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WARREN, R.I. — For decades, manufacturing companies have left the US in droves, because product development and metal fabrication was cheaper if it was done overseas. Yet, the pandemic caused total disruptions in the global supply chain market, which led to a renewed push to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US.
In the small town of Warren, R.I., siblings Kelly and Kiffin Ward recently opened Ward’s Manufacturing, a high-tech metal fabrication company.
Kiffin Ward is Ward’s mechanical and product engineer, while his sister Kelly has helped grow the business from the ground up.
Kelly Ward spoke to Globe Rhode Island about the company, and why these millennials are committed to bringing manufacturing back to the US — and their home state.
Q. What exactly is metal fabrication, and what do you specialize in at Ward’s?
Kelly Ward: Metal fabrication is where you create products by cutting, bending, and assembling metal material.
At Ward’s, we specialize in fiber laser cutting, press brake bending, metal engraving, and we offer part design consulting services. So we take metal sheets and can cut any design out of them, and then we can bend them into form. We can make whatever it is that the customer needs.
Q. Are there many metal fabricators left in the US? If not, why not?
A. Much like other manufacturing industries, metal fabrication has been outsourced over the last several decades. And so what has happened is we get a lot of our metal fabrication from mostly China, as well as some other countries across Asia. Then the pandemic caused major supply chain disruptions, and the cost of shipping went up and lead times were extended so much so that many were unreasonable for the businesses that needed these metal products. On top of this, there’s been increasingly unstable geopolitical factors that have increased these timelines and the cost of goods and services.
Q. What are a few examples of items Ward’s has done?
A. It’s a real range. We’ve worked on pieces of metal equipment that goes into a tractor or a robot. We can also make a custom metal sign for a small business.
Q. What kinds of businesses or industries are your largest clients?
A. Our customers are very wide-ranging, but most of them tend to be in construction and in the marine industry. So anytime you need a custom metal part that you can’t just get at Home Depot, you come to a metal fabricator like us. We’re serving across industries and for businesses across the US — not just in Rhode Island.
Q. Is there a demand for domestic metal manufacturing?
A. Outsourcing has become more expensive, slow, and riskier than ever. There is a domestic metal fabrication market, but it’s not big enough to handle the domestic need.
Q. What does the current market of domestic shops look like? What makes yours different?
A. A lot of the domestic shops that do exist are multigenerational shops that don’t have all the latest equipment, and these shops are also back-ordered and the lead times are long. In other cases, these shops are massive, and don’t handle more small-scale prototypes for a new tech product or new robotics. If you need something done that’s custom work, many of these shops cannot take on a small order for a single piece.
My brother, who is an engineer by trade, is also a design expert. He’s working in consultation with the customer, and can then build their product.
Q. Who or what is your biggest competition?
A. If someone has a huge order and an extremely low price point per unit is important to them, then they will probably still go overseas. When we entered this market, we thought other metal fabricators in the area would be our biggest competition. But what we found is that they’re also back-ordered — even if they are only three to five years old. Many of those local companies have actually asked to partner with us so we can help supply them and take orders they cannot get to.
Q. What kinds of metals are you working with?
A. Mild [carbon] steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and copper are our five primary metals. If there’s a special request for another metal, we can look into those as well.
Q. What challenges do you expect to face this year?
A. Our biggest challenge is going to be getting the word out that we are here. We have a lot of new customers from around the country already, but we really want to build a strong base of local support to fill up our capacity so we can partner with them and understand their needs, and help make design improvements.