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W&W/AFCO Steel Building Bridges at Little Rock Port

3 min read

During the past nine months, W&W/AFCO Steel has ramped up operations at its new facility in the Little Rock Port Industrial Park. In a 138,846-SF building originally devoted to wind turbine blades, production has shifted to structural steel fabrication.

Much of the workflow moving through the former LM Wind Power Building 1 is destined for bridge construction.

On this Wednesday morning, overhead cranes that once hoisted 132-foot fiberglass blades are moving 110-foot steel girders. Two 15-ton, double-girder cranes are loading a completed piece of fabricated steel onto a flat-bed trailer.

The 19-ton future bridge component is headed outside to the shipping yard for temporary storage before it is transported to a job site in Jacksonville. The steel is part of a 243-ton order of 66-inch-deep bridge girders that will be used to build a span for J.P. Wright Loop Road over the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

“We started fabricating bridge beam projects at the end of October 2022 and had it fully operational at the end of February 2023,” said W&W/AFCO President Grady Harvell.

The plant at 8000 Frazier Pike is No. 19 for the company, the largest steel fabricator in the nation as measured by bridge, commercial and industrial work. Formally announced nearly 15 months ago, the W&W/AFCO port plant has generated 90 of the 115 new jobs projected. Of those new hires, 65 are additions to the company’s South Shop at 1500 E. 22nd St. plus a sprinkling of office personnel.

The opening of the port plant allowed W&W/AFCO to shift fabrication of its biggest pieces of steel from the South Shop. That opened up more workspace for more people to produce smaller pieces at the South Shop.

Half of the planned staffing at the port plant is in place with a 25-member day shift. A similar-sized night shift is under formation.

“We’ve never intended to have more than 50 max with what we intended to do there,” Harvell said during an interview in his office at 1423 E. Sixth St. “By the end of the year, we’ll have it done. We already have a small crew working at night.”

The port plant hosted a $6 million investment in equipment alone to begin steel fabrication. Among the big-ticket items is a blaster used to remove the flaky mill scale from steel before a protective coating is applied to encase a finished piece.

To prepare for installation of the blaster, a section of 8-inch concrete had to be removed to dig a 15-foot pit. That modification-installation process took about three months and was completed in February.

New Rail Spur

W&W/AFCO also built a 1,200-foot railroad spur to the property, which is under lease with an option to purchase. Nearly all of the plate steel shipped to the port plant arrives by rail.

The plate steel, typically an inch to 4 inches thick but ranging up to 8 inches, is produced at the Nucor Steel Hertford mill in Cofield, North Carolina, and Nucor’s new plate steel mill in Brandenburg, Kentucky, is expected to contribute to future orders.

The Little Rock Port Authority contributed to the rail spur project by paying $40,000 for the design work.

“They’re bringing about two to three rail cars a week,” said Bryan Day, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority.

“LM never did use rail for their wind turbine blades although they had plans.”

AFCO Metals, a separate enterprise formed by AFCO Steel’s founding family, was the first manufacturing plant to open shop in the Little Rock Port Industrial Park back in 1970.

The Fred Brown family in 1988 sold AFCO Metals, which still numbers among the global locations of Chicago’s Ryerson Holding Corp. The former AFCO Metals plant is next door to the W&W/AFCO port plant.

“It was cool that AFCO came back to the port,” Day said of the W&W/AFCO project.

Back in the mid-1970s, one of Grady Harvell’s early jobs with AFCO Steel was overseeing construction of a warehouse addition to the AFCO Metals facility at 7701 Lindsey Road.

“AFCO Steel fabricated and installed the steel on that project,” Harvell said.

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