A dramatic shift in business focus for precision metal fabricator

McDougall Processing Vice President Don Gahagan is shown.

McDougall Processing Vice President Don Gahagan said seeing the power of “high-tech machinery” at past stops in his manufacturing career helped him understand how new equipment could aid the company with its new business focus on precision work.

Makeovers are popular features on daytime talk shows because people get to reinvent themselves with the help of beauty experts and stylists. Makeovers in the business world are more complicated but still can end with a smile on everyone’s face. It just takes more work to get to that satisfied ending.

McDougall Processing is a relatively new division of John W. McDougall Co. Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., that reached $10 million in sales in 2021 and plans to double that this year. The new division is also the future of fabricating for the company.

J.W. McDougall started as a sales agent representing manufacturers in 1938 and eventually evolved into a fabricator in the ensuing years. The company has had quite the history, supplying 1,000 tons of ductwork to the Atomic Energy Commission for the Manhattan Project and fabricating the panels used to create Spaceship Earth, the heart of Walt Disney World’s Epcot Park. The latter project involved the use of aluminum composite material (ACM), which was designed to stand up to years of the Florida heat, rain, and humidity.

J.W. McDougall was an early pioneer in the U.S. in working with ACM. Over the years the company’s craftsmen helped to elevate its reputation as a go-to resource for architectural work featuring ACM. For instance, every detail on the panels that make up the Spaceship Earth structure was done with a hand router.

As times change, however, so do competitive landscapes. Don Gahagan, vice president of McDougall Processing, witnessed this over his 20 years with the family company. The ACM business accounted for a large majority of the work J.W. McDougall was doing, and the emergence of CNC routing technology leveled the playing field for those shops without experienced employees. For a few hundred thousand dollars, anyone could set up shop and jump into the ACM fabricating field. Gahagan, who became familiar with the market as the company’s longtime purchasing manager, realized that any type of growth focusing on the firm’s bread-and-butter business up to that point was going to be difficult. If the company was going to have any success of surviving beyond third-generation ownership, it needed a new business focus.

“I come from a manufacturing background, and I saw what high-tech machinery could do,” Gahagan said.

Gahagan and his counterpart George Holland, vice president of architectural metals, went to family ownership with a plan for the company to create a new single-skin architectural metal panel system called Genesis, made with new metal fabricating equipment from TRUMPF. With the arrival of the first “high-tech” equipment in the facility, a TruMatic 1000 punch/laser machine, which has an 18-ton punch and a 3-kW fiber laser, and a TruBend Center 5030 precision CNC panel bender, the company launched the new product line in mid-2018.

The success of this new product line and subsequent excitement about the new equipment technology gave Gahagan another idea. He went back to ownership and convinced them that it was time for the company to break into the precision sheet metal and tube fabricating business, under the McDougall Processing name. With ownership signoff, he embarked on the new journey. In summer 2019 the new endeavor began with the arrival of a TRUMPF TruLaser 7000 laser tube cutting machine, the first of what would be more than $12 million in capital equipment acquisitions over the next two years.

Technology Makes a Difference

The tube laser was followed by a TRUMPF TruLaser 1040 4-kW fiber laser cutting machine. For thicker material, McDougall Processing installed a Messer 268-amp high-definition plasma cutting machine, an Ocean Clipper angle processing machine with drilling and punching capabilities, and a Faccin four-roll plate rolling machine that can handle material up to ¾ in. thick.

But it wouldn’t stop there as business picked up. McDougall Processing reached $4.5 million in sales that first year. It continued to add equipment: a TRUMPF TruMatic 7000 punch/laser combination machine, a 10-kW Mazak Optiplex 3015 fiber laser cutting machine, 35- and 100-ton SafanDarley electric press brakes, an ITEC Starbend 800 tube bending machine, a Kohler Peak Performer leveling machine, several TRUMPF TruBend 5000 series press brakes to enhance their precision forming capabilities, and a newly installed TRUMPF TruLaser Tube 7000 cutting machine. The company also has finalized an order for another laser cutting machine, a TRUMPF TruLaser 3040 10-kW with automated material handling.

An employee operates a Mazak laser cutting machine.

A 10-kW Mazak Optiplex 3015 laser cutting machine with an attached 10-shelf material storage tower is an example of the advanced fabricating technology McDougall Processing needs to maintain the tight turnaround times that it promises its customers.

McDougall Processing had ample room to grow in the 100,000-sq.-ft. building that it shared with the parent company’s architectural and industrial businesses. As the precision sheet and tube work was prioritized, so was the floor space. The building used to have 10 25-ft. welding bays, and that was reduced to three.

“That opened up the room for a lot of sophisticated machinery,” Gahagan said.

That equipment is allowing McDougall Processing to tackle jobs that it simply didn’t have the ability to do three years ago. Gahagan used an architectural metal project to illustrate that point.

In late December 2020 a bomb was set off on Second Avenue in Nashville. Because the bomber provided broadcast warnings to clear the area before the bomb went off, no one was killed, but the damage to buildings was extensive. Today, in fact, the area is still recovering.

McDougall is working on a huge punching job, producing numerous perforated aluminum sheets to cover portions of the AT&T building on Second Avenue that was damaged by the bombing. While straight-up perforations, consistent from one panel to the other, wouldn’t be too challenging of a job, the perforated panels on these aluminum sheets will mimic a drawing of the original Second Avenue skyline by Nashville artist Phil Ponder, a former city council member. The panels will showcase about seven buildings, a mixture of two- and three-story buildings, and reach about 50 ft. high. Gahagan said it would have taken several skilled craftsmen a lot of time to punch holes that would replicate that skyline, but the TRUMPF TruMatic 7000 is going to help the company complete the job in a cost-effective and timely manner.

Gahagan pointed to another large job as an example of advanced fabricating technology making an impact. The company is fabricating column covers for the Nashville International Airport on its Faccin four-roll plate roll, which has a 16-ft.-wide rolling window to accommodate the covers. The column covers, which are made of weather-resistant stainless steel material and are about 2 to 3 ft. in diameter, are made in two pieces.

“We have a couple of people who have some really good plate rolling experience, but it’s still a learning curve if you’re trying to replicate intricate geometries,” Gahagan said. “It’s one of the areas that I like to call ‘black magic.’”

The plate rolling operator now doesn’t have to figure out the complex geometry on these types of rolling projects. The CNC helps to create a program once the parameters are entered, and the four rolls move in concert to create the cylindrical shapes. It’s then up to the operator to fine-tune the job should the first run be a little off because of something like material inconsistencies.

When the column covers are completed, they are delivered to the work site and installed.

“This type of equipment really helps us with our lead times,” Gahagan said. “These machines are faster. They have more user-friendly controls. They’re more precise.

An employee operates a TRUMPF punch/laser combination machine.

McDougall Processing’s TRUMPF punch/laser combination machine is very helpful in producing perforated panels for architectural applications.

“It also helps with the younger people who want to come in and run that particular brand-new piece of equipment.”

Finding the Right People

Advanced technology is great, but only so much of it is automated, like the 10-shelf sheet metal storage tower that feeds the 10-kW Optiplex laser cutting machine. People are still needed to operate the equipment and get products out the door to the customer.

That’s particularly challenging in a place like Nashville, which Gahagan jokingly calls “Boomville.” The city that country music built is reinventing itself as companies from all across the economic spectrum are relocating to the area because of the business-friendly environment and access to the burgeoning manufacturing scene in the Southeast. At any one time, Gahagan said, you can see more than 20 cranes hovering over the Nashville skyline. Music City has diversified.

The population has grown with the local economy, but that hasn’t necessarily made finding employees any easier. Everyone is looking for skilled workers. What’s interesting for McDougall Processing, however, is that skilled workers might be looking for it.

“We definitely have challenges finding people, but I will tell you right now, I’m the highest-paying fabricator in middle Tennessee. I want the best talent I can find running my multimillion-dollar equipment,” Gahagan said.

He said that a typical laser cutting machine operator in the area makes about $18 per hour. McDougall Processing starts operators off at $22 per hour.

He added that for the longest time Nashville-area welders had to deal with $14-per-hour wages. “You know what a grueling job that is, so we start our welders off at $20 per hour,” Gahagan said.

That helps to get people in the door for an interview. Walking the shop floor is the secret weapon.

“For these younger people, you have to get them excited. You have to get them into the factory and see all of the stuff we have going on and look at our machines like our tube lasers,” Gahagan said. “Usually you get them hook, line, and sinker when they see the tube laser run.”

But it’s not just younger people that have come to work for McDougall Processing. Gahagan’s been able to coax more experienced workers to join the precision fabricating side of the business from J.W. McDougall’s two legacy divisions. They see the new press brakes, for example, with the automated backgauges and the precision tooling, and they understand that while the machinery is more sophisticated than their old mechanical press brakes, attention to detail is still valued. They are buying into the vision for McDougall Processing.

New equipment does the job quicker and more precisely than what competitors can offer. Programming is done offline, so uptime on machines is maximized. Lead time from those competitors is eight to 10 weeks for laser-cut parts; McDougall Processing wants to do that in two to three weeks. The short lead times create more business opportunities, and the increased revenue from those additional jobs covers the higher wages and paves the way for further investment in advanced technology.

A tube is cut with a laser.

A laser tube cutting machine was one of the first investments that McDougall Processing made as it looked to reinvent itself as a precision metal fabricator.

The shop floor itself is representative of modern manufacturing. Work-in-process is limited. The floors are clean. The building is well-lit. The employees are engaged and contribute to continuous improvement activities, so that everything is open to observation and investigation. Just because something is done one way today doesn’t mean it’ll be done the same way tomorrow.

“This is what I’m preaching to these guys,” Gahagan said. “Let’s bring manufacturing back to America, and let’s do it right so manufacturing does come back and stays.”

In a way, even if the new division is part of a company that is more than 80 years old, McDougall Processing is like a startup. That means a lot of fresh faces that help to form a company culture. Gahagan estimated that his division has added about 40 new employees over 18 months as of January. That’s almost a third of the 150 people that work within all the McDougall divisions.

People are buying into Gahagan’s vision. He’s telling them he wants a modern metal fabricating environment, and the investment in both equipment and people is his evidence of his words being turned into action. Seeing is believing for the folks joining McDougall Processing.

No Stopping Now

Walking the shop floor, Gahagan said that he sees evidence of how successful the shift in business focus has been. Multiple laser cutting machines are running, when no such technology existed only four years ago in the family of companies. The high-tolerance jobs, such as medical device parts, now being processed couldn’t have been fabricated before.

McDougall Processing’s sheet metal focus has opened new doors. Now the company is working with customers in the material handling, energy, and transportation industries, which complements its work with those in the heavy industrial and architectural space that remain with the company through this transition. The diversification of the business has been another benefit of this reinvention process.

Gahagan is very optimistic about the company’s future. The technology is in place. The manufacturing talent is being assembled. The plant is close to finding the optimal layout for material processing—until a new one is required.

To reach growth goals, however, McDougall Processing is going to need that most valuable of resources—reliable labor. Gahagan said he hopes the company stands out from the competition and potential new hires recognize it as a place to earn a good wage and, potentially, develop a career.

“If I’m going to grow by 100% this year, we have to have skilled people,” Gahagan said. “But I believe we can get people and train them to be skilled. If they have that willing attitude, we can make it work.”

McDougall Processing is eyeing a site in Mississippi to expand its business opportunities. The facility would be dedicated to heavy fabrication work, with large-format laser and plasma cutting tables along with heavy rolling and press brake capabilities. A lot of the new opportunities would come from the nearby oil and gas and shipbuilding industries.

In 2025 McDougall Processing is going to look nothing like it did in its early days or even a decade ago. But that’s a good thing. That means the company has taken the steps necessary to ensure it stays in the fabricating business. The makeover was a successful one.