Precision parts

At Dane Manufacturing, one DeForest mom enjoys forming metal into parts most people may never see.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Following its 2018 purchase of Dantherm Cooling, a South Carolina company, Dane Manufacturing is on the verge of tripling its business in the next few years, and that’s good news for its employees, including Shannon Smith, a forming operator who is more than thrilled to be working in the plant.

It beats cleaning houses, Smith says, which she and her mother did for six years prior. Smith, from DeForest, found this job through Remedy Intelligent Staffing two-and-a-half years ago and happily reports the bump in pay is “enough to support me and my three boys comfortably.” When the company is busy, as it has been, she can volunteer to work Saturdays, extending her workweek to 48 hours with overtime pay.

Her work day begins at 7 a.m. after she drops her youngest son off at daycare and ends at 3 p.m. She never knows what she’ll be forming on any given day until she checks in each morning. That’s part of what makes the job fun, she insists.

Dane Manufacturing is a precision metal fabrication and stamping company. Smith’s job is to help bend and form flat pieces of metal into parts that may become part of an HVAC system, for example, or an appliance.

The forming machine does the heavy bending, as Smith’s hands guard against imperfections.

What she’s making and how a client assembles it doesn’t at all matter to her, she admits. Her job is to create perfectly measured parts, and she loves it. “When I first came here, I was blown away! I’d never done anything like this before and had never heard of these machines,” Smith smiles, grabbing a flat piece of metal.

“I remember walking in the plant and thinking, ‘This is so cool!’ Now that I’ve been here for a while, it’s still cool, just not as cool.”

Bending and forming may not be for everyone. Once Smith is assigned to a particular project on a large forming machine, she’ll likely be there all day, or within a 10 or 15-step radius, she explains.

A protractor is never far away as Smith double checks that all angles are correct.

The forming machines are large and operated by foot pedals. She summarizes her job in three steps: bend, measure, adjust. “If there’s a program for a particular piece in my computer, I load it and it will tell me how many bends to make and how long they should be.”

Burner boxes, found inside electric stoves, are among her favorite assignments, while other parts sometimes get monotonous, she admits. The highly technical machines do most of the bending, and it only takes about 45 seconds.

Not surprisingly, two companies, RenewAire of Waunakee and Wolf Appliances of Madison, are frequent customers.

On the floor

Wearing steel-toed shoes, safety goggles, and gloves, Smith stands at her machine, which she says can bend metal “from the size of your finger to 14-feet long.” Her projects, though, typically range from the size of her hand to about 5-feet in length. Edges are sharp, and the danger is real, she reminds.

Checking a computer screen display for specifications and tooling.

On this particular day, she’s bending pieces for RenewAire and is guided by illustrations in binders that lay open on a table nearby. A computer to her right programs the forming machine to each specific part, bend, measurement, and tooling required. “Without the computer, the machine wouldn’t run,” she says.

Grabbing a flat, narrow strip of cold-rolled steel from a worktable, she double checks her measurements and slides one edge of the piece into the machine. This piece will become an Angle Inside Louver, according to the order. Smith’s job is to bend the length of the piece almost 90 degrees, producing one flat side that measures 0.8 of an inch and the other, 0.5.

With another piece in place, Smith depresses a foot pedal and the bending mechanism lowers. “I can feel it grabbing,” she comments, before removing and stacking it on a worktable behind her.

After each bend, she uses a protractor to ensure the angle is correct.

(Continued)

 

In a room around the corner, Smith starts forming parts for a Wolf range. “We call these parts money clips,” she says, “because they have a piece of bent metal on them that resembles one.”

Checking that the settings are correct, Smith slips a much larger and squarer piece of steel into the press. This piece already has other bends in it, and rather than a long bend, this job requires two tiny bends at both corners of the piece. Computerized “fingers” run on a track along the piece’s programmed length, bending the metal in precise spots.

Finished pieces for RenewAire are stacked and ready for shipping.

A few minutes later, Smith returns to her original machine and continues where she left off. Will all these metal pieces fit together eventually?

She shrugs. “I don’t think so, and I really don’t care. My job is to form it correctly before it gets shipped. I know that RenewAire will put them on whatever they make, but this is what I make.”

Next, she takes a flat, 8-inch wide by 48-inch long piece of 20 gauge cold-rolled steel and bends it lengthwise several times to create a long channel. She checks the exact measurements: this piece is 7.9 inches by 57.02 inches, she smiles.

Before-and-after shots of a flat piece of metal (right) and the channel she creates through bending.

These pieces arrive with holes already punched by others on the production floor. Why the holes exist or what purpose they serve is not their concern.

When she completes the correct number of identical parts ordered, Smith straps them together, signs off on a paper order, and places them in a cart for shipping.

She’s become a whiz at using tools like a protractor, an eight-inch digital caliber that measures down to the thickness of a piece of paper, a 2-foot long caliber, a tape measure, and a rubber mallet.

Woman’s work?

Smith enjoys her job at Dane Manufacturing because she’s always doing something new. Benefits are good, she reports, and she finds management understanding and approachable. Best of all, she laughs, “I’ve lost about 70 pounds over two years, so I don’t have to pay for a gym membership!”

One of her worst days at Dane was when she accidentally formed 310 identical parts incorrectly. It was human error, she admits, and taught her a hard lesson.

It never happened again.

At 32-years-old, Smith fits right in with her mostly male production colleagues, and she’s noticed that the number of women on the production floor has increased since she first came on board.

“I think this job has to be done by the right kind of woman,” she opines. “You have to be willing to do everything. There’s no such thing as a ‘man’s job’ around here. I came in and said, ‘I’m going to do this and that and if you’re a man, I’m going to do it three times faster!’”

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