Waukesha Metal Products embraces the challenge of developing a workforce
January 6, 2012
Enjoying consistent growth is not something that many stamping operations can claim over the last three years, but Waukesha Metal Products is not a typical metal forming company. It is relying on servo press technology and its talented workforce to stand out amongst its peers.
A mountain range subtly anchors the bottom of the business card. A recipient of the card might not give it a second thought if it weren’t handed to him by a representative of a metal manufacturing company … in Wisconsin.
Technically, of course, there are no mountains in Waukesha, Wis., and truthfully, Waukesha® Metal Products is located in nearby Sussex. But that doesn’t really matter to the company’s president and CEO, Jeffrey Clark. What does matter is that the company’s customers know Waukesha—which is a registered trademark, by the way—for its design and manufacturing talents. “Engineered for durability and strength™” is another company trademark, and that’s what Clark wants to reinforce. The company has lofty plans and isn’t going to disappear any time soon—like that mountain range.
“We may not be the prettiest kid on the block, but we’re going to be the one that’s going to come through for you all the time,” Clark said.
Well, not too many ugly kids make the pages of national magazines, but that’s where Waukesha found itself in the fall of 2011. It was named as one of Inc.’s fastest-growing private companies—No. 3,197 overall and No. 110 in the manufacturing industry. The company reported three-year sales growth of 61 percent, from $14.8 million in 2007 to $23.8 million in 2010.
Clark isn’t shy about trumpeting his company’s success. He said he knows manufacturing companies typically don’t do much marketing, much to the detriment of their own business and to the industry’s overall image in the local community. That’s a trap he doesn’t want to fall into.
Of course, who doesn’t like to share a good story?
Waukesha Metal Products began like so many other tool and die shops in the U.S. Two guys thought they could do just as well or better on their own as they did working for someone else.
Two tool- and diemakers started the business in 1971 and jumped into metal stamping in the early 1980s. Soon afterward the production side of the business dwarfed the tool and die business, and the company became known primarily as a stamping house as a result.
Clark entered the picture in 2000 when the company’s owners decided to leave manufacturing. He began in a consultative role, joined the company full-time in 2001, and led the management buyout in 2005.
He was no stranger to metal stamping, having run another metal stamping operation in the Milwaukee area for about eight years prior to coming over to Waukesha. Yet he didn’t seem destined for a career in metal manufacturing. Even though Clark describes himself as a “blue-collar kid,” the son of a machine repairman for a Michigan automaker and a teacher’s assistant, he holds a biochemistry degree and began his career in the environmental cleanup and remediation business. Interestingly, he thinks that science background proved to be helpful in his current activities.
“What I hope for in my business life and what I want people to understand is, we need critical thinkers. We need people who can process,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter what your background is, what your technical training is. If you can critically think and find solutions to problems, you’re going to be successful.”
All you have to do is look at Waukesha’s stamping business to realize that’s true.
Waukesha isn’t too different from many stamping operations. It has a lot of stamping capability—with presses ranging in size from 1.5 to 600 tons and a bed size as large as 120 in. by 60 in. in its largest Minster press. The company employs about 88 people at its Sussex stamping facility.
Those presses, however, aren’t running 24 hours a day and days at a time. The time when automakers planned to manufacture 1 million full-sized pickup trucks is past. In the automotive world, high volume now means 100,000 to 200,000 vehicles in a product run, and within that run are a lot of different models. That trend is not unique to vehicle-makers either.
“There’ll still be some high-volume parts, but I think more of it’s going to be that medium- to low-volume, where you have to be able to adapt your processes,” Clark said.
As an example, Clark pointed to the company’s Komatsu 330-ton servo press (see Figure 1). A servomotor and drive system replaces the more traditional motor and flywheel found on legacy mechanical presses. The servo technology gives the press operator much more control of the ram, which opens the door to an unlimited number of ways the tooling can be exploited to improve material flow in the die. For instance, because the ram can be held in place during the forming process as a result of the servo’s advanced programmability, smaller tooling can be used to create more intricate forms that might have called for larger, multistation tooling that also would probably be much more expensive.
To illustrate the kind of impact the servo technology has made on part design, Clark described a recent job involving the forming of a box made of 304 stainless steel used to hold dental instruments. The cassettes had been fabricated in a seven-step process that included sanding and applying a protective film to ensure scratch-free surfaces.
The customer was skeptical that a progressive die could replace all seven steps of the fabrication proc-ess, but the Waukesha engineering staff was able to convince the customer to agree to let them build progressive tooling for the highest-volume cassette.
The completed tooling design took every measure to prevent marring. It included nonmarking form details and coining stations to remove all burrs. Waukesha also selected the best combination of tool steel and coating to contribute to a smooth forming process. The last part of the puzzle was the ability to program the servo press ram speed. To keep a continual eye on quality during the process, Waukesha engineers equipped the tool with sensors to detect short and long feeds and the exit of parts, as well as stripper sensors on each corner. The end result was a cassette fully formed in a progressive die without any visible wipe or form marks.
Clark said the annual volume for that part is only around 25,000, yet the customer was still able to achieve a six-month return on its investment in the stamping tooling and services. Stamping the part reduced price per part by 70 percent, which allowed the customer to market the stainless steel boxes to dental customers in the competitive Asian markets. This entire effort was recognized by the Precision Metalforming Association when it awarded its 2011 Zierick Manufacturing Corp. Productivity Award to Waukesha in November.
“Most shops said [the approach with a progressive die] couldn’t be done. So you’ve got to be a little innovative,” Clark said.
That includes use of the company’s rich tooling design talent (see Figure 2), tooling design software that ensures the tooling is built correctly, and sensors (see Figure 3) that eliminate mistakes during the stamping process. All play important roles in keeping metal forming priced competitively when compared to fabricating operations.
“Stamping will still remain important because there will still be a cost advantage,” Clark said, “and that’s where I see servo technology really coming into play. If we can do better things with tooling to make it more cost-effective for shorter runs, you can adapt into stamping instead of using traditional sheet metal press brake, turret press, and lasers.”
It should be noted that Waukesha also understands the value of offering metal fabricating services. It purchased Parkview Metal Products, Lake Zurich, Ill., in 2009 and set up a fabricating facility in Grafton, Wis., around the same time. It also acquired certain assets of Metal Skills Plus, Deforest, Wis., toward the end of 2011 (see The Metal Former That Fabricates sidebar).
Waukesha has the technology and knowledge side of the business down. It just needs to develop more talent.
Clark laments the fact that he has to work so hard to sell manufacturing as a career path to students. When a tool- and diemaker can make close to $60,000 per year, the career should speak for itself, right?
“I argue with the high school counselors and teachers sometimes that it’s not about the production cycle and getting 94 percent of your kids to go to a four-year institution so 20 percent can fail. That shouldn’t be the measurement you’re after,” Clark said.
“It really should be the measurement of how to get all these kids, the vast bulk of them, thinking about problems and solving them,” he added. “And people in general all process differently, and what we’ve tried to do is shoehorn everybody into college. It’s not working.”
One of the things that Waukesha has done to unearth talent is link up with a program called Second Chance. Juniors and seniors, who are more apt to learn through hands-on activities rather than being lectured to, spend a couple hours each day at school, then spend the rest of the day at Waukesha. This gives them the chance to start learning a potential trade and link what they’ve learned in math and science classrooms with a real-world profession.
“We battle [the false image of manufacturing] with every parent out there,” Clark said. “It’s partially because of the layoffs. It’s partially because of the perception of dirty manufacturing. But quite honestly, most manufacturing is not dirty anymore. Most of what we do is automated. Most of our people who are higher-skilled have high computer capability and high math capability and also have the hands-on skills beyond that. So they’re fairly skilled, well-rounded individuals that are the top wage earners in the business.”
Even employees in those lower-skilled jobs, the entry-level positions in all shops, have to operate computers, Clark added. The need for problem solvers is common at all levels of the business.
So Waukesha will continue to work with local educational institutions and promote its own business and manufacturing in general. It’ll also continue to push the innovation envelope, investing further in servo technology and investigating more automation for its equipment.
“I never tell people we’re the lowest-cost provider, but I always say that we really strive to be the best cost [provider]. If you can be that for your customers, and that includes how you help them technically to get their solution at the best cost, that’s really where you get ahead.”
It’s also how you build a reputation that is rock-solid—kind of like that mountain range.
Only a couple of years ago more than half of the customer base of Waukesha Metal Products, Sussex, Wis., was in vehicle manufacturing, either light-duty or heavy off-highway. With the purchase of its metal fabricating assets in recent years, Waukesha has diversified that customer mix.
The type of customer isn’t the only thing changing. The type of jobs are as well. Low-volume, high-mix jobs are a growing part of the business.
“[Fabricating] is a little bit of a different animal. It’s a different process group and a different expectation from customers. It’s a much shorter window of expectation in terms of lead-times. They want days,” said Jeffrey Clark, Waukesha’s president and CEO.
The lack of space at its Sussex stamping facility and a desire to keep the distinct styles of metal manufacturing separate led Waukesha to set up a metal fabricating facility in Grafton, Wis. Many companies keep both manufacturing disciplines under one roof, but that wasn’t going to work for Waukesha.
“I do believe that the types of business should be separate because they have different idiosyncrasies that make them go. High production is different than low production. How flow is in a metal fabrication plant is different than flow in a stamping plant,” said Clark. “And I don’t want them to try to be managed the same way. So I physically separate them.”
The facilities’ key personnel are members of the Waukesha leadership team, which also includes representatives from corporate functions such as engineering, human resources, purchasing, and sales. Clark said the arrangement has proven to be successful as the company has worked to market its full range of manufacturing capabilities.