Nestled on Vancouver’s Southeast Hidden Way is a living, breathing piece of history. Eighty-five year old Thompson Metal Fab has produced and continues to produce some of the largest metal infrastructure projects in the region.
“Pudge” Thompson opened Thompson Metal Fab in 1937 at 2405 Vancouver Ave., Portland. The company began manufacturing light metal products for the dairy and timber industries. A product made by the company, Thompson Ice Tongs, can still be found online today.
Thompson Metal Fab continued to expand through the 1940s and 1950s, in part due to the war efforts of World War II.
In 1973 Thompson sold his business to Harder Mechanical, at which time the Portland operation closed and all operations moved to the former Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver.
It still operates from the bunks that many local men and women worked in during the war effort.
Upon entering one of the historic docks, Michael Moore, Vice President of Business Development at Thompson Metal Fab, points to a large metal object at the back of the dock.
“Across the street is what they call a mooring camel,” he said. “It’s a maintenance platform.”
The platform is attached to pilings and can be raised or lowered to allow crews to reach different heights of a vessel. It has been fully assembled and will be shipped on a barge.
Thompson Metal Fab traditionally works in Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and California; however, it has expanded to work in other regions, such as Texas and Indiana.
Among the projects currently in the berths are components for a bridge in California, as well as six of the remaining Y-shaped columns yet to be installed which will support the main terminal’s new 18 million pound timber roof. from Portland International Airport.
Thompson Metal Fab has completed many major infrastructure projects in the region: the new Sellwood Bridge in Portland, the Grant Street Pier in Vancouver, the bridge over National Highway 500 at St. Johns Road and the pedestrian bridge in arch Earl Blumenauer in Portland.
“These arches, when we did it here, were all laid out like a triangle in the store,” Moore said, adding that the individual arches stretched from one side of the bunk to the other.
“This bridge was much more difficult than it looks in terms of building and getting the measurements and all the architectural pieces to fit,” added John Rudi, president and owner of Thompson Metal Fab. “It looks pretty simple when you look at it on the pitch. But building that was much more complex.
While some projects are shipped whole, others, like the Blumenauer Bridge, are shipped in pieces.
“It’s up to us to make sure all of these bits and pieces fit, and we all do that here at the shop before we send it out,” Moore said.
Thompson Metal Fab doesn’t just make bridges and docking camels. The company views itself as a market leader in marine and hydropower infrastructure, reservoirs and vessels, bridges, modular and structural projects, and oil and gas projects.
Rudi also sees potential opportunities for the company in the energy space.
“We’ve been working in silicon solar power for quite some time,” he said. “But wave energy is going to be a new area that we are suited for, as well as the future of wind energy.”
Currently, most of the large wind towers and blades are all made overseas.
“That’s why we’re excited that the new infrastructure package that’s coming out has a ‘Buy American’ focus,” Rudi said. “It’s going to support most of our manufacturing here on the West Coast.”
Thompson Metal Fab is also known for its ability to grow polysilicon crystals, which are used in the production of computer chips, solar panels, and more. It was one of three American companies to grow the crystals using an older process; it is now the only one.
“There is an art and a craft,” Moore said. The product is of such high quality that it was shipped to China.
“We are here, a domestic manufacturer with the ability to export to China,” he added.
The company also exports other products abroad. At another berth, several metal boxes are being built. These room-sized boxes — meant to be used for technology purposes like in data centers — are being shipped to Israel.
Thompson Metal Fab also provided many similar structures to Intel. These modular constructions, 97 feet long, 44 feet wide and 16 feet high, had to be transported by barge.
Many projects made by Thompson Metal Fab are shipped by barge. But the factory is also equipped to ship its products by truck and train, depending on logistical needs.
About 10 years ago, the company employed between 200 and 250 employees, increasing to 300 to 350 people if an oil rig was in production. Today it has around 150. Rudi and his team had to invest in more automation and improve efficiency.
“You’re not taking any jobs away,” Rudi said, pointing to a machine that can cut steel into specialty pieces in minutes. “It really helps us address the labor shortage, because skilled labor is not there like it was 10 years ago.
“We need to find ways like this, either through procedures or through new technology and capital improvements,” he said.
Elsewhere in the Thompson Metal Fab docks, employees work on the PDX Y-shaped columns.
“I’m on a personal mission to make sure no one takes pictures with the mat anymore,” Moore said with a smile, referring to the Portland icon. “I want every PDX frame to be of these Y columns.”
The process of a project begins with an architect, Moore said. Their job is to draw something in the owner’s vision. Then the architect takes his drawing to a structural engineer to design something that looks like his drawing but takes into account the seismic criteria and loads. Then it is produced.
“I can’t overstate the talent that exists on the floor,” Moore said. “These guys are very, very skilled at what they do.”