied throughout the job. “We like to get in front of our customers face to face. We are out there on construction sites, and we work hand in hand with the stakeholders on every aspect of the project, from having input in the design and the engineering all the way through to completion.”

As one of the foremost steel fabrication companies in the region, it is no surprise to learn that AFC has been involved in a number of top-quality projects. Discussing these, Morgan mentions two jobs in particular which showcase the level of professionalism the company provides. Being featured in CNN Travel the Pirelli building in New Haven, Connecticut, AFC fabricated, galvanized, painted, and installed 42.5 tons of structural steel while installing 648 PV panels. In addition to that, he notes the skill and technical expertise needed when working on the installation of 176 tons of structural steel and 1,806 PV panels for a long-span garage top mount system that AFC recently completed at Advent Hospital Orlando, Florida featured project in Solar Power World magazine.

From early on, the adoption of new technologies has been a crucial aspect in enabling AFC to double in revenue and headcount year on year. Morgan says that the growth AFC has experienced is directly related to its growing use and involvement with the robotics field. “We purchased our first robot in 2019, which was a stationary robot for smaller parts. Last year, as we began producing greater levels of large structural members, we purchased our first Ocean Challenger, a structural steel robotic welding machine. We have the second one coming in August of this year, which should give us the capacity to produce around 300 tons of fabricated steel per week.” While AFC employees focus on highly skilled processes, the robots perform the more time-consuming tasks. A good example, as Morgan explains, is the simple welding of hundreds of linear feet of canopies. For him, the ability of a robot to complete this task allows the in-house skill that AFC has in abundance to really shine. “It may take our skilled, certified employees a full day to do one beam. So, we let the robot do the easy stuff. It does it more efficiently and is able to increase our volume. While the employees can do skilled, higher value welding that the robot can’t do.” This willingness to adopt robotic automation has allowed AFC to both take on highly skilled staff and promote existing staff to management. Using machines to enable humans has been a winning strategy for AFC and its staff. It reflects a dynamic culture where the company’s growth directly depends on its staff’s personal and professional growth. “The first three employees I hired are still with the company, and all have grown into upper management. Almost all our employees have started from the bottom and worked their way up in some form or fashion.”

As many within the industry still hold suspicions about the role that robotics may take, it is refreshing to find such a forward-thinking company. One that is welcoming rather than skeptical, innovative rather than reluctant. Thanks to an intelligent combination of human and artificial intelligence, AFC has grown steadily and is currently developing ambitious plans for the future. “We want to continue growing both in our area and in different regions of the US to better serve our customers,” says Morgan, who is already working towards this together with his team. For Americase Fabrication and Construction, the goal is to expand its culture of innovation, and to establish itself as a national reference in the manufacturing of solar canopies and OEM products. If the achievements of the past five years are anything to go by, Morgan and his team might get there sooner rather than later.

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