GLENVILLE — When talk turns to investing billions in public infrastructure, places like Dimension Fabricators are where the rubber first meets the road.
You can’t build anything without a good foundation, and every hour Dimension turns tons of steel reinforcing bars into the skeletons of foundations that will hold structures steady and solid for decades to come.
“Anytime you drive under a bridge and you see a big round concrete column coming out of the ground, we make the rebar element that goes inside that,” said Greg Stevens, operations manager at Dimension.
“In a busy week in the summer it wouldn’t be unusual for us to put a couple hundred tons a day through this shop.”
Winter is slower: Less concrete is poured in the cold weather, so less reinforcing steel is needed.
Still, as Stevens leads a walking tour through the cavernous Glenville shop in January, showers of welders’ sparks erupt here and there to the constant bang and rumble of steel being chucked from one position to another with pneumatic force.
Hard hats, earplugs and goggles are standard equipment, along with steel-toe boots and heavy gauntlet gloves that keep sparks and shards away from skin.
And for the past two years, mouths and noses have to be covered as well.
Even in a steel shop, COVID can’t be ignored.
The public works projects that have followed the pandemic have created a boom in demand for Dimension’s products, but in other respects COVID has inflicted the same problems there as at other companies: Steel became scarce and expensive, the pool of job candidates shrank and some of Dimension’s roughly 100 employees got sick or had to stay home to care for someone who did.
Thankfully, the virus didn’t claim any of their lives.
“I would say like every other business of any kind, it’s certainly had an impact on our productivity,” Stevens said. “You can’t bend rebar from home.”
On a given day, Dimension might be making small reinforcing cages that will go under a light pole in a local parking lot or 90-footers that will hold up a highway bridge. The energy industry — specifically, tower foundations for wind turbines and power lines — is one of its biggest customers now.
Dimension also recently won a piece of the $1.7 billion dry dock project at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard that will be a major revenue stream this year.
On a recent afternoon, steelwork for a 400,000-square-foot cryptocurrency mining facility in Pennsylvania was being assembled on one side of the building.
On the other side, one of the massive round cages that will keep a new $600 million railroad bridge from sinking into the muck of New Jersey’s Raritan River was coming together, its galvanized finish gleaming under the lights.
“This is a huge project for us,” Stevens said. “We’re building 18,000 feet of that cage — 3.6 miles of that. We’re about 75, 80% done right now.
“New Jersey has poor soil conditions, which is probably bad for them but great for us: These cages have an average length of about 210 feet. It’s all underground!”
In the next bay, a welder was assembling a much smaller, much simpler 10-foot tubular cage that will underpin something like a light pole.
It’s one of the few things Dimension builds on spec and puts on a storage rack so that a local builder who needs one right now can get it right now. Almost everything else is built to order, when ordered.
“Pretty much everything we’re making in the shop today we’re going to deliver to customers tomorrow,” Stevens said. “To a great extent it’s been designed in-house by a team of draftsmen and women.”
Dimension was founded in Rotterdam in 1984 by Scott Stevens, who remains president today and whose sons hold many of the administrative duties: Dan is assembled products manager, Greg is operations manager and Todd is plant engineer.
In 2010, Dimension moved from five buildings on Maxon Road Extension in Schenectady to its current home in the Glenville Business & Technology Park, a former locomotive factory that gave them the same amount of space under a single roof.
The company has grown in the years since. The secret ingredient of its success isn’t any secret, Greg Stevens said: It’s taking care of customers and suppliers alike.
The relationships with steel mills proved critical in 2021, when steel was in high demand and short supply. Dimension pays its bills on time, he said, and that’s valued in any relationship.
“Because of those relationships we were able to, with great difficulty, find the steel we needed,” Stevens said.
“Find the rebar we needed,” he said, correcting himself. “There is such a shortage in wire mesh, we pretty much had to stop offering it to our customers.”
He won’t disclose the actual tonnage Dimension buys, but it’s a lot, the bulk of it coming in on rail cars.
“Our business is high-volume and low-margin,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to do a lot of rebar to make a little money. It’s pennies on the pound.”
This is where customer service pays off. Some of Dimension’s work is huge, elaborately crafted cages, but most is relatively simple pieces designed in-house to customer specs and cranked out in volume by the dozens of men (and one woman) working in two shifts five days a week on the production floor.
“There are rebar fabricators in every midsized city in the world, probably,” Stevens said. The low profit margin means he can’t undercut all those competitors much on price, but he can try to outdo them on service.
“Take care of the customer or someone else will. That’s a platitude, but if you treat the customer with respect, hopefully he’s going to remember that and come back. This is a price-sensitive business and we’re selling a commodity.”
On a winter’s day, the temperature on the production floor is in the 30s and the snow on steel brought in from outside seems in no hurry to melt. In the summer it’s the opposite end of the thermometer.
Technology and vigilance make the workplace far safer than the factories of a century ago, while partial automation makes the work faster and lighter.
But it’s still dirty, heavy work, seldom at a comfortable temperature, and it’s not for everyone.
There is, Stevens says, some attrition among first-year employees at Dimension, but not much after the first year.
Thanks to continual recruiting amid a period of growth, there’s now a fair number of employees who’ve got less than one year on the job. If you don’t count them, Stevens said, average staff tenure was nine years and 11 months in December.
“The people who stick around here for a year wind up sticking around for a long time,” he said. “It’s a good job, a job you can retire from.”
But more new hires would be good, particularly for Dimension’s fleet of trucks.
“There’s quite a driver shortage,” Stevens said. “There’s clearly more trucks on the road than people to drive them.”
Guyanese-Americans have a significant presence in Dimension’s workforce, and many bring skills or a cultural affinity for metalwork to the job. One even has his own backyard fabrication shop, Stevens said.
Walking through the shop in winter, it seems to the visitor impossible to say who’s who — they’re all layered up for warmth and safety, anonymous forms with no visible faces.
But Stevens knows all of their names from a distance, and can describe the job they’re doing and why they’re doing it. That’s something that sometimes get lost in the corporate world: the people doing the corporation’s work.
There’s all manner of tools and jigs and automated production stands on site. There’s an antique GE locomotive to move freight cars around. There’s a 50,000-pound behemoth of a machine designed and patented by Todd Stevens that speeds fabrication of the biggest cages.
But “Dimension Fabricators” is only a company name, a building full of machines. The people who run those machines and their colleagues in the office who run the business are what send the steel skeletons out to worksites to become towers and foundations.
With the state and national drive to rebuild infrastructure, 2022 and the years beyond look bright for the company and its people, even with the continuing supply chain and labor force issues.
“Are there going to be struggles? Absolutely,” Stevens said. “You could name 10 things and the ones you don’t name are going to affect you the worst. We’re certainly optimistic about our prospects.”
STEEL UNDER THE BRIDGE
The only fan running in the whole building this particular afternoon is parked next to Ben Rapisarda, who’s operating the newest tool in Dimenson’s tool box: an electric induction forge, which uses an immense, rapidly alternating magnetic field to generate so much current flow in the tip of a steel bar that the tip soon begins to glow almost white hot.
In just 37 seconds, Rapisarda heats the end of a 1.25-inch-thick length of rebar from about 35 degrees to about 2,250 degrees.
But it has to be almost exactly 37 seconds. If he gets distracted and leaves the bar in a few seconds too long, the end will melt and the bar will be useless for this application. He watches the timer’s indicator light and listens for the subtle change in tone of the forge’s whine.
“Sometimes you can catch it before the light even goes on — you can hear it,” Rapisarda says. “This works so fast that if I add two, three seconds it’ll start dripping inside the oven.”
He gets the timing right. The tip lights his face with its glow but it’s still solid as he pulls the rebar out of the forge and rolls it down to a press that will squash it into a male fitting with 10,000 pounds of force.
Rapisarda runs a whole batch of 50-foot rods through just like this, and the press automatically sprays itself with cooling water after each one. Later, he’ll run another batch, but will form those bars into female fittings instead of male.
At a worksite somewhere in the Northeast, an ironworker will join one of those male rods and one of those female rods into a single piece that would have been far too long to put on a truck.
And maybe, years or decades from now, you’ll drive over the bridge that’s holding solid and steady with the help of that rod and hundreds more like it.
FOUNDED: 1984 by Scott Stevens
Location: Glenville Business & Technology Park
BUSINESS: Fabricating steel reinforcements for poured concrete
EMPLOYEES: Approximately 100