Launching a metal fabrication business from the edge of cutting technology
Before glitz and gambling created modern Las Vegas, the town was just a desert railroad stop between southern California and Salt Lake City.
Back then, the only steel flowing out of Las Vegas was rails and boxcars. These days, that steel—at least at Precision Tube Laser—includes sheet and tubing cut with the latest laser technology for a customer base built not with traditional means but largely via social media.
That air of newness permeates the five-year-old shop, whether it’s the recent high school graduate working the controls of a laser cutting center or Marketing Director Christine Snedden shooting video on her phone for the shop’s legion of Instagram followers. In fact, standing on PTL’s clean, quiet work floor in the middle of a modern Las Vegas industrial park, you’d be hard-pressed to spot any of the gritty stereotypes of fab shops past.
Maybe that’s because PTL Owner Jordan Yost had almost nothing to unlearn when he started the business with his father, Barry, in 2018 after a successful career in the rental car businesses.
Yost, who drove racecars and managed a racing team before buying into a rental car franchise on the Las Vegas Strip, attributes a lot of his current success to the lessons he learned keeping up with the demands of his car rental customers.
“You’ve got to get up early, you’ve got to hustle, you’ve got to be prepared for the next day,” Yost said of the mindset that helped him expand to three franchise locations on the Las Vegas Strip. “That's how you're going to make money. That's how you're going to succeed. And if you don't, and then you sit back, you're not going to make it. Somebody else is gonna run you right over. It's amazing what that business did for me mentally to be prepared for this business.
“When I started this business, I couldn’t tell you the difference between steel and stainless,” he added. “I had no clue. Everything that we’ve created in this business has been learned. Not a single person that works for me had any background in metal.”
Yost began getting that background in fabrication a couple years before PTL launched when he took over a local job shop. He quickly noticed two things: The half-dozen employees at the shop worked very hard manually processing metal, and certain nearby shops didn’t like to play nicely with the other children when it came to helping out with jobs that Yost’s shop couldn’t do.
There was a gap. And like the seasoned businessmen they were, Yost and his dad noticed it—and then did something to fill it.
“This company couldn’t afford big equipment,” Yost said of his first fabrication gig. “So, we reached out to them [other shops]. We needed laser-cut parts and bending—all these things we couldn’t do in-house. It was just not a good experience, the way we were treated—the minimums, the pricing. That’s when the light bulb went off in my head: What if there was a company that could afford high-end equipment and truly does care about the end result? And by end result, we’re talking about customers [and] other small businesses?”
(From left) Precision Tube Laser Operations Manager Justin Wray talks over a part recently with Co-Owner Barry Yost and Owner Jordan Yost recently. PTL has more than 1,500 customers and adds 20-25 new customers a week despite nobody who is currently working at the shop having any metal fabrication experience before joining.
The seed for PTL had been planted.
A TRUMPF shop end to end, PTL leapt into the fabrication business with a 3-kW TruLaser 5000 fiber laser tube cutting system. After launch, PTL’s capital equipment roster (and capabilities) grew quickly: a 3-kW 3000 series fiber laser for tube, a 4-kW 1040 fiber laser for flat parts, a pair of press brakes—a TruBend 7036 and 5170—and most recently the business’s most ambitious investment yet—a 12-kW TruLaser Center 7030 that can process up to 5,000 kg of raw material automatically, lights-out.
The investment in high-end equipment (see Sidebar) began with a simple concept: Fill a gap in the market with a service not many people were offering, let alone relying on for their survival. With no background in fabrication, Yost took the initial equipment training from TRUMPF, hit the proverbial books himself, and learned the machinery from scratch.
“I didn’t have anybody that I could rely on,” Yost remembered. “I didn’t have a lot of people to call when we started this business. We started with the least-known and least-used service, which is tube laser. And that’s the only service we offered. So, I spent really the first year and a half, two years with the machine, almost every day, about 12 to 14 hours—drawing, designing, cutting, learning—trying to expand my skill set. And it’s the same approach we’ve taken to every piece of equipment that we’ve brought on.”
As part of that capital equipment build-out, Yost has built his team with a decidedly young workforce, many of whom, like him, didn’t bring much experience to the table. He even asked his best friend, Justin Wray, to leave a well-paying corporate job and take a leap of faith on the venture. Wray been his operations manager since Day 1.
Like most of the team, Wray had no metal experience, but did come without deeply ingrained opinions of how a fab shop should be run.
“If you’ve got a willingness to learn [and] you’ve got a good attitude, we'll teach you everything,” Yost said. “I’ve got 18-year-olds running million-dollar pieces of equipment. Why? Because they're ambitious. They’ve got a good attitude. They want to learn. They want a career. And this stuff interests them.
“It's nice to be able to take on young adults and get them into a career path [in] manufacturing and do it in a fun environment.”
At the beginning, along with investing in high-end equipment came a not-so-subtle ultimatum—make as many customers as possible aware that PTL had something that they might need. Few shops that Yost knew of at the time offered laser cutting of tubes, and no shop that he’d heard of specialized in it.
But a startup business bringing only that service to market? Unheard of.
Precision Tube Laser now has six different TRUMPF machines working to produce parts for customers across the country, 80% of whom connected to the company through Instagram.
“That [TruLaser 5000] was the very first machine we bought five years ago—which was pretty cool,” Yost recalled. “It was a big investment, very scary. Just having a piece of equipment of that caliber and people not really understanding what it is and the technology that you possess, that’s when we really focused on social media.
“It was part of our original plan, but we started with Instagram. That’s our biggest channel of communication. It was a way we could start to show off not only our knowledge base, but also what was possible and do it to a mass amount of people very quickly, very easily.”
PTL’s Instagram page has quickly become one of the most-followed pages (if not the most) in the metal fabrication industry. In fact, PTL’s army of 54,900 Instagram followers is 10 times bigger than all of this year’s FAB 40 companies combined.
That may be why Instagram accounts for 80% of PTL’s new business and has been the driving force of its marketing from the beginning. Yost handled those duties for the first four years of PTL’s existence, until the growth made the job overwhelming. Snedden has been full time for the past year. She rebuilt the company website and took over all social media, charting the analytics of the company’s posts to discover what followers like and don’t.
“The social media side of our business is a full-time job,” Yost said. “You have to watch algorithms. You have to watch how posts are trending. You have to watch what people are reacting to … and commenting on. You have to answer those questions. That’s how people build trust in your business.
“It’s a free platform, and we’re exploiting that portion of it to our benefit and showing people what we’re capable of. It allows us to get as much reach as we can. It’s nice to be able to walk in a room and people will be like, ‘Oh, I follow you. I know you guys. I got laser-cut tube parts from you guys because of that [page].’ It’s cool to know that it’s working.”
Something’s definitely working.
Yost said that PTL currently has about 1,500 different customers and is adding 20 to 25 per week, from hobbyists working in their garage who order just a few parts all the way up to full production runs.
While the shop is hardly averse to long production runs—it ran a 750,000-part job for one customer over the course of four months last year—that’s not the type of business Yost focuses on. Why? Because that’s not what the vast majority of his customers need or ask for.
Instead, what PTL has found is a growing list of customers that need small batches of parts, sometimes one or two, sometimes 50 or 60. The company is averaging 20 to 25 new customers per week, most of whom ask for batches of parts other shops won’t touch because they don’t think the volumes deserve their attention. But by reorganizing its thinking around short runs and quick turnarounds of three to five days, PTL has realized that profitable volumes can come in different forms.
Precision Tube Laser’s Devin Brown stacks parts at the company’s facility in Las Vegas. The shop is five years old and has about 25 employees.
“We don’t chase the production work,” Yost said. “We’re looking for the job shop guys, the enthusiasts, the guys who want to invent and create and eventually distribute product. That’s who we’re focused on.”
Accommodating all the customers coming through that door has required Yost and his PTL employees to order their collective schedule creatively and purposefully—all while doing everything they can to maintain the company’s commitment to no part minimums and a three-to-five day turnaround. For PTL, it means finding ways to accommodate every stripe of customer, even if the shop gets another 750,000-part job.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of shops that would say, ‘I’m not even touching that,’” Yost said. “For us, we don’t know where that next opportunity is going to come from. We don’t know where that next idea is that’s going to turn into 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 a month. And the only way you get those opportunities is if you let those people in your door.”
Yost said PTL pays close attention to what material it’s running today and which customers might need parts cut from that same material, especially material that’s difficult to move around a 20,000-sq.-ft. shop floor that’s increasingly being filled with more machinery. PTL staff also keeps close tabs on which suppliers can provide raw material for certain customers, and then lets customers know when they can expect parts based on today’s availability. That allows the company to schedule its work tightly—so tightly, in fact, that it can readily spot spaces into which ad hoc jobs can drop.
“It’s spot-on; it’s tight,” Yost said. “That goes back to the fluid dynamic that we have here. There’s a lot of times throughout the day where we’re pretty dead set on our schedule, but we find these little pockets of time to work on other jobs. It allows us to go up to our operators and say, ‘Hey, when you get to a stopping point, I need you to run these parts, and as soon as you’re done, go right back onto this.’ Our guys … don’t know any other way than, ‘At some point, somebody’s going to walk up to me and change my day.’
“We’re a just-in-time manufacturing facility. That’s important. You want to move [material] into the machine, turn it into parts, put it on pallets. Pallets you can move around, but the raw materials, you can’t. So it’s that constant balance of ‘When do we need this material? When can we get it on the floor? When can we get it in the machine?’”
“Workflow's going to change, the dynamics of customers that you're dealing with and the volume of projects are going to change. So that kind of dictates how fast you can move. But mentally, we’ve got to keep going. We're just as hungry five years into this as we were when we started, when we were in complete survival mode. Now we've just switched it from survival to thriving.”
From Precision Tube Laser’s inception, the company has invested in equipment that it believes will bolster its commitment to premium quality with quick turnarounds.
Its latest investment, a 12-kW TRUMPF TruLaser Center 7030, is probably the best example.
The machine is a lights-out laser cutting system for flat sheet meant to take parts from prep to pallet automatically.
Shop Manager Casey Mundell talks over an issue on PTL’s shop floor. The TruLaser Tube 5000 was Precision Tube Laser’s first machine when it opened in 2018.
In the middle of the machine, underneath, the unit stores up to 11,000 lbs. of raw material. From there, it raises a sheet up to a brush table, where a clamping unit grips it and guides it during cutting. The cutting head works with a SmartGate—a support subsystem that moves in sync with the laser beam to support the part while it’s being cut.
From there, the system can either eject finished parts to one of eight bins below or stack it on one of two unloading pallets to the left. To the right, skeletons are moved aside and stored for cleanout later.
Throughout the cutting process, the machine uses an array of more than 2,700 suction cups paired with an innovative system of pins that rise up from beneath the sheet to sandwich finished parts. The system works with the brush table to prevent parts from tilting during cutting. The cups and pins remove, hold, and stack finished parts on the pallets.
This is the sixth TRUMPF machine that PTL has purchased in the past five years. Built for highly automated operation, the laser center represents a huge investment for PTL, but one that Owner Jordan Yost felt was necessary both to mitigate skilled labor shortages and to keep pace with what his customers are and will be requesting from him.
“To be honest, our company is a little premature for a piece of equipment like this,” said Yost, who has had the machine in production since April. “But growing into the future, we’re hungry for the business.
“For us, it’s a game-changer,” he added. “We’re all fighting for more labor. This machine is really meant to take as much physical labor out of the daily operation as possible. So not only does it allow us a lot of flexibility when we’re here, but it also allows us a lot of flexibility through the night.”
According to Andreas Bunz, head of Smart Factory operations and TruLaser Center product manager at TRUMPF Inc., the machine, first introduced in Germany in 2016, was designed specifically to be a fully automated system that focuses on facilitating lights-out production and reducing human intervention. For example, parts are individually cut and sorted automatically instead of using microjoints to hold smaller parts in place and operators de-nesting finished parts from the skeleton.
“One of the main driving factors to develop the laser center was to address the whole process from raw material up to a finished part in a way that either somebody else or some other technology can connect to it directly to resolve that labor problem and also resolve the omnipresent intralogistics problems of our customers,” Bunz said. “The laser center does that—it separates the parts and does it in a reliable way so that our customers don’t need to staff it so much compared to a classic shop.”
In addition, the machine’s control system tracks every cut made on every part as it moves through the cutting program. That is giving Yost more confidence as he and his team of about 25 employees move into truly lights-out production. In fact, during the shop’s first lights-out run, the machine ran 40 hours straight over the weekend with only three human interventions needed.
“The machine is designed so efficiently that the less human interaction you have with it, the better it operates.” Yost said. “A lot of your work is in programming. So instead of physically nesting parts and loading and unloading the machine, a lot of your time is spent in thinking about strategies [about] the best way or the most efficient way to extract these parts out of the sheet. So, not only is it giving us around-the-clock production capabilities, but it’s allowing us to do it in a very organized manner.”