Diversification works at longtime Tucson-based metal fabricator CAID Industries.

The company provides metal-engineering services and product fabrication to customers ranging from semiconductor-chip makers, to copper producers, to public artists, from Tucson to South America.

CAID makes some standard products, such as cathodes used to collect pure copper as part of an electrical refining process. And many of its products are common enough to the untrained eye - tanks, pipes, structural steel.

But the company's bread and butter is custom, high-end design, engineering and fabrication.

"The idea is to do things that people have a hard time doing themselves, for other manufacturers and fabricators," said CAID President Bill Assenmacher, who started with CAID in 1973 as a University of Arizona mechanical-engineering undergrad.

"Our goal is to take on the more unusual or difficult."

Such expertise enables CAID to serve a diverse client base - something that helps buoy the company's revenues during lean times like these.

Up until the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008, CAID's annual revenues had set record highs five years in a row, with 2008 its best year at $40 million in sales, Assenmacher said.

When the recession hit, all bets were off.

"We actually had $17 million worth of work canceled within a six-week window," he said. "As the price of copper went from $4 (per pound) down to $1.30, most of our mine stuff canceled almost overnight."

CAID took a 25 percent hit on sales in 2009, compared with its record 2008, but the company managed to keep a strong core of work, thanks to projects including a $10 million job making components for a large gold mine in Mexico.

New contracts for the U.S. military - including steel-armor enclosures for construction vehicles and ceramic-armor components for Humvees bound for Afghanistan - along with industrial customers and metal public-art installations have kept the company humming.

"Our diversity and some of the unique products have kept us from feeling the real pinch," Assenmacher said, adding that mining is starting to recover.

The company employs about 185 people, including a dozen degreed engineers, and plans to have more than 200 employees by year's end, he said.

That diverse product mix is evident amid the din of cutting, welding and grinding at CAID's 20-acre south-side campus, where roughly 175,000 square feet of buildings include a recently completed heavy-fabrication building.

On a recent workday, some workers were cutting perforated panels for a public-art project at Las Vegas' CityCenter development with one of CAID's three computer-controlled laser cutters, while others were making Humvee armor parts and aluminum traffic-signal control cabinets.

"The big laser we have is the largest west of the Mississippi," Assenmacher said.

The year-old laser cutter cost about $1 million and can cut intricate patterns in steel up to an inch-and-a-quarter thick and up to 18 by 13 feet in overall size, he said. The company expects delivery of another, similar cutter in December.

In other areas, CAID workers are finishing off a massive stainless-steel tank for semiconductor-chip maker Intel Corp., while others perform precision welding on stainless-steel and aluminum piping and enclosures.

At one station, a worker operates an automated orbital welder that slowly "walks" around a pipe that has been filled with an inert gas, creating a high-quality seam.

In another building, workers are piecing together a pair of mammoth steel-and-aluminum "cold boxes" - used to separate industrial gases.

Nearby in CAID's machine shop, workers are modifying steel frame components for photovoltaic-panel maker Solon Corp., part of Tucson's growing solar-energy industry and part of Berlin-based Solon SE.

Assenmacher said the company is also building bases and mechanisms for Solon's single-axis tracking solar panels - which use a push-pull action to shift the angle of whole rows of solar panels during the day to maximize sunlight collection.

CAID's "technical expertise and local proximity have been a great advantage in helping to accelerate the transition of our single-axis tracker design from a European to North American optimized design," Dan Alcombright, Solon regional vice president, said in an e-mailed statement.

Not all of CAID's work is hidden behind industrial walls - it does a thriving business in architectural steel and public art.

One notable local example is the white steel shade structure that links the home of the UA's Bio5 Institute, the Thomas W. Keating Bioresearch Building, with the adjacent Medical Research Building.

At one point during construction of the $62 million Keating building, soaring costs for materials in 2004 jeopardized the signature shade structure.

That dismayed Tom Keating, who donated $10 million to the building and pushed to save the canopy.

Ultimately, the architects were put in touch with CAID, which ended up producing the structure locally.

"I don't think there's another company in the nation that could have done it as well, or as inexpensively," Keating said.

CAID also has won accolades for its treatment of employees.

A 2008 finalist for the Wells Fargo Copper Cactus Awards for the best workplaces, CAID offers competitive wages, averaging $16 an hour for hourly workers, plus benefits, a 401(k) plan and an employee stock-ownership plan.

Assenmacher noted that many key managers worked their way up from production jobs. Assenmacher owns the majority of the company, while the rest is owned by other key executives and the employee stock ownership plan.

Yet the company has difficulty finding the skilled workers it needs, he said.

"It's very difficult to find and hire highly skilled welders, so sometimes we actually have to hire someone to train them."

Besides employing many UA alumni over the years, including Assenmacher, CAID has deep ties to the university, including constructing huge polishing bases for the UA's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab.

Assenmacher sits on the UA College of Engineering industry advisory board, and the company provides plant tours, student design project help, mentors and internships, UA Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg said.

"They are something local that shows kids who have been here for a long time, there is engineering going on in Tucson, and it's an important part of our economy," Goldberg said.

Meanwhile, CAID and its employees support many local charitable causes, including Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson and Habitat for Humanity.

Assenmacher said the company also tries to support other local companies, often sourcing materials or referring work to them.

"If we get real busy, our goal is to try and keep work in Tucson, so occasionally we use Tucson engineers and Tucson fabricators," he said. "We want to grow the manufacturing base here in Tucson."

Did you know

Founded in Tucson in 1947, CAID Industries originally occupied the brick building and Quonset hut at 305 N. Fourth Ave., now occupied by The Hut bar.

Caid moved to its current location, on East Ganley Road near South Tucson Boulevard and East Bilby Road, in 1974.

Company at a glance

CAID Industries Inc.

• Headquarters: 2275 E. Ganley Road.

• Top executive: Bill Assenmacher, president.

• Local employees: About 185.

• Business: Specialty metal design, engineering and fabrication.

ABOUT THE SERIES

Made in Tucson is an occasional series about local companies that make things, how they're made, and the people who make them.

If you'd like to have your company highlighted, or want to suggest a local manufacturer to be featured, drop us a note to business@azstarnet.com and use "Made in Tucson" in the subject line. Or, call us at 573-4181 or send a fax to 573-4144.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.