Builds on strengths, carves niche
June 17, 2008
California electronics stamper Scandic Springs Inc. faces challenges of stamping ever-shrinking electronics components as well as stamping larger parts, such as enclosures.
Scandic Springs Inc., a San Leandro, Calif., job shop that specializes in stamping and coiling spring materials, faces the challenges of a shrinking electronics industry—both in market size and scale of components.
"The northern California market has had a real shakeout in the last five to eight years, and a lot of really good stampers and tool and die shops are gone," said R. Hale Foote, Scandic president. "That's happening across the country, but especially here in Silicon Valley," he said.
Likewise, computer and electronics products that once occupied an entire computer lab or entertainment center have scaled down to fit in the palm of a hand, rest on an ear, or slide out of an envelope. Their respective components have scaled down accordingly.
Cost pressures are always lapping at the company's heels, like the waves of the nearby Pacific Ocean.
The 40-year-old company stands its ground by diversifying its market segment and customer base; refining its niche in small-components manufacturing; building on its strengths in engineering, innovation, and metallurgy expertise; and developing flexibility to meet its clients' quantity needs.
"We were all very heavily involved in the computer networking market in '98, '99, 2000, and then it just went away," Foote said. "The really high-end shops that were concentrating most of their work in that market died.
"We've always been versatile—geographically, marketwise and customerwise—so we had a few lean years, but we powered through. While our roots are in Silicon Valley and the high-tech world, more than two-thirds of our work goes to customers outside of California," Foote explained. Customers are in industry segments as diverse as medical, safety, renewable energy, commercial lighting, and commercial electrical distribution equipment, as well as consumer electronics.
No one customer comprises more than 15 percent of the customer base.
But perhaps the most significant way that Scandic bounced back and stands its ground against a shrinking domestic computer electronics market is by tackling the tough stuff—fortifying its niche in manufacturing small but mighty, intricate components made of difficult-to-form materials.
"The real simple stamping that anybody can do has been going overseas. If it's more demanding materials, more intricate parts, there's a good reason to keep it here—that's what we do," Foote said.
Small Size, Small Forms … "Everything's getting smaller and smaller," said Rich Moore, engineering manager. "Consider the first iPod, and then look at the last-generation nano.
"We're not in the chip business, but we are in the business of manufacturing things that attach to that chip," Moore said. "You have to connect it, enclose it, have a backing, add the parts inside to enclose the battery and the contacts."
Stamping, blanking, bending, and joining are difficult to perform on components scaled down almost to microscopic scale and to extremely exacting specifications. Imagine blanking and forming a part the size of a fingernail with so many features that it requires 15 stations to make them.
… Big Expectations. Too, the small spring-force parts must pack a punch. "These kinds of parts have motion in them; they retain something," Foote said.
"Our customers' designs are really on the edge of tensiles and yields, and because of their applications, that means a lot of force must be applied in a very small area," Moore said. A correctly manufactured torsion spring component can make the difference between an upright desk lamp or a drooping one, or a clip made to hold a photo does or doesn't (seeFigure 1).
To exacerbate the challenge, jobs from product design firms common to the region often go to Scandic after the product, such as a hand-held electronic device—has been designed and manufactured, Moore explained. "They'll get everything done, it's all set to launch, and then it fails safety testing. And they'll come to us and say, 'In addition to getting the spring force and motion we require, can you make it ground here—and also sustain a 50G shock test? Figure out a way to do that. You have only six-thousandths' clearance.' And it's always at the last minute."
As the parts get smaller, demands on the material are even greater, because the smaller size often means that the materials the components are made of must be stronger to meet the intended function. Those stronger materials—INCONEL®, Hastelloy®, and materials like beryllium copper and 300,000-PSI stainless steel—are harder to form and exhibit more springback tendencies.
"They are more demanding to form, very abrasive on the tooling—and the stakes are a bit higher," Foote said. "Each step—forming, heat treating, and plating—is fairly critical. It's not a straight stamping."
"Materials react differently when they get smaller," Moore said. "If you take a piece of silicon and throw it, it will shatter like glass. It's very hard. But down at a micro level, it's very flexible, like a spring.
"And that's where the challenge is, getting everything down to a very small size using exotic and high-strength materials," Moore said. "One of our real strengths is working in these materials."
The company masters those challenges by applying its ample ingenuity and honing its metallurgy expertise.
"We know metal. We know how metal behaves, and we've worked with the most demanding materials," Moore said. "That's one of the things I think sets us apart from other companies."
Material Integrity. "It's about material integrity, and not just on paper—the rubber-stamp certification—but really looking at it and verifying that it is what they say it is. If somebody says, 'This is 316 stainless that has been passivated,' you want to really know that that's accurate." One need look no further than the horror stories of structures falling apart because of the nuts' and bolts' material failures.
In one instance, Scandic's intimate knowledge of a critical spring's material properties landed it on a Fortune 500 company's speed dial and brought back migrated work:
A few years ago Scandic had perfected a spring-loaded part that supported the "neck" of a heavy, flat-screen computer monitor—a highly stressed application. After engineering the part and specifying metal, the customer sent the long-run production process to a lower-cost manufacturer. However, the low-cost manufacturer was not as metals-savvy as Scandic or as knowledgeable about the nuances of precision manufacturing, and the neck couldn't hold up the monitor. "It just went plllllluuughf."
Foote got a knock on his door at home on New Year's Eve from the customer who needed him to rescue his company's new-year product launch. He did. The project's long-run production stayed put at Scandic.
Making Materials Work. In another case, a customer approached Scandic with an open request: "Help us figure out how to get this part to work." (See Figure 2.)
"I spent weeks researching the materials, talking to the mill, specifying the carbon, specifying the silicon," Moore said. "We had to get a commercially available material that would work, find the right combination, literally right down to the silicon because silicon in the material sets it apart from being just another high-yield material. I'd call and say, 'We need your metallurgist.' You go way up the chain to find out who is mixing the material."
Plating Materials. Another example of how the company combined its materials expertise and ingenuity to solve a problem involved plating. "A lot of our electrical contacts would be nickel-plated, sometimes gold-plated, but if it's a real high-wear item, we take another approach," Moore said. "For example, the devices that FedEx drivers carry that you sign for … After you sign it, they dock it back into their truck, right? That's why you have instantaneous tracking. But as they drive around, that 2- or 3-pound unit vibrates in the cradle, and it wears. So we worked with the customer to figure out a palladium-over-gold-over-nickel plating, so it has the lubricity to slide in and out without wearing," he said.
Scandic has learned to be as flexible and strong in tight squeezes as its spring-force parts. "We never know what's going to come in the door tomorrow, so we have many different approaches that allow us to get work done," said Dan Morgan, production manager.
Fourslide or Progressive-die Press. Scandic's origins as a spring-maker means its equipment fleet includes fourslide (see Fourslide sidebar) as well as conventional progressive-die presses. It weighs the strengths and weaknesses of each to decide which to use to resolve size and material property challenges.
"When someone comes to us with a project and the part or drawing, and it might be a fourslide part or it might be a punch press part. There are real advantages to each," Morgan said.
"The advantage of a fourslide is you're running material that's the exact same width as the finished part, so there's no material waste, very efficient material usage," Morgan said. "And tooling on a fourslide is relatively inexpensive.
"But there are limits to using the fourslide approach," Morgan added. Some materials require the greater force and die size capabilities of a larger-tonnage progressive die, he said.
Combine Fourslide, Prog-die. Occasionally techniques from one press platform are combined with another to solve a challenging problem, such as how to apply the force needed to form HSS 360 degrees. Applying ingenuity and common sense, the company mounted a fourslide press component—a cam-actuated arbor—into a progressive-die press.
"Mounting arbors inside of the prog die allows us to get in and form a part that normally you wouldn't be able to form in it," Morgan said. "For one part, we need brute force, so we looked at the press. But you have to have a punch coming from the top to form the material around the punch. The problem is, how do you get the punch out of the part? The challenge in making a tightly formed part in a punch press is getting it off whatever tool you're forming it with.
"We overcome that by using a series of cams and arbors that drive in as the stroke of the press is operating to form a part. We've termed a spindle die. We drive an arbor in and form the part around it, pull the arbor out, and then nothing's in the way." The part is produced at 6,000 strokes an hour.
One Piece or a Million. In addition, Scandic has positioned itself to offer its customers any level of service and production run the customer needs, from engineering to prototyping to short runs using soft tooling to long runs using hard tooling. The company designs and builds its own dies, including in-die tapping, and is equipped to perform assembly functions such as automated fastener insertion.
"We can say, 'We'll make you one part with our waterjet, or we can make you millions of parts, and anything in between," Morgan said.
About two-thirds of the stamping work is coil-fed, high-volume prog-die stamping, and one-third is hand-fed prototyping or on brake presses. "Obviously, the hand-fed jobs are going to be lower volume and more expensive per part than the higher-volume work—some of those are a million parts per run," Foote said.
"We have so many opportunities for attacking the same part," Morgan said. "We can stamp a part, we can cut it on waterjet, we can notch and nibble, punch a hole, cut a few lengths on the wire EDM, or build hard tooling.
"Maybe it's just a blanking operation on the fourslide for a first, small production run, knowing that if it ever gets to a higher volume, we'll start throwing more of those form tools in there or get more done in the high-volume progressive operation," Morgan said. "But in the meantime, we'll kick it over to our prototyping/secondary area. Or maybe it all will be done in secondary.
"The fact that we have so many disciplines under one roof gives us an incredible number of options. Probably one of the biggest challenges is deciding—from an economic standpoint—what makes the most sense at any given time," Morgan said.
Price Options. Quotes are similarly flexible: "We'll say, 'Here's an approach with zero tooling. Here's an approach with a couple thousand dollars in tooling. Here's an approach with $30,000 in tooling,'" Morgan said.
"It really depends on the customer, on their order pattern," Morgan said. "They'll call us and say, 'This job we've been ordering a couple thousand a month—it's gonna ramp up to 200,000 pieces a year. What can you do? How can you change your processes to help us out and get the piece price down?'
"On the consumer parts for electronics and computers, the pace is fast and the design is set so close to the launch date," Foote said. "Often we'll supply them for the first couple months with soft-tooled parts, even while we're building a prog die for later long-run production, so those are going on in parallel. Obviously, the customer wants us to convert over from the $2 soft-tooled part to the 30-cent hard-tooled part as soon as we can."
The company applies its ingenuity to beat China on price. "One way we compete with China is not to have a human touch the part. Everything happens in the tool, including in-die tapping," Moore said. When a customer approached the company to produce a part, its original concept called for three spot welds. "There are millions of pieces! There's no way we'd ever be competitive on that. So we re-engineered the part to include small extrusions which were placed into holes and staked automatically in the tool. It completely eliminated all secondary labor operations," Moore said (seeFigure 3).
"We knew, conceivably, it could be done by hand on a press brake in Asia, with thousands of people using hand tools, but the fact that we could do it at over 6,000 pieces an hour and eliminate a secondary operation that would have cost 12, 15, 17 cents on every single part made us competitive," Moore continued. "We took cost out of the part. At that point, it doesn't matter that the tool costs rise to $70,000 from $30,000. It's going to pay for itself in the first month or so."
Now that the company refined its small-components niche, a customer has asked it to stretch in another direction. "You know that saying, 'Your customer tells you what business you're in'?" Foote asked.
A good customer asked Scandic to expand its capabilities to produce 17-inch interior tray assemblies for electrical devices to meter energy in wind towers. For the first time, Foote had to shop for a 150-ton press and feed line.
"For years, we did really good work for a customer, and finally they said, 'We want you to take a step up to do 17-inch parts,' knowing that we didn't have the equipment to do it. We were very candid about that. They said, 'Well, if you want the work, we'd like you to have it.'
"It's not at all uncommon. It's a good way to grow and get into another process, because it's a trust relationship," Foote said.
It's "trust relationships" like that which prompt Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco Systems to give Scandic an annual blanket purchase order.
"The new frontier is in making electronics devices even smaller; they're moving now from micro- to nanotechnologies," Moore said. "In five years there may be a 34- or 35-nanometer transistor—34 billionths of a meter!
"A few years ago I would have said devices can only get so small—because you're dealing with the laws of physics. But they're discovering new compounds and elements, and who knows where the nano field is going to go? I don't think anybody's seen the limit yet," Moore said.
It doesn't appear as though anyone's seen Scandic's limits yet either.
A fourslide machine is a type of metal forming press. It handles both strip and wire. It looks very different from your basic punch press. The grip-feeding mechanism is part of the machine, as opposed to a stand-alone feeder. Just like a progressive die, it can have multiple stations in the die.
The forming area is very interesting. You have slides coming from the front, right, left, and back—four slides—that form the part over a central mandrel. You also have vertical forming motion. So you have all sorts of flexibility in the timing of your slides and the approaches. In a punch press, you stamp up and down only. If you want to get bends more than 90 degrees, you can do it, but you need to curl it, you need to get slides in there somehow. Fourslide machines have that capability already built in. — R. Hale Foote, president, Scandic Springs Inc.