Illinois Fab Shop Grows Through Innovation, Craftsmanship

Custom Fabricator PIW Corporation Couples 'Tool Box' of Innovation, High Tech Equipment and Craftsmanship with SWAT Team Approach

 

When you have the right tools, the right skills and a reputation for innovation, service and quality, customers will beat a path to your door. And they have been doing just that for decades at PIW Corp., an Illinois custom fabrication shop with deep roots going back 60 years, the past 25 in Homer Glen, Ill.

PIW Vice President John D. Shepherd says his family-owned custom fabrication and water jet cutting business has taken no deliberate steps to grow during the past 15 years, preferring to focus on quality rather than quantity. PIW has no sales force, does not advertise and has a 14-year-old website with broken links, he says, yet the business has grown regardless, because the company has used its resources to build an impressive tool box of innovative equipment, and word has gotten out that PIW has the tools and talent to do what its competitors cannot.

PIW takes a SWAT-team approach to business.  It has heavily armed itself with all the latest tools of its trade and has assembled an innovative work force of highly skilled craftsmen who know how to use those tools. PIW's fully loaded "toolbox" includes a full suite of 3D CAD/CAM software, three CNC vertical machining centers, a high-speed fully automatic CNC lathe, an NC press brake, NC angle and plate rolls, several NC saws, and three CNC abrasive water jet cutting systems.

While PIW's specialty is architectural metal fabrication, its capabilities extend far beyond metal. In addition to metals, the company has worked with virtually every material, including wood, plastic, and even sailcloth.  PIW can custom fabricate just about anything, from architectural projects, furniture and retail displays, to metal art, plaques, signage, product prototypes and hardware. The company's innovative work can be seen from coast to coast in the United States, as well as in Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Mexico, and the South Pacific. Its notable list of clients includes Nike Corporation, Rolls Royce and Disney World Orlando.

"We like to say if you need something fabricated and there is not an existing product line we could be your best choice," Shepherd said. 

"When special tools were needed to polish the Bean (mirror finished stainless steel "Cloud Gate") at Chicago Millennium Park, the contractor doing the work found the answer at PIW Corp. When Cummins Diesel was designing the head gasket for the million-mile engine, their vendor, after searching water jet shops across the country, finally found the way to cut the (previously) impossible-to-cut material at PIW Corp. Last year when Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) needed one-of-a-kind hardware and special fabrication for new slide-out observation decks, the contractor for the project found what he needed at PIW Corp. Unlike most water jet shops, PIW Corp. is truly a custom fabricator. If no one makes it we probably can."

PIW's roots go back to the early 1940s where they began as a fabricator and repairer of fire escapes.  In the 1950s and 60s, expansion and growth required the addition of ornamental and miscellaneous ironwork for commercial and residential construction projects. In the 1970s, glass rails and artistic metalwork were added to the repertoire. In 1994, PIW landed a major contract supplying high-tech metal graphics to Nike Corporation for its NikeTown retail stores.  This project required the company to add CNC capabilities to meet Nike's close tolerance requirements. It did not take long for other Fortune 500 companies to notice PIW's craftsmanship, and soon they were ordering their own projects.

In the early 1990s, PIW ended the contractor construction side of its business and added water jet cutting technology to create a new revenue stream. They selected water jet manufacturer Jet Edge of St. Michael, Minn., as their source for water jet cutting heads and intensifier pumps. Jet Edge did not manufacturer water jet tables at that time, so they purchased their three water jet gantries from other manufacturers. The company has three water jet cutting machines, which include a 6'X10' water jet with five Jet Edge abrasivejet cutting heads, a 12'X12' table with three Jet Edge cutting heads and an 8'X30' table with one cutting head. It powers its water jet systems with a 100hp and 150hp Jet Edge water jet intensifier pumps and has 125hp back up pump.

"After much investigating and many calls to equipment owners, we found Jet Edge to be the only provider of water jet products that each and every customer contacted praised, more than praised, they loved the company," Shepherd recalled.  "Jet Edge was by far the most respected company we researched...We continue to be very happy with Jet Edge and would definitely recommend them for their quality and service."
 
In addition to water jet cutting its own custom fabrication projects, PIW also does job shop water jet cutting for several steel service centers, machine shops, a food industry equipment manufacturer, tile companies, display companies, metal fabricators and may others. PIW sets itself apart from other water jet shops through its experience with a wide range of materials, custom jigs and fixturing capabilities and labor-saving fabrication methods.

"We offer a design service and a fabrication method we call 'Stick Building' to our customers which can save them a great deal of labor on their finished products," Shepherd noted. "We add many other CNC operations to the water jet cutting to assist our customers.

"Additionally, with our oversized tables, we find we can do CAD layout (etching) on the customers' parts which includes everything from bend lines to piece marks and parts location for parts to be added later. This is something we do for ourselves on most projects and we do it often for our customers. I call this WJAF or 'water jet assisted fabrication.' In our shop, it saves having a layout man tied up marking stringer channels or similar items. The result is we get the layout as it is on CAD without the key man time required to do the same with hand tools."

PIW's ingenious staff is known worldwide for its ability to tackle complicated projects that other shops might consider impossible, such as the head gasket prototype project for Cummins, which required PIW to develop a process to water jet cut graphite laminated to steel laminated to graphite.

"When you pierce graphite it explodes," Shepherd explained.  "It is just pencil lead pressed into a thin film. My son Wade along with my help came up with a method that allowed us to do what others thought impossible. We ran prototypes for nearly a year until they had the final design and built a double-edge die for a final low-cost high-volume stamping operation."

In another challenging water jet project, for Rolls Royce Defense, PIW water jet cut holes in 12" round 1" thick centrifugally cast Inconel tubes that were 12' long. The holes were in a staggered pattern about 700 per tube and covered 270 degrees. PIW cut three tubes at a time using special fixtures to rotate them after each row was cut. They designed and built the special rotating fixtures that allowed them to meet military specifications. They also designed and built a special protection device that allowed them to do the cutting without any internal damage to the tubes. The reusable water jet stream catcher they developed saved thousands of dollars over other methods used in the past.

Shepherd, an inventor who has 19 patents to his name and several patents pending, has developed patented technologies for intricate water jet etching and milling. PIW's incredible water jet etching work can be seen in copper and Travertine marble work at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and in a 6' graphic it made for Nike in Berlin, Germany. Shepherd also has developed an oscillating water jet head that allows for etching or cleaning at high pressure with abrasive. As a result, difficult cleaning jobs can be done with garnet at high pressure with no unusual tip wear.

PIW's growing toolbox of technology and skills, along with its debt-free books, has given the company a noticeable edge over its competition which has helped it remain strong through the recession.  And much like a SWAT team, PIW is armed and ready for the recovery.

More Information

For more information about PIW Corp., visit www.piwcorp.com, call 708-301-5100

or e-mail 

piwcorp@comcast.net or waterjetplus@comcast.net

 
For more information about Jet Edge, visit www.jetedge.com,

call 1-800-JET-EDGE 538-3343) or e-mail sales@jetedge.com.

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