Fabricating know-how and trustworthy ironworkers help M&M Vehicle Corp. to give new life to used cars
April 15, 2008
M&M Vehicles Corp., Mexico, Mo., is less a car company and more of a fabricating shop. That's been the case from the beginning when Chris Miller and another employee cut diamond-plate aluminum sheet with a Skil saw blade turned backwards and then hand-bent the sheet to form boxes that graced those early used golf cars.
M&M Vehicle President Chris Miller stands in front of a cart of fabricated aluminum parts that help change a golf car into "anything other than a golf car."
When you first hear Chris Miller describe his company as a fabricator that customizes parts to turn used golf cars into "anything except a golf car," you wonder if he left the "t" off "carts." When he starts to explain the type of vehicles that are born from these simple golf cars, you realize calling the creations a "cart" would be a disservice.
Where do you begin? Well, the first product created by M&M Vehicle Corp., Mexico, Mo., is a great example of the company's ingenuity. A utility box made of diamond-plate aluminum is fixed where the golf-bag holder used to reside. Voila! The golf car is now a utility vehicle that can haul tools for the maintenance staff at a college campus or an industrial plant.
Where does it end? That's hard to tell. M&M Vehicle fabricates kits that raise the cars off the ground for off-path usage, that add two seats where the golf-bag holders used to go, that extend the length of the car to accommodate additional rows of seats, that add a hospital bed to make the vehicle capable of moving injured parties, that add a roll cage and vehicle supports to give the cars off-road capability, and so on. Just the other day, Miller walked by the R&D department—or the "redo and redo department" as he called it—to see a new utility box that is hydraulically controlled to dump to the side or to the rear depending on the placement of the pin.
"We make some unusual things," Miller said.
M&M Vehicle relies on the ironworkers mostly for punching, but the other tools, such as this tube notcher, come in handy for some jobs.
In this case, necessity was the mother of inspiration. Almost 30 years ago when the company was founded, Miller was looking for a way to find new lives for used golf cars. He was involved with a Club Car golf car distributor and realized that golf course management teams would rather purchase new vehicles than used ones. Left with the trade-ins, M&M Vehicle was founded to give new life to those used cars.
Despite the company's mission, M&M Vehicle is less a car company and more of a fabricating shop. That's been the case from the beginning, when Miller and another employee cut diamond-plate aluminum sheet with a Skilsaw™ blade turned backward and then hand-bent the sheet to form boxes that graced those early cars.
Even with 45 employees and 50,000 square feet of production space today, that hasn't changed too much. The shop is still making those boxes and taking a craftsman's approach to fabricating in spite of the very large mix of product.
This six-head turret on a Scotchman ironworker is one of the most frequently used machine tools in the company's fabricating facility.
Miller estimated that his company's business is 75 percent standard orders and 25 percent custom orders, which the fabricating shop has to turn around from scratch. To keep up with the majority of the orders, M&M Vehicle maintains a large inventory of part kits that can be pulled from storage and quickly assembled.
"We fabricate to inventory unless it's a special order," Miller said.
To accommodate this manufacturing model, the company has fabricators who prepare the part kits and welders who join the parts and install them on the vehicles.
When a standard order comes in, the plant supervisor checks to see if the part kits are in inventory. If they are, the job goes to a welder who can retrieve the part kits and begin the joining process. If they are not, the order goes to the parts fabricating department, where the metal components are made in lots of 10. Depending on the number of part kits needed to complete the order, a certain amount will be sent to the welding department and the extras will be sent to inventory.
The random nature of the business leads to a variety of jobs per day. However, Miller said a large order comes down the pike every now and then.
For instance, a salesperson sold 120 golf cars with utility boxes attached. "So we had 10 people making 10 of the same thing," he said.
"The parts department should have had [the parts kits] on the shelf and sent them right to welding," he added. "Then [the parts fabrication department] needs to have inventory refilled. It gets those parts cut and premade."
The box fabricated from diamond-plate may not look like much, but it is reminiscent of M&M Vehicle's first product. The fabricated box replaces the golf-bag holders on the used golf cars, turning them into utilitarian vehicles.
The parts kits are derived from two truckloads of aluminum tubing and sheet that are delivered weekly and one weekly delivery of stainless steel. Because of the brittle nature of aluminum, M&M Vehicle doesn't warehouse the material; it tries to fabricate the parts as soon as possible.
Two shears are used to cut the sheets into appropriate sizes, and three saws cut the tubing. A fully automatic Scotchman cold saw with loading and unloading capability handles a majority of the sawing work.
From there, the parts likely go to one or more ironworkers for some sort of combination of cutting, notching, punching, and rounding. The ironworker, a piece of equipment that more often than not plays a supporting role in most fabricating shops, takes center stage at M&M Vehicle.
As an example, Miller pointed to a Scotchman ironworker with a six-head turret attached. An operator could complete a job that called for punching two 9⁄32-in. round holes and two 11⁄32-in. round holes, a ¼-in. square hole, and a rounded corner all on the same machine. The six-head turret is handy because an operator only has to move a lever and swing it around to the next punch.
"We went from minutes to make a project to seconds because we had multiple punches in one machine at one station," Miller said.
The turret punch on an ironworker worked so well for the company that it purchased another one, this time a three-head turret punch.
Jerry Kroetch, Scotchman's president, said he isn't surprised that M&M Vehicle found the equipment to be so versatile.
"In fabricating, you do multiple things to create the end product. That's really what an ironworker can do for you because it is so versatile. It can do 15 to 20 different fabricating functions on one machine," Kroetch said.
The one thing the turret punch ironworkers couldn't do was drill holes in tube. M&M Vehicle was doing a lot of drilling, and it wasn't a very efficient process, Miller said. As a result, he approached Scotchman to see what they could offer to help his company.
The Scotchman equipment designers came up with a tube punching station for the front of the ironworker. The operator could slide the tubing over a mandrel, and the ironworker's punch could come down to make the hole.
Today M&M Vehicle has two ironworkers with tube punching capabilities—one can punch ¼-in. holes and another 5⁄15-in. holes.
"It improved the process by minutes per piece over the process of marking and drilling," Miller said.
Click to view image larger When M&M Vehicle approached Scotchman about developing a punching accessory for its ironworkers to help eliminate the need to drill holes in the tubes, Scotchman came up with a punching tool and mandrel combination. The operator now slides the tubing onto the mandrel and a punching head is lowered to punch the correctly sized hole. To ensure the holes are put in the right place on the tube, employees drill holes into the mandrel at specific intervals and rely on bolts to act as stoppers when the tubing is placed on the mandrel.
M&M Vehicle is not totally devoid of automated fabricating equipment. It purchased a robotic gas metal arc welding (GMAW) cell with two tables four years ago for popular product lines with a lot of repetitious welding patterns. In fact, the same operator who fabricates the parts kits for those product lines actually mans the robotic welding cell when it's time for those parts to become completed components.
Outside of the metal fabricating arena, the company keeps adding divisions to keep up with customer orders. The company has added a powder coating shop, a custom wheel business, and an upholstery department in the last five years.
Miller said the expansion is necessary to keep up with the specialty-vehicle market. One day M&M Vehicle may need to add more automated equipment, but right now Miller doesn't want to put the cart—make that the car—before the horse.