Heavy Metal: Puritan Manufacturing Combines Craftsmanship and Technology

Time was when companies like Puritan Manufacturing jostled for space and market share in Omaha — family-owned, independent shops where trades and craftsmanship were handed down one generation to the next. The passage of time and the changing manufacturing landscape shuttered many of those places while those that survived, like Puritan, look very different than they once did.

“Things changed in the ‘70s and from there [technology] took off like a rocket,” said Dave Waters, company president. “At one time, we had 88 employees back
in the early ‘80s. With that, we almost had more problems than solutions because of the inability to control variables. So, we started investing in equipment pretty heavily and buying new equipment. We started leapfrogging with the technology and have been trying to keep up with it ever since. We’re now in a technological age where we have machines that we can run unattended on the weekend. So, it’s quite different from what it used to be, for sure.”

Strengthening Legacy

Waters and his brother Bill have seen much of this change-up close, having been involved with the business for multiple decades, ultimately taking over for their father Joe who acquired the company in the 1960s. Over the years the brothers strengthened Puritan’s legacy industries such as custom fabrication, food processing equipment, and storage tanks while expanding to include component manufacturing, ornamental metalwork, and laser cutting.

“That’s one thing about our background and our history is that we’ve been diversified over the years,” Waters said. “We’ve always been kind of jumping markets based on demand. With that, the equipment that we purchase also kind of falls into place with that footprint.

“For instance, we have a CNC drill that drills 60-foot-long beams, four feet tall and it’ll drill hundreds of holes in very little time. But it’s also adaptable to other types of projects.”

The company’s latest investment employs that philosophy to the fullest: a German-made laser that can handle a dizzying number of projects at surprising speed.

“Our latest investment is one of the largest pieces of equipment we’ve ever bought,” Waters said. “We had CO2 laser capability before, but we went to the six-kilowatt fiber laser, and it has automation. Basically, it loads and unloads itself, and it will process 50 sheets of material in a couple of hours whereas before, it would have taken a week.”

Despite its robust capacity, such machines typically require only one operator and with remote control capability, can even do the work unattended.

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Skilled Workforce

Such machines have so fundamentally transformed the industrial workplace that it’s changed the profile of employees Puritan looks to hire into its 30-member employee force.

“We look for the people who are self-starters; they can think outside the box, and they can do a variety of things,” Waters said. “We like our employees to be able to be flexible, to be able to do different things and allow them to move around based on their skills and abilities.

“We’re able to pick and choose a little bit better because we’re not looking for a volume of labor, we’re looking for skilled, quality labor. The people that we have here now are keepers; they enjoy being here and we enjoy having them.”

While the bulk of Puritan’s work serves a 200-mile radius, its handicraft can be found all over the United States with the stray international job here and there. Among the more pedestrian steel beams and metal components are some more unique jobs. The company has brought to life artists’ metal sculptures, for one thing, destined to be installed as public art.

“One of the projects was a pump tube setup that went down to the Oklahoma City area where they have the training facility for the Olympics,” Waters said. “The guys that get in kayaks and ride the rapids train there. These pumps generate all the waves and the velocity in the water to replicate those rapids.

“We did the Washington, D.C. subway system back in the ‘70s. We made the tooling for them to dig the tunnels. Another example of a Kiewit project was when a hurricane happened in Louisiana, we did some tooling. We made some of these large pylons to drive for the floodwalls they built down there.”

Waters said the challenges of running a small, independent manufacturing firm are rivaled only by the family’s pride in the company’s longevity, a legacy that continues through his son, Rob, who is on staff. It’s something his father would have approved of, he said.

“My dad was a great guy. He instilled these values of our work in our lives. Rob has that same aptitude for the work; he’s proven himself and he’s doing a great job,” Waters said. “This is a family business and those values continue to be what drives us to do what we do.”