Tight-knit customers and self-scrutiny keep Accufab humming
April 24, 2013
As part of its unofficial business plan, Cumming, Ga.-based Accufab gets in on the ground floor and helps entrepreneurs to get off the ground. As a result, the company is able to grow with its customers.
The entrepreneur started in one of the oldest of business incubators: his basement, just with an idea and room to tinker. He wanted to design a monitor to withstand harsh environments, like food processing plants.
Tyrous Ward was there nearly from the beginning, discussing with the new entrepreneur why a certain sheet metal form would work here, why this bezel would work there. Today that entrepreneur sends Ward’s job shop, Cumming, Ga.-based Accufab, thousands of dollars’ worth of business a month.
“Those customers tend to stick with you,” he said.
Ward operates the fabrication business with his two sons, Kerry and Mark. Tyrous has a relaxed manner, a subtle grin, and the easy cadence of a Southern storyteller (see Figure 1). He has plenty of stories to share, and most of them involve small companies. Accufab has more than 120 active customers.
“You probably wouldn’t recognize most of their names,” said Kerry.
If you visit home improvement stores in the Southeast, you’ll probably see point-of-purchase displays made at Accufab. The shop makes backing components for digital billboards along highways, sheet metal components for the radar signs that show how fast (usually too fast) you are driving. The shop also makes sheet metal enclosures for what may be the last lucrative public phones in America: phones in prisons, where inmates have no choice but to call collect.
This business strategy has helped Accufab hum along quietly since its launch in 1991. It has had its share of changes, like when the company did miscellaneous metal and ironwork jobs, such as gates. An utterly different process, such fabrication was separated out to another division called Iron Ideas, which eventually had its own building. But the business has waned, and today miscellaneous metal fabrication business isn’t Accufab’s primary focus.
(“Iron Ideas is a business in name only,” Tyrous explained. The company still uses the URL www.ironideas.com, but plans to change it in the coming year. “It’s in a transition state,” he said.)
Accufab endured the dot-com bust and even the Great Recession without much disruption. Tyrous recalled how several machine tool representatives visited his shop in the dot-com bust years and were dumbfounded. With so many other shops slowing to a crawl, how did Accufab keep work flowing in the door?
The Wards have a two-part strategy. The first part involves process improvement, and a quick glance on the shop floor plainly shows their efforts. The second harks back to the monitor designer that today represents one of Accufab’s largest clients. For many of its customers, Accufab gets in on the ground floor (or even basement), helps an entrepreneur get off the ground, and sticks with them for the duration.
Managers don’t have any illusions as to why many stray from job shop work and attempt to play their hand in the contract fabrication arena. Long-term contracts can add much-needed stability to a business.
But Accufab stays happily in the job shop sandbox. Most jobs come from work orders demanding a four-week (or shorter) turnaround. They’re for a dozen of this, several hundred of that, several thousand of this. Work ranges from piece parts to complete subassemblies—again, mostly for smaller companies.
The Wards estimated that for about 75 percent of the customer base, Accufab’s designers work with customers to design components for sheet metal fabrication. They come to the fabricator with an idea. They sometimes have a drawing, sometimes not, but whatever they’ve got, Accufab helps them through the process.
“That’s how most of our customer relationships start,” Kerry said. “They have an idea, and they come to us to find out how to make it. That’s our sweet spot, and nobody wants to do that work.”
Many stay away from such work because of the inherent risks. An entrepreneur may have a great idea, but it takes a combination of hard work, good timing, and luck to make that idea a success. But for Accufab, the strategy has paid off.
In any given year, the largest client may make up (at most) 15 percent of company revenue. “The next highest comes in at less than 10 percent,” Kerry said. “And then we have a slew of customers that make up 1 to 2 percent of our revenue, everything from security equipment to point-of-purchase displays, the recreation industry, and medical equipment. It’s all over the board.”
“You see the effect of a downturn really quick with the big companies,” said Tyrous. “But with the mom-and-pop operation, they have a family to feed, and they’ve got to keep going. They tend to be more stable for us.”
“We have close relationships with almost every one of our customers,” Mark said. “We know their businesses, and we’re true partners with every one of them. Our customers are our friends. Kerry and I grew up in this area, and we’ve known many of them for years.”
The shop serves as a reminder that, alongside the effects of globalization, local business relationships remain a steady, healthy, and often unnoticed undercurrent of the economy. It isn’t about multi-million-dollar deals or flashy product launches. Instead, it’s about a quiet cycle of brainstorming, handshakes, and work orders.
Assisting entrepreneurs with design efforts not only helps build good relationships. As the Wards explained, they work with customers to lower manufacturing costs in their shop—with their machines, of course.
This includes a Salvagnini panel bender and two new Bystronic press brakes with dynamic crowning and pressure reference technology for bend accuracy. Lights above the tool clamps and 3-D animations on the control show operators where to insert tools. This, combined with offline programming, allows the shop to set up extremely complex bends quickly. What was once a multipart assembly may now be unitized into fewer pieces. This may eliminate or reduce subsequent welding or fastening, and the shop’s design consultants take this into account.
This provides a clear competitive advantage. The Wards serve the customers by offering ideas that can save them money. And thanks to the mix of technology on the floor, they often can produce those designs for less money than the competition can.
This strategy wouldn’t work if the shop’s combination of technology, part flow, and talent weren’t scrutinized. The shop always had an informal improvement effort, but several years ago the Wards began a formal “scrutinizing” strategy that continues to this day. They scrutinize every process on their 30,000-square-foot floor and run the numbers. They don’t consider the age of a machine or established practices; everything is on the table. If the numbers prove that a new investment will pay off, the Wards move forward with that investment.
This effort becomes evident right as you walk out onto the floor and look at its raw stock inventory. A few hours after lunch, that inventory looks as if the shop is about to run out of material. The shop takes advantage of next-day delivery from nearby service centers and carries only what it needs for the next day or so. The Wards can call for material as late as 4 p.m. and receive sheet the next day.
About a third of Accufab’s work is in stainless steel, another third in aluminum, and the remaining third is carbon steel. This is a significant shift from just several years ago, when most of the shop’s work orders called for plain carbon steel.
The shop’s cutting technology has followed this evolution and, most significant, shows the shop’s equipment investment strategy. Several years ago the company purchased a 4-kW CO2 laser, when fiber lasers were just starting to enter the market. “We didn’t think fiber lasers were quite there yet,” Kerry recalled. “They were still very new.”
About a year and a half later, though, the Wards couldn’t ignore the numbers. “We started running the numbers, and we saw that on [on 18-gauge stainless] we could be going from 300 inches a minute to 1,800 inches a minute,” Kerry said, “and our cost for electricity, gas, and consumables would drop. With that productivity, we could cut our second shift and still maintain our throughput.”
So in October 2012 the shop invested in a Han-Kwang fiber laser cutting system, which complements the Danobat punch press acquired a little more than a decade ago. Still, the Wards didn’t look at cutting efficiency in isolation. What good is such extreme cutting efficiency if it simply shoves a bottleneck downstream? A laser beam may cut fast, but it can’t make a difference to the bottom line if overall throughput doesn’t improve.
This included the shop’s flat-part graining and deburring. The previous system left secondary burrs that workers often had to grind down manually. So the shop replaced the machine (which, like the laser, wasn’t old) with a multihead system from Steelmaster, which includes an initial drum head to deburr the leading edge; oscillating brushes (see Figure 2) to grain the surface and deburr hole inside diameters and similar geometries; and a final drum head to eliminate the secondary burrs. This eliminated the need for manual removal of those secondary burrs.
Still, this improvement wouldn’t have had such an effect if it pushed the bottleneck downstream. And before 2010, parts had a better chance of sitting for days as work-in-process, because of some prolonged setup times at the press brakes. A portion of Accufab’s work was (and is) new or not ordered regularly, which meant that press brake programs had to be written and tried out. Setups sometimes took hours.
Even if a job wasn’t new, a specific batch may have formed a certain way because of the metal’s characteristics. For certain precision forming jobs, grain direction as well as metal thickness variation meant programs had to be tweaked every time the job arrived at the machine. As the Wards explained, steel emerging from the mill can be slightly thicker on the edges than in the center. When multiple forms are bent into one part, the angle may be ever-so-slightly off (but still within spec) for the first bend, but those tolerances stack up to the point where the operator has no choice but to scrap the part.
Over the past few years, the shop has revamped its bending operations to overcome this age-old problem. The first initiative came in 2010 when Accufab purchased its panel bender. The system’s tooling holds down the workpiece, and its bending blades move up and down to fold the flanges. The area of bend remains stationary, while the flange is folded up or down. The system can handle up to 10-gauge mild steel, slightly thicker aluminum, and slightly thinner stainless.
Programmed offline, the system can handle the work of three or more press brakes. The panel bender effectively freed the bending bottleneck for a good portion of Accufab’s work. Parts with suitable flange heights and sufficient surface area for the hold-down tooling are routed to the panel bender (see Figure 3).
Of course, not every part can be put on a panel bender, so the company routes its remaining parts to other brakes. Small parts go to some of the company’s older, lighter-tonnage brakes, while those with complex geometries are sent to one of the company’s two new Bystronic press brakes (see Figure 4). For some complex parts, programming and setup time that used to take hours now takes less than 20 minutes.
From bending, the parts flow to hardware insertion, welding, grinding, and powder coating. Here again, the Wards looked at ways to streamline flow. About three years ago they knew they had a problem in the stud welding area.
Several parts needed a number of stud welds, some of which required varying types of stud hardware. At the time a person needed to laboriously insert each stud weld the typical way, positioning a hand-held gun vertically above the hole, being careful not to angle it slightly before depressing the trigger—a difficult feat for anyone to perform consistently over an entire shift.
So the Wards began searching for a machine that could ease the proc-ess. They looked at some automated systems, but many of them were just overkill—designed for production environments, not a job shop. So ultimately they created their own system. They purchased a simple XY positioning table, then a stud welding feeder and power supply. They also integrated a welding head that could accept different types of studs. If the operator needs to change studs, he need only change the head’s tip (see Figure 5).
“It operates differently from a hand welder,” Tyrous explained. “In hand stud welding, you hold the gun against the material, you pull the trigger, and the stud embeds into the material. This system actually holds [the stud] above the part, and fires before it starts moving toward the surface.” As the system energizes to perform the stud weld, the head descends quickly to the surface. “This helps blow clean and prepare your surface, to ensure it’s free of any debris that would make it difficult to weld.”
Accufab installed its first press brake with angle correction in October of last year, and then installed its second one the first quarter of 2013. When working their shop schedule, the Wards noticed something.
“We’re more relaxed now,” Mark said.
That’s because the schedule has gotten far more predictable because of fewer variables on the floor. It used to be that the shop would route work based on what the Wards call “our wizards.” Certain jobs needed to go to these individuals who—especially in the press brake area—had the experience with the machine to process a job effectively. They knew where to shim and how to tweak a brake program, perhaps even calculate and lay out a staged bending setup.
Today more preparation and programming take place off the shop floor. The result is minimal WIP and scrap. For sure, this has changed day-to-day job duties for many of the shop’s 43 workers (many of whom have been with Accufab for a decade or more), but it also has broadened their perspective. In recent years the focus has shifted from “How are we going to set up this part?” to “What can we do to shorten overall manufacturing time and reduce costs?” The latter, of course, is what the customer really cares about.ceholder