Florida Chill: Freedom Fabrication Shows How It’s Done

Freedom Fabrication is housed in a completely nondescript, 6,000-square-foot, windowless box on Hwy 27, the main road through Havana, Fla. Nothing outside the building suggests the hard work going on inside. Not even a sign.

“I had a sign out front. And then people would just drop by,” said Tony Wickman, CTPO, chief executive officer and owner of Freedom Fabrication, in a low-key, self-deprecating Southern twang. “The mailman knows where we are.”

As a central fabrication facility focusing primarily on lower extremity orthoses, Freedom Fabrication is as laid back as its owner. With only six employees on the floor, one in the front office and Wickman, the place can feel like home. He admits to hanging out there on the weekends, just for fun.

“It’s a pretty congenial atmosphere,” Wickman told O&P Business News. Despite some struggles, it’s not unlike any other family dynamic. “Often, it comes down to simply how much you can tolerate,” he said.


The crew from Freedom Fabrication (left to right): Dan Bigley, Anita Nix, Mark Daugherty, Tony Wickman, Randy Smith, Rick Redmond and David Wright.

The crew from Freedom Fabrication (left to right): Dan Bigley, Anita Nix, Mark Daugherty, Tony Wickman, Randy Smith, Rick Redmond and David Wright.


Images by Mark Wallheiser.







The building is divided into three bays, and most of the fabrication is done in one large room. “We don’t have any walls to separate us, and we can holler back and forth at each other. It’s by design. I don’t want anyone to have a place to hide,” Wickman said.

His office is minimalist, consisting of only a chair and a laptop. Wickman and Brenda Granger, the office administrator, share the office, which also doubles as the lunchroom.

The “laminatorium,” as Wickman calls it, is the laminating room, which includes a charcoal HEPA filter charged dust collection system that filters down to 0.5 microns. Air quality is maintained with a massive, 15-foot tall dust collection system.

With the lack of green initiatives in Havana, Wickman is very careful to be smart about not generating any more waste than necessary.





David Wright (left) and Wickman work on an exclusive urethane composite ankle orthosis. “It’s similar in shape to an AFO ankle gauntlet but the material we chose is unique. It’s pretty new to the industry. This [orthosis] was borne out of this idea that most of the orthoses we make are sort of plastic shells. It’s really difficult to fix the problem with that sort of exoskeletal design without having to interfere with a lot of other normal motion. They may fix the one thing but they cause a lot of other problems.


“So we started thinking about the nature of design. We interface with the world in a more comfortable way right now. This orthosis is completely flexible except the orthosis was designed for posterior tibial tendon disorder, which is a laxity in the posterior tibial tendon. We designed a orthosis that will stop that without causing any of the downstream negative side effects. The orthosis is flexible but embedded in there in about the same location and at about the same size as your posterior tibial tendon is a carbon fiber tendon. So it has one rigid structure that interfaces with the pathology we’re dealing with and everything else is flexible.”

Another innovation from Wickman’s shop is a patented powered sureform file, used to shape plaster. “Nobody had ever put a motor on it before,” Wickman said, although he acknowledged that Gary Bedard, CO, FAAOP, Becker Orthopedic, created a similar device years before but didn’t patent it.



“We make them and sell them. But I’m one of those guys, once it’s made, you’ve got the prototype developed and it works, I’m done with it.” He just prefers to do the work, not market the work.

For many businesses, laminating is a one-person job, but Wickman often prefers a two-man operation. Here, Wickman and Wright laminate a custom carbon fiber KAFO. Wickman pours the resin into a sealed bag, a polyvinyl alcohol bag on the outside of the dried fiber.


“When you pour the resin in, it doesn’t maintain its consistency. So we use this piece of string — it’s actually parachute cord — to manipulate the resin inside the bag” and smooth it out.


Freedom Fabrication  
Freedom Fabrication  



Wickman wanted to be an engineer as a teen. He started working at 18 years old at Rehab Engineering, but it wasn’t long before he discovered they didn’t actually employ engineers. In fact, Rehab Engineering was an O&P facility.





But after a few months, “I really started to dig what I was doing and became comfortable with this common sense engineering approach,” Wickman said. “We dreamed it up, manufactured it and tested it. I thought this was so liberating in a field where I can succeed and fail multiple times in a day.”





Wickman said he worked elsewhere with some of the finest practitioners in the industry, but after about 9 years, decided he needed the latitude that owning his own facility would give him. He wanted to be the pointy end of the spear.

“This was in 1993. There weren’t that many central fabs around. It was still a fairly new concept in the industry; there were some big ones, but not too many small ones. It became obvious pretty quickly that if I was going to stay in the business that was going to be the way it had to happen. I’d done everything there was to do, from seeing patients to detailing doctors, all the fabrication, the bookkeeping…I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to take to get the job done.”

Wickman has no plans to expand his business. “There’s no way for me to grow the business and not have to leave the bench. At some point, I have to leave the bench and don’t want to do that. This is what I do for fun.”





Wickman said most of the orthoses they create require about a 2–day process window, sometimes longer during times of high volume. Although they are busy, Freedom Fabrication doesn’t have an assembly line approach to creating lower extremity orthoses. They have three basic lines: composites, thermoplastics and metal and leather.


As for the company’s mission, Wickman said it’s about the “widgets in the box, not how many widgets are in the box. I get a lot of grief for that sometimes. But everybody has the power to say ‘I don’t like this’. We care a lot about what this stuff looks like, how it fits and functions.”

Although he laments the slower time they take to fabricate, he is satisfied with the quality of the work and regularly seeks feedback with an annual customer survey. But he says successful fabrication is a two-way street.

“The thing I hate the most is guys who don’t tell me what they want and then tell me what they don’t want. The best clients are really the ones who tell me exactly and precisely what they want so I can give them just that. And then their constructive criticism is on the mark.

“I also like the guys who don’t tell me anything, and then never complain.”

Freedom Fabrication employs a mixed bag of individuals with a wide range of education and work experience. Wickman pays for 100% of his employees’ health care, dental and pension fund costs, and allows ample vacation time — high-end benefits for a company of that size.

“It’s such a tiny fraction of what it costs to run a business and ultimately, it’s their money. It’s money that would either be going to salaries, or in my case…I feel like it’s my responsibility to ensure they do certain things that they may not do. I do that, and I hope ultimately, they will appreciate that I’ve done that.”

Wickman eschews overtime. “You have to have a life,” he said. “We have a really great group. Right-wing, left-wing, old hippies. Most of us play an instrument, we love music…I think almost everybody here genuinely digs what they do.”





The pace of business waxes and wanes. Wickman said he is a working at a pretty comfortable speed, which he admits is “probably bad.” Getting more business would mean his place would get busier, and that’s a place he’s not sure he wants to be.

“Most business leaders would tell you that’s a bad place to be. Most of the time you’re either expanding or contracting, and when you’re comfortable…you’re contracting.

“After 27 years in the business, if I’m not busy, it doesn’t really freak me out,” he said. “I have a group of consultants, guys who act like a board of directors who I can sound stuff off of…they keep telling me ‘you have to have an exit strategy.’ But I don’t want to exit.”

The potential for future growth, if Wickman wants that, could hinge on the arrival of baby boomers into middle age and beyond. “As the need is increasing, the technology is advancing…we’re making some cool stuff.

“Most of the people in this industry are attracted to it because they’re ‘doers,’” Wickman said. “These are the guys who walk through Home Depot and say ‘I could do that.’ We walk around on the floor at conventions looking at stuff…people are looking at your product, they’re looking at your process, and then they go home and try to make it. And then sometimes in the course of discovery they realize it’s just too big of a pain and they’ll send it out to a central fab.”

And that’s where Freedom Fabrication comes in.

Despite not wanting to leave the business, Wickman made his final exit clear: “My goal is for someone to come in on Monday morning and find me dead on the floor with a sureform file in my hand.”

And probably, with a smile on his face. — by Carey Cowles

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