Another day, another economic recovery

Job shop rebounds quickly with fiscal conservatism, pragmatism

The FABRICATOR November 2010
November 12, 2010
By: Tim Heston

One Columbus, Ohio, job shop recovered quickly from the recession. The organization has a history of financial conservatism and pragmatism—and today’s black ink is a testament to the shop’s success.

Another day, another economic recovery -

Figure 1: A technician at Ometek measures angles in copper busbars. The work harks back to the shop’s origins, serving the electrical business.

Pizza never tasted so good. That thought probably crossed at least one employee’s mind at the end of March 2009, when managers at Ometek Inc. threw a small pizza party in the company cafeteria. It was no big hurrah, but the get-together signified relief. After a few scary months, the Columbus, Ohio, fabricator was profitable again.

In 2008 Tom Mackessy, company president, made some tough choices. He’d been through recessions before, and he knew the signs. “When you’ve been in business for 40 years, you’ve been through recessions a few times, and you start to see things happen earlier and earlier in the process.”

Mackessy knew that January 2009 would be tough. So he got proactive and triggered some unpleasant events so significant that two years later he remembers the exact date he decided to move forward.

“On Dec. 1, 2008, I made a conscious decision that things were going to get worse whether we liked it or not. We adjusted our business forecast, we let some folks go, adjusted our overhead—all the things you need to do to prepare.”

In December the company just broke even. In January work slowed to a crawl and Ometek, as Mackessy expected, reported a significant loss. In February the company reported a slight loss, but by the next month something happened: a little black ink.

“I think we made $937 in March 2009,” Mackessy recalled, “and after we saw that, we had a party. Our thinking was, ‘Hey, business is horrible. It’s the worst time we had ever seen, and you know what? We didn’t die, since then we’ve had our ups and downs, but our business has been pretty good over the past year.”

Paul Siders, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, shook his head wearily and chimed in with a qualifier: “It’s been feast or famine.” Translation: Demand in some sectors has ebbed and flowed, but work from other sectors has filled in the gaps. “We’d lose a customer because they’d lose a project, or some work may go overseas, but something else has always been there,” he said.

Mackessy added that what has guided the company through the past decade is “dry powder”—that is, a strong cash position. Available cash has allowed the company to invest in a laundry list of technologies that reads like the index in Machinery’s Handbook: laser cutting, punching, sawing, shearing, waterjet cutting, deburring, bending, milling, turning, wire bending, robotic and manual welding, hardware insertion, powder coating, screen printing, and assembly. Managers said that, almost always, equipment investment hasn’t been about the next job; it’s been about the next few years.

Financial conservatism helped managers emerge from the Great Recession quickly. Today the shop employs more than 80. Available cash allowed Ometek to avoid desperation and take the long view, an attitude that shows when analyzing the company’s approach to shop floor technology and continuous improvement.

Cutting to Powder Coating

By the shop entrance is a manufacturing cell devoted to copper busbars. A technician with a horizontal caliper measures the dimensions between two 90-degree bends (see Figure 1). Next to him is a stack of copper strips recently delivered from a waterjet machine in the nearby machining department.

Another day, another economic recovery -

Figure 2: Ometek launched as a machine shop but gradually shifted its focus to metal fabrication. The mills now help bring previously cut or punched parts to within tight tolerances.

The manufacturing cell came about after one customer decided to get out of the busbar manufacturing business and offloaded its in-house manufacturing onto the people at Ometek, who were happy to take on the work. The cell also harks back to the shop’s origins. Mackessy’s father launched Ohio Metal Technologies (later shortened to Ometek) in 1977 to supply metal components to his own electrical business, which made components for early industrial microcomputers.

“This was before most people knew what a microcomputer was,” Mackessy recalled.

Ometek began with five employees and a few machining centers. From there the shop gradually brought in more sheet metal fabrication work. The move toward sheet metal wasn’t part of some grand plan. Managers just realized that Columbus had plenty of machine shops but few precision sheet metal fabricators. Today several Haas machining centers take up only a small area in the shop, but they allow the fabricator to take on tight-tolerance work (see Figure 2).

“We do a lot of machining on components that normal fabrication tolerances won’t allow us to meet,” Siders explained. “So we’ll knock out a portion of a job on, say, the turret punch press, then bring it over to the machine shop to mill and ream holes to very tight tolerances.” Other parts may be cut first on the nearby waterjet, then finish-machined in a mill. The abrasive waterjet, from Flow International, cuts with 87,000 PSI and has an articulating head.

The shop has a few traditional manufacturing cells, such as the one devoted to copper busbars, with different machines grouped together to produce a family of products. But for the most part, machines are arranged in traditional, process-based departments; but walking distance between departments is minimal. Cutting machines are close to the flat-part deburring machine, which is next to the bending area, and so forth.

Being a job shop, part flow can vary greatly from job to job. But for much of its work, part flow is U-shaped. Sheets come in the door and are sheared to size if needed for a particular nest, or are shuttled directly to the cutting area, where they flow through one of four Amada cutting machines: three turret punch presses and a 4-kW laser cutting center. Directly behind sits a Fladder flat-part deburring system with brushes that move clockwise and counterclockwise.

“The electronics industry hates sharp edges,” Siders said. “We used to have eight guys here manually deburring parts, and that just didn’t cut it.”

Behind this are the company’s press brakes and robotic and manual welding cells. At this point parts reach the bottom of the U, and every subsequent operation moves parts closer to the loading dock. First is a room dedicated to postweld grinding, then powder coating, screen printing, assembly, final inspection, and finally shipping.

Siders pointed to a CNC wire bender, a machine he admitted not many know the company has. But the company’s powder coat operators certainly appreciate the technology. The company no longer buys hooks. Instead the wire bender makes them custom for each job, which means parts always hang correctly so that the line sprays on an even, smooth coat (see Figure 3).

Next to the powder coat area is screen printing (see Figure 4). “We have some unique screens we’ve made,” Siders said. “We’ve made screens with cutouts in them. If a part has a feature protruding from the surface, we have a hole on a screen we put on top of it.” The shop also screen-prints curved components. Siders pointed to a contoured door, which was screen-printed using a unique curved frame. “That part is very difficult to do, but we’ve done very well with it.”

Another day, another economic recovery -

Figure 4: Signs like these, which hang throughout the plant, give a clear picture of how parts flow.

The assembly area demonstrates the diversity of Ometek’s customer base. One employee assembles a weighing device used at grocery stores. Someone else assembles a sheet metal chassis and associated copper parts and insulators for a supplier of automated drives and motors. Next to that is a sheet metal component for a high-speed shipping scale, which Ometek’s customer sells to FedEx and similar operations. Not far away, someone else applies a reflective vinyl to a cut and powder-coated extrusion, part of a sign placed on airport runways to direct pilots.

The reflective vinyl, in fact, shows how good ideas win work. The design requires the extrusions to have a certain amount of reflectivity. Years ago the design called for a Plexiglas® mirror, which added significant cost to each part. Ometek proposed replacing the material with the vinyl, which is a fraction of the cost. “So we apply the vinyl, cut out the necessary holes, and that’s it,” Siders said. “Simple. And we’re doing more than 35,000 of these a year.”

Ometek gives assemblies tags to signify where they stand in production (see Figure 5 and Figure 6). If they’re ready to ship, they’re given a green tag and placed on racks under (appropriately) a green “Pack and Ship” sign. For several customers, Ometek manufactures parts on a simple replenishment system. As customers order products, they’re immediately delivered, which in turn triggers production for more products.

Shop Layout Changes

In 2000 many machines on the company’s 100,000-square-foot shop floor were against one wall, configured for one large telecom contract for TDMA and CDMA (time/code division multiple access) cabinets, the demand for which abounded during the telecom infrastructure-building heyday.

Siders paused. “Things changed, obviously.” The boom ended, as did the plethora of telecom work. So Ometek managers set out to make floor layout more flexible and leaner, with more focus on part movement and WIP reduction.

They haven’t hesitated to move the smaller machines around larger ones, if job volumes call for a hard manufacturing cell. At one time, for instance, the shop set up a cell around the company’s turret punch press. Designed for roof panel work, the cell allowed parts to be punched, then bent in nearby brakes, then stud-welded and embossed.

Many job shops these days manage a number of small jobs, and Ometek is no different. Many jobs used to start around 500 piece-parts in the 1990s. If a job called for fewer parts that could fit on a sheet, an operator would just nest an entire sheet, then throw out what wasn’t needed. Back then the cost of the extra setup time outweighed any gains in material utilization. Today is different. Short-run orders are the norm, and jobs calling for 25 pieces aren’t unusual.

Small Lot Sizes, Lean Processing

Several years ago Shahrukh Irani, associate professor at The Ohio State University’s Department of Integrated Systems Engineering, sent several dozen industrial engineering students to Ometek for a taste of high-mix, low-volume manufacturing. “Some of his students picked up very quickly that we’re not Toyota. We’re a dyed-in-the-wool job shop. At first, a few would ask, ‘Why don’t you fixture this?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘we’re only going to make three of them, and we may never make any more.’”

Fast learners, the students ultimately helped Ometek revamp its shop layout for fast material movement. For instance, in the press brake area they rearranged the machines into a rectangle, with WIP and tooling in the center. Parts enter and exit in one place, and operators needn’t walk far to reach everything they might need over a shift (see Figure 7).

Siders described a situation where a part might require four unique bends needing four different setups. One operator bending an entire batch and moving those parts to the next brake takes time. “One operator may be waiting half the day for other operators who take longer, because they have more difficult bends,” Siders said.

For this reason, brakes are grouped close enough together so that operators can hand off single parts to one another with little difficulty. The part is bent, passed, bent again on another brake, and then passed again, until bent completely. In one sense, the arrangement roughly adapts the concepts of staged bending to older brakes and tools; different tool sets are set up in a row, just on different press brakes.

That’s why it was no surprise to see Ometek’s latest machine investment, an electric-hydraulic Toyokoki, a 10-foot, 137-ton press brake that allows technicians to program and simulate bend operations offline using Metamation software. It also has common-shut-height tooling seated into a quick-change hydraulic clamp from Wilson Tool (see Figure 8). “It allows us to stage-bend,” Siders said, “so now we can do in a single setup what we used to do in three to four setups.

“Eventually everything will be updated,” he added. “It’s tough to do in these times, but it’s also important to do during these times. It’s even more important than it used to be.”

The company also uses Metamation nesting and production software for its turret punch presses and lasers, which can group disparate small jobs together to maximize material utilization. And it uses another software program to improve decision-making behind job routings. It analyzes past setups for a certain number of repeat jobs, and then chooses the best turret setups to reduce tool changeouts during a given period.

As lot sizes have fallen, the shop schedule has continually re-evaluated job routings. As Mackessy explained, “Our scheduler often asks, ‘I know we’ve punched this job forever, but now that the quantity is 20, does it make sense to punch it, or should we cut it on the laser?’” If the part has louvers or other characteristics that call for form tools, the turret job routing remains. But if no form tools are involved, why not laser-cut it, if the lens is already set up for the metal at hand?

Connecting it all is Made2Manage enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, as evident by 22 computer terminals on the shop floor. Every operator is always within 10 ft. of one. Job travelers now consist of just one sheet. Operators scan it, which brings everything related to the job on-screen, including a 3-D model, which is made for every part before it hits the floor. The model allows workers to zoom in on every part detail to ensure they know the correct orientation and precise part characteristics.

Invisible ISO, Continual Improvement

On Ometek business cards, letterhead, and its Web site is the familiar ISO 9001:2008 designation. The certification has grown more popular throughout various supply chains. Customers appreciate it, Siders said, adding that the ISO seal of approval has reduced customer paperwork. “We certainly don’t have to fill out as many surveys,” he said.

But ask Ometek’s 82 employees about ISO, and they likely wouldn’t have much comment. To them, the certification process is invisible, and that’s how managers think it should be. “We never say to anyone, ‘We’re doing this because it’s an ISO thing,’” Siders said. “We do it because it makes business sense to do it.”

They document and perfect procedures, use flow charts, cross train; in other words, they do everything you’d expect from a job shop with a continuous-improvement culture. All this just happens to satisfy ISO certification requirements.

As another example, the company holds contract review meetings involving the engineering, quality, manufacturing, and sales groups to get everyone on the same page for the jobs on deck. “People don’t like these meetings,” Siders said, “but they’re very effective in determining what we’re going to do before jobs hit the floor.”

Abiding by the process fulfills ISO requirements, but most people at the meeting wouldn’t think it has anything to do with the company’s certification. To them, it’s just a company practice that makes business sense.

That business sense drives most things at Ometek, an organization with a culture characteristic of many job shops: unpretentious pragmatism. They do what makes sense. When asked why the company emerged from the recession so quickly, Mackessy was honest. He wasn’t sure. The shop may have taken work away from competitors. They may have gotten work previously sent to China, but that now doesn’t have the volumes to justify the outsourcing.

What he does know is that on March 31, 2009, the company eked out $937 of profit—and Mackessy has seen mostly black ink since.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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