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A big apple for the ‘Big Apple’

By Staff | Apr 27, 2009

An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but the New York Mets hope it will draw fans to their baseball games.

Literally rolling out of Lake Crystal on trailers to Flushing, New York was a 4,000-pound, 18-foot round apple created by fiberglass fabricators in LeCenter. It was attached to a three-stage 30-foot frame weighing 6,000 pounds fabricated by Blue Earth resident Duane Liebl’s firm, Weldtec & Fab, Inc.

“At one point, the New York Mets people thought they might have to helicopter the frame and apple pieces to Citi Stadium, because of their size,” says Liebl of the ‘pop up big apple’ project he recently helped complete. Moving the ‘big apple’ became a similar dilemma to that of a hobbyist building his boat in the garage and not being able to get it out the door. In this instance, how does one get a big apple and a frame through busy New York streets. Liebl was glad this was not his problem.

Weldtec employees spent close to 350 hours working on the frame which will project the apple 15 feet up in four seconds and lower it in 40. The ‘pop up big apple’ will be positioned behind center field in the new Mets’ stadium so fans will be able to see it clearly as it goes up and down during key plays.

Liebl and John Herbst have been partners in the custom metal fabrication shop, Weldtec & Fab, Inc. for more than 12 years, but Liebl has been in the business close to 30 years.

John Herbst and Duane Liebl

“I learned to weld at Crysteel Mfg. in Lake Crystal when I was 18 and have been welding ever since,” says Liebl. “I didn’t care for the factory work with its many project deadlines and repetitive production,” he explains of his career path which most recently has led him to the ‘big apple.’

He left Crysteel and partnered with anotherman for awhile, but says he was on the road a lot doing field service work and did not care for that either. As a result, Weldtec & Fab, Inc. was founded with Herbst.

“I like variety, so we are always making something different or unique at Weldtec,” Liebl says. “Whatever we can lift and get in our shop we will work on.”

The Lake Crystal business has done jobs locally for food mills, Fairmont’s ethanol plant and made a dust collector for Honeymead in Mankato. They have also manufactured and shipped an oil stripper for oil processing to Germany.

Other jobs Liebl, his partner and their three full-time employees and seasonal helpers have worked on the past five to six years include an overhead door for NASA, door frames in the roof of the Miller Park Stadium in Milwaukee, a retractable pitcher’s mound at RFK Stadium for the Washington Nationals, goal post mounting units at the University of Phoenix Stadium used by the Arizona Cardinals, stainless steel roof seals at Lucas Oil Stadium where the Indianapolis Colts are based, a roof trolley with winch at Texas Stadium for the Dallas Cowboys and the Pop Up Big Apple for the New York Mets at Citi Stadium.

All of these projects were contracted through Uni-Systems, a design, construction and consultation engineering firm located in Minneapolis which specializes in kinetic architecture, or movable, mechanized structures designed to adapt to individual structures’ needs. The firm has become particularly recognized for its design and installation of retractable roof systems on various sports stadiums across the United States.

Probably the most frustrating project Liebl’s firm ever undertook was a very heavy module that went to a university in California. It required super precision since it had to be all-around square and be within one-eighth of an inch over a 40 foot span.

Undoubtedly, the ‘pop up big apple’ has been the project he currently is most proud of.

“We had to dig four feet down in our plant’s yard then used four yards of concrete before bolting down the cylinder in the framework for the apple. At this point, we could then build and assemble it in three stages – small, medium and large,” explains Liebl.

By the time the ‘pop up big apple’ was completed, it had been tested and examined four times in bitter cold conditions. In fact, the hydraulic unit and computer had to be kept in a tent in order to keep warm enough to do the testing.

“We knew the project was done when the engineer gave us the high five sign,” says Liebl.

The next project Liebl’s crew is working on is 220 feet of conveyor belt frame for Unimin Corporation in Kasota which he guesses will take about 120-160 hours to complete.

“We bid our jobs,” says Liebl. “We tell them how much time it will take and they often respond they want it right now.”

Duane Liebl learned early on in his career one doesn’t weld until the project has been checked and double-checked. The ‘big apple’ project certainly reinforced this fact. Welding is a very precise skill.