High-Tech Processes Propel Hickey Metal Fab
SALEM, Ohio — Three mechanical arms grab an aluminum tube and place it just above a series of guide rollers that lead into a sophisticated laser-cutting machine. Just before the material is loaded, software automatically calculates the dimensions and geometry of the tube to ensure accuracy.
Once the aluminum is set on the guides, an automated oversized “chuck” clamps onto the tube from the rear and pushes it forward into an enclosed cutting bay where a single nozzle beams a white-hot laser into the metal. For the next several minutes, the laser moves about in programmed choreography as the metal tube flips to its prescribed settings and the intricate cuts are made.
The component that emerges is a 20-foot piece of perforated rectangular tubing beveled at each end and prepared for welding and assembly. Eventually, it will become part of a finished component for a large trailer in the commercial transportation market.
Were this two years ago, it would have taken Hickey Metal Fabrication Inc. almost an hour to perform the process. Today it takes about five minutes, thanks to technological advances that set the course for the future of this company.
“It’s all about technology,” says Leo P. Hickey, company president. Two years ago, the process would have required manual cuts and beveling, not to mention laying out by hand the positions of the holes and then using a tool to drill each in the company’s machine shop.
But a year-and-a-half ago, Hickey invested just more than $1 million and bought a Trumph 7000 Tube Laser, a 50-foot processing line that looks more at home in an antiseptic space laboratory than a fabrication job shop in Columbiana County.
“We can saw and cut holes in a single shot,” says Nick Peters, vice president and a member of the fourth-generation of family to run the company. “We just load the raw material in and take it straight to the weld shop. That’s where this machine really shines.”
It’s technological advances such as this that spread out a broad roadmap for this company in the Salem Industrial Park. Over the last several years, Hickey says, his company has invested “multi-millions” of dollars in new equipment and machinery at its complex.
“We try to stay as high-tech as possible,” Hickey says. “We stay on the cutting edge of machinery.”
Hickey also says the company has been conscious to diversify its market and customer base so that it isn’t tied to a single industry, thereby preserving its flexibility.
“Business has been exceptional,” he reports. “We’ve always stayed very diverse. When one industry is slower, another industry is picking up. Right now, we’ve picked up a lot of job-shop work.”
Hickey’s grandfather, also named Leo, started the company in 1942 as a furnace and heating business. After the death of his grandfather in 1954, Hickey’s father, Robert, took over the business and added roofing services.
By the mid-’70s, Leo had joined the company and helped build its metal fabricating division. His wife, Suzanne, is corporate secretary and treasurer. In 2007 and 2008, Hickey’s nephews Benjamin and Nicholas joined the company and today are vice presidents. In 2014, his son Adam came on board and today is vice president of operations.
During this time, the family-owned business has grown to more than 180 employees and expanded into five buildings. The original plant – Plant I on Georgetown Road – houses five press brakes, plants II and III are connected and fabricate and machine metal components, while Plant IV is dedicated to specialty production.
Recently, the company bought a vacant building in Salem Industrial Park that it will use for storage. And it’s in the midst of evaluating whether to construct a sixth building that would house new equipment and add capacity.
“We’ve grown significantly over the last three years,” Suzanne Hickey says, noting the company added 11 new employees so far this year.
One advantage of being a family-owned business is that the owners know and understand the business from the top down, she says. “They’ve worked the jobs,” she explains. “They know what the jobs require. They were grinding and welding and that’s how they learned.”
The business has adapted over the years, and the company strives to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to improving technology and productivity.
Among the latest of the company’s equipment acquisitions is a Trumph fiber laser, which enables the Hickey company to cut patterns and profiles in sheet metal faster than ever before, Adam Hickey adds.
“When you’re looking at a thinner-gauge material, you almost double the cutting speed versus a CO2 laser,” he says. “Because you’re able to deliver the beam through the fiber, the speeds are drastically better.”
The younger Hickey says the recently acquired Trumph fiber laser cutting machine – equipment manufactured by a company based in Stuttgart, Germany – was installed at its original plant on Georgetown Road. “We reinvest in new technology all the time,” he emphasizes. And adding new equipment has helped land new business for the company.
Adam Hickey points to the fiber laser as an example. “Because we had this machine, we had an opportunity that came to us last year to do a very large project for Love’s truck stops,” he says. One of Hickey’s customers had secured a contract for a complete tire-inflation system, and Hickey fabricated the system’s housing cabinets. “In less than six months,” he says, “we did over 2,100 cabinets.”
Turnaround time and quality are critical in manufacturing today, Leo Hickey says. “Today, it’s all about how fast you can make it.”
Quality is equally important, and the company has secured work for the military and several large original-equipment manufacturers. A solid business is fabricating booms for OEMs that manufacture vehicles for the wrecking and towing industries.
“We’re actually building a run of five units for the Australian military,” the company president says.
Hickey Metal is the largest fabricator for Miller Industries, the world’s largest manufacturer of towing and recovery vehicles. “We supply all their plants, and make all the parts for these booms,” he says. The components for Miller are sold as kits, and the manufacturer simply welds and assembles the product at its plant in Hermitage, Pa., and elsewhere.
As a job shop, Hickey understands that just about any request could come through the door tomorrow, so he wants to be sure his company is prepared to take on the project. “We can make little washers that are this big,” he says, forming his hands to the size of a silver dollar. “We can also make parts that are 25 to 30 feet long.”
As for the fourth generation of the company, Adam Hickey says it’s their goal to build upon their parents’ achievements.
“It’s always been our parents and our grandparents’ philosophy to invest money back into the company, to continue to update technology,” he says. “In today’s world, we have to be able to make a better quality product and make it quicker than the other guy because there’s so much competition out there.”
Pictured: Family members have operated the company for four generations. From left are Adam Hickey, vice president of operations, Suzanne Hickey, corporate secretary and treasurer, Leo Hickey, president, Nicholas Peters and Ben Peters, both vice presidents.
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.