July 23, 2010
Operating seven days a week fabricating and shipping products domestically and worldwide, Alpharetta, Ga.-based Metcam Inc. has found a formula for success that has this company thriving when others are struggling to survive.
Tucked away in a rural setting in the north Atlanta suburbs, Metcam Inc. blends into its pastoral environment on a much deeper level than meets the eye. Inside the 100,000-sq.-ft. facility, workers fabricate and assemble precision-made sheet metal products bound for both domestic and foreign markets, all under a green, ISO 14001 umbrella that keeps this progressive operation environmentally friendly to its workers and the world outside its doors. As an added bonus, the company’s green initiative also has contributed to its leaner and meaner goals.
Metcam began in the 1980s as Mowtron, a company established to manufacture a robotic lawn mower. According to Metcam Vice President Jerry Ward, one of Mowtron’s original owners, the lawn mower followed a wire in the ground and cut the grass – “Mows while you doze; clips while you sip. Sit on your ass, while you cut your grass.”
To produce the mowers, the company bought a single-station, 4-ft. Strippit shear and a Chicago press brake. A sheet metal shop quality inspector and shop manager who worked for Scientific Atlanta taught the new business owners how to use the equipment. Because of this arrangement, the company also received a $12,000 order to produce parts for Scientific Atlanta.
Commenting on the training, Ward said, “We waited all day for [the trainers] to get here. Right off we had ordered the aluminum for the chassis work, and my brother decided to shear the parts to size. Well, all the metal was out of square, so we had our first lesson on how to fix parts, because we did not have two quarters to rub together.
“After we got going and were running production, we utilized the folks from Scientific as quality inspectors. We continued to learn.”
“About 1984 two engineers from Western Electric/Bell Labs called and wanted to meet about making some parts. They came over and said they were putting light through glass. It was interesting, but we really did not understand how big this really was. It was the beginning of fiber optics. We ended up growing and buying machinery every time more orders came in.
“We eventually dropped the lawn mower because of product liability insurance costs and also because our sheet metal fabrication business was growing so fast.”
In 1989 a group of investors bought Mowtron and changed the name to Metcam.
Metcam’s owners immediately began investing in the company and the business expanded rapidly. Today it operates seven days a week and employs 145 workers.
In 2000 the company found itself too heavily invested in fiber optics, which comprised 82 percent of its business, and began to diversify its product base. Among the many products it produces today for companies like Tyco Security, Carrier, and Square D are fiber optic trays, components for HVAC, electrical boxes, fire alarm systems, and needle disposal units for municipalities.
Commenting on Metcam’s work force, Ward said, it’s the “best group of people who work as a team I’ve ever seen in my life. Our employees don’t quit. We participate annually in the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association Intl. [FMA] wage survey, compare that data to the state of Georgia data, and make sure our employees are in the mid to upper salary range.”
In 2009, 25 employees from all levels in the company came together at an offsite retreat to develop a revised mission statement. They came up with a simple, meaningful, easy-to-remember sentence: Metcam’s mission is to provide the highest-quality products, delivered on-time. The goals that were set to accomplish this mission were to be leaner, greener, and meaner.
Ever since Ward toured a Fanuc factory in 1983 and saw not one square inch of wasted space, he’s been committed to duplicating that environment at Mowtron and then Metcam, whether it’s called lean or gorilla manufacturing.
“Our lean initiatives are an ongoing effort to eliminate wasted time, space, movements. This is essential due to all our space being consumed. Once parts are formed they must continue quickly through fabrication. We must get meaner and aggressive to compete in a fast-changing economic environment. Businesses are not stocking material because the world economy is too shaky. Customers demand very short lead-times, and if you won’t do it, someone else will. By being meaner we compete with foreign markets and retain product in the U.S. Being meaner we also grow. ‘Can’t’ never did anything.”
Being greener also is an important component of being both leaner and meaner. Metcam has attained certification in both ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, which allows the company to qualify as a supplier of high-quality parts that meet international environmental and regulatory standards, such as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) requirements in the European Union.
Metcam’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Manager Sue Max spearheaded the top management-supported, companywide initiative to obtain ISO 14001 certification. Max said, “As part of our ISO 14001 program implementation, we identified the significant environmental aspects of our operations, along with the associated environmental impacts from these activities. The significant environmental impacts we identified included energy usage, natural resource consumption, and solid waste generation.
“We then set specific objectives and goals for reducing these impacts, beginning with an energy audit conducted in March 2009 by our electrical provider, Sawnee EMC. From the 22 observations documented during the audit, we prioritized three projects that held the most promise to achieve significant energy reductions and provide a solid return on investment.”
The first project was to improve facility insulation by replacing an aging roof with an insulated roofing membrane system comprising a reflective white elastomeric membrane over a 1-inch foam insulating layer.
The second project was installing energy-efficient lighting. Eliminating 100-plus 400-W metal halide lamps and installing T8 fluorescent lights realized an estimated energy savings of 340,000 kWh per year. The cost of new lighting fixtures was minimized in areas where the existing fixtures could be converted to accommodate the new ballasts and lamps. Motion detection sensors were installed in areas that were not continually staffed. Payback for this project was estimated at just less than two years, and the annual CO2 reduction was estimated at 240 metric tons.
The last project was to consolidate and replace older, inefficient air-conditioning units with 12 energy-efficient units linked to a sophisticated digital monitoring and control system.
These projects were scheduled during the spring and summer of 2009, which provided Metcam with additional cost savings from energy rebates and tax incentives available at that time.
Max said employees noticed the positive effects of these projects immediately. T8 lighting produced higher lumen levels and resulted in better lighting throughout the facility. Another improvement was apparent soon after the new air-conditioning systems were installed. After the output from the new units was balanced, zone temperatures became more consistent, which created better working conditions.
Reducing electrical usage and making the work environment more comfortable were just some of the initiatives the company undertook to pursue ISO 14001 certification. All processes were evaluated based on safety in conjunction with environmental aspects. Max said, “Our initiative started at one point, cascaded all the way through the organization, and changed its whole culture.”
This cultural shift extends beyond Metcam’s doors. The company sponsors Earth Day activities and also organizes its workers to walk the roads and pick up trash.
The company’s efforts are a process of continual improvement in which new goals are constantly being set and met. Max, who is a member of FMA’s Green Manufacturer Advisory Board, is passionate about others following suit. “One of Metcam’s goals is to spread the message of sustainability beyond our walls to our neighborhood and community, our suppliers and customers, and to other companies in the metal fabrication industry. Our experience has shown that sustainability can be a good business practice if you select projects with solid return on investment projections, plan the projects to prevent disruption of your production processes, and monitor your progress along the way to ensure you are realizing the positive results and cost savings you expected. If you maintain sustainability as a key consideration in your strategic planning process, it will become a part of your company’s culture over time.”
These positive results extend to the bottom line in tangible ways, such as reducing energy costs, and in those not as tangible but equally important ways, like one Max noted—customers seeing the company’s commitment and follow-through and thinking maybe ‘this is a better supplier.’ Music to a fabricator’s ears.