5 ways to become a partner, not just a supplier
January 9, 2012
Metal stampers that produce to print aren't positioning themselves for a prosperous future. They are providing a simple function—one that most shops can provide easily. Today stampers need to offer up expertise along with metal forming capabilities. They need to be able to recognize an opportunity where they can influence product design so that development and manufacturing costs can be minimized. They need to prove their value to customers so that the customer is reluctant to go looking for more value from another competitor. Eagle Wings Industries Inc., Rantoul, Ill., has some ideas on how to do just that.
How many times have you been stuck in a metal forming jam because your company must deliver a prototype as it was designed but you have to request shape changes and deviations at the tail end of the process, right before the first hits are made off the tooling?
It’s not a great place to be, but it is more typical than it should be. Simply put, stamping companies just don’t have the authority to offer as much input early in the design of a metal part as they should have. The customer loses out on a valuable opportunity to reduce part development and manufacturing costs when it chooses not to listen to the party that has to use the design file to make the part in the real world of steel.
That doesn’t have to be the case, however. Stamping companies can be more proactive in asserting themselves in customer-supplier relationships and offering their manufacturing expertise. Many customers may not want that kind of feedback, but if they are interested in cost control—and who isn’t?—they may be doing themselves a disservice. A stamper can provide insight into design for manufacturability efforts that OEM design engineers just don’t have.
Luckily, opportunities exist for stamping companies to assume this role as metal forming experts. Here are five lessons that Eagle Wings Industries has learned over the past couple of years that can turn typical supply chain relationships into true partnerships.
It takes two to tango, and it takes two talented people willing to work with each other to tango really well. The same holds true for supply chain relationships.
If a manufacturer wants one-way communication, then the stamper has to live with that. It’s not a warm and fuzzy relationship, but it’s reality more times than not.
But it’s not the case for everyone either. Sometimes a manufacturer may be the perfect candidate to receive stamping advice and not realize it.
For example, consider a manufacturer that has centralized part design responsibility in the U.S. for one or multiple facilities. The design engineers work under one roof and probably interact with each other on a regular basis. They are not dealing with design coordination spread over a large geographic area or even with overseas supervision. They are running the show as it relates to metal component manufacturing.
That opens the door for the engineering representatives of the stamping company to meet directly with the entire design team. In fact, such face-to-face meetings allow the manufacturer’s design engineers to present overall design goals and the stamping company to supply its perspective on just what is necessary to manufacture that particular design.
In one meeting with a new customer, Eagle Wings Industries was able to explain why the direction of a workpiece entering a press could play a big part in its manufacturability. Spurred by safety concerns for assembly workers, component design engineers specified that burrs be directed a certain way after the metal part exited the press. That presented a problem because it was a lot more difficult to run the part through the press in the direction requested. Alternatives such as flipping the part over and running it in a different direction or restriking the part in the same press bed were suggested to arrive at the same burr-free result.
Over time the customer learns what the stamping company has to offer and begins to trust its input. Obviously, the supplier doesn’t have automatic acceptance for every change suggested, but at least the lines of communication are now more open compared to a more traditional supply chain situation.
Also, it helps if the customer itself is a supplier to another company, such as an automotive component manufacturer that might be higher up the chain in serving the OEMs. It helps the customer understand what it takes to be a good supplier, and it is more likely to recognize what other companies are good at—and trust them to provide that expertise.
If a stamping company is lucky enough to be included in component design reviews, it shouldn’t limit the invitation list. It should invite representatives from the tooling shop (see Figure 1) and—if it makes sense—the prototype shop.
The tooling shop can provide simulations for the customer in a few hours for simple parts and a matter of days for truly complex components. These simulations can help to pinpoint problem areas in the forming process, and design corrections or adjustments in the tooling can be discussed before tool building ever commences.
Of course, if the stamping company does not have its own tool and die capability, it needs to establish a working relationship with a tooling builder that can provide these types of simulations upon request. Hopefully, the tool- and diemaker’s effort is rewarded with new work and saved production time down the road because the manufacturing customer signed off on the tooling design.
By including the prototype shop in these types of discussions, the stamping company can influence the way the shop builds its prototype tooling. If that prototype tooling mimics the production tooling, the stamper gets a jump on production because it doesn’t have to reinvent the way that the tool is built. Also, the prototype shop will be able to understand just how to produce the metal part, giving it a new level of intimacy with the job. Typically, a prototype shop is interested in using the fewest number of tools as possible to create a die—all in the name of expediency. Being involved more closely with the design effort helps the prototype shop to know that it’s a vital piece of the development cycle, not just a provider of outsourced services.
Initial face-to-face meetings can help everyone in the supply chain relationship grow more comfortable with each other, but it’s not logical to think that those meetings can occur on a regular basis, particularly given the hectic nature of the manufacturing world. Web-based meetings are useful in replicating the effectiveness of the face-to-face meetings.
In the most basic sense, everyone is on a conference line and can see the same files on their respective computer screens. These online meetings allow everyone to see and understand why things are a certain way in the 3-D models being shared.Further down the component design road, the stamping company can share simulations of how the upper and lower tools work as the metal part is formed. It’s not a live demonstration of a die in a stamping press (see Figure 2), but it’s just as effective.
It also should be noted that experience with this type of Web-based working relationship is integral to making an overseas production relationship work. Not everyone is involved in such business, but today’s customers are more likely than ever to request such relationships to take advantage of lower manufacturing costs. Having the ability to share designs on a screen makes communication much easier with those overseas sources.
A partnership during the design phase of a part can succeed only if communication is correct and current. That’s why any engineering change order has to be updated in a timely and organized fashion.
If a stamper is lucky, it’s working with a sophisticated customer that has a Web portal that alerts its suppliers to design changes. An e-mail is sent to all parties when an engineering change is made, or the supplier is vigilant as it watches the portal for notification that a change has occurred.
If a stamper is working through more traditional communication lines, it receives a phone call or even a piece of correspondence delivered by the U.S. mail.
In all scenarios, the stamper has to notate all changes in the 3-D design software and ensure that all parties have been notified about the change. Ancillary questions related to how the changes will affect tooling pricing and performance also need to be answered in a timely fashion.
Handling engineering changes is a challenge for most operations. Any action taken to automate the notification process, or at least push changes through in a more organized way, goes a long way in securing that supply chain partnership.
Creating a successful partnership takes time and experience. A stamper can tell a customer about the benefits of a stamper contributing input for better manufacturability all day long, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is going to improve.
To foster acceptance of this new approach to supply chain interactivity, the stamping company should demonstrate a new approach in the way it works with the customer. For instance, when the inevitable engineering change comes through, the stamper shouldn’t immediately look at it as a chance to increase fees. The stamping company should make it as easy as possible for the customer to conduct its business, and nickel-and-diming is not the way to accomplish that.
In the end, no partnership is perfect. But practicing these lessons can help to elevate a mundane, transaction-based relationship into a partnership where the manufacturing customer and the stamper have the best interests of each other in mind.