The latest generation of a family business runs generations of blanking technology.
August 1, 2011
Arin Inc. has evolved from a steel rule blanking house to a modern metal fabricator capable of producing precision, laser cut blanks. Bu workers can see history every day--a tool room for steel rule die remains, as do the mechanical presses. A tour of Arin's shop is a walk through time, a gallery showing what metal fabrication talent has produced over the decades.
When Steve Ross started as a general laborer at Arin Inc. in the northern suburbs of Detroit, every morning he entered a noisy place where mechanical presses banged out parts. Now plant supervisor, Ross walks from the front office through a mostly quiet pressroom—complete with racks holding traditional steel rule dies—to an area with several laser machines cutting away almost constantly.
When I visited he was monitoring the laser cutting of a precision job involving tailor welded blanks, two different material thicknesses joined by a laser weld. The customer sent these prewelded blanks to Arin, which had to cut them in a way that ensured the ridge at the weld seam—where the material jumps up to a thicker gauge—aligned perfectly with adjacent components.
That’s something Arin’s founders probably couldn’t have imagined doing.
Arin opened in 1959 to provide flat blanks for the automotive industry with a process innovative for its day: the steel rule die. A world away from a traditional, hard-tooled blanking die, a steel rule die consists of (as the name suggests) a hardened steel rule placed on a plywood material made of specialized hardwoods, such as maple laminate, the kind of wood you can’t bang a nail into without drilling a pilot hole. The rule, beveled to a sharp edge, is placed on the wood in the shape of the blank desired. During stamping, the rule fractures the metal so that the flat profile snaps out from the surrounding metal. Rubber pads adhered to the substrate help eject the part after being stamped.
Brian Kipke, Arin’s chief operating officer and grandson of the founder, walked me through a quiet room full of old blue Sheridan mechanical presses. “Decades ago there was no laser cutting, so this was the way to go,” he said. “They were able to turn around a [steel rule] tool and die in a few days, and then make parts.” The tools were (and are) durable, lasting up to 100,000 hits, depending on the metal, so they were a cost-effective alternative to a traditional blanking die.
Today such stamping makes up only about 10 percent of Arin’s business. The process still is used when it’s cost-effective to do so. Kipke recalled one recent customer who requested a part it last made more than a decade ago, and Arin still had the steel rule die sitting on a rack. Those idle presses, however old they may be, still represent capacity that Arin can sell, particularly for blank shapes that haven’t changed. Why tie up a busy laser when a mechanical press with a steel rule die could do the job cost-effectively?
Not surprisingly, more and more work has transitioned over to the company’s laser cutting centers. In the 1960s it took several days to build a steel rule die, which was extremely fast compared to traditional steel tooling. But in situations that involve design changes, it’s slow as molasses compared to a laser, which not only can set up fast, but also cut a new blank design with little trouble. All a new blank shape usually requires is a new program. “It may take three days to change [a steel rule] die,” Ross said. “But now with lasers, you give me 15 minutes, I’ll give you another part.”
Arin specializes in the 2-D laser cutting of a variety of volumes, from one to 10,000 parts or more. It has no downstream bending or welding. The customer usually provides the metal. Once the metal arrives at Arin, workers often turn around the job within three days, and sometimes within 24 hours.
“When I started, it normally took seven to 10 days to produce a job after we received the metal,” Ross said. “Jobs with seven- to 10-day lead-times are a myth for us right now.”
Slow business is a myth for Arin as well. When I visited the 18-person shop, the company was working two shifts. Along with customers in a variety of sectors such as defense, the shop serves automotive OEMs directly as well as the automaker supply base, and in 2010 it experienced a significant sales jump mainly because of a demand surge for prototypes. If an automotive OEM needs a small batch of blanks for a prototype, Arin can turn the job around in a few days and sometimes within hours, depending on the job.
The shop hasn’t added to Detroit’s ranks of unemployed. Even during the extremely slow times in 2009, when employees took pay cuts and managers hit the streets to hunt for work, no one was forced to leave. Kipke attributes this to several factors. First, work never slowed to the point of absolute desperation, mainly because the shop was well-suited for what the market demanded: a little of this and a little of that, delivered yesterday. The company also has informal partnerships with area firms. As Kipke explained, companies depend on each other during busy times, so when times got tough, area shops spread around the available work.
This almost altruistic practice harks back to Kipke’s grandfather who, when asked why he started the company, said that it wasn’t just to make money, though being in business for more than 50 years, Arin has made its fair share. It was to give talented people a place to work.
A tour of Arin’s shop floor is a walk through time, a gallery showing what such talent has produced over the decades. Kipke calls Arin’s tool and die room “old school.” Hammers and other hand tools abound. A steel rule die sits on the table for repair. A semiretired diemaker—who started out decades ago making steel rule dies for jigsaw puzzles—periodically comes in to help and, perhaps more important, educate younger workers about what came before them: the hand work, precision, and care of traditional tool and die work.
Kipke and Ross said they have no doubts that Arin’s laser department will get busier, and its steel rule die business will become more of an occasional offering. But it’s an offering all the same, and sometimes even the most cost-effective one, especially if the tooling is in-house, ready to go.
More than that, it’s history, and it gives workers a sense of how far sheet metal cutting technology has come. Besides, those old blue Sheridans banging away did for decades what Kipke’s grandfather wanted. They gave talented people a place to work.