Reality TV: Frame-making in the U.S.

Oceanside, Calif.-based fabricator successfully competes in global CRT framemaking market

The FABRICATOR November 2005
November 8, 2005
By: Dan Davis

Sumitomo Metal Mining USA (SMMU) Inc. has supplied cathode ray tube frams to some of the largest, high-end television manufacturers in the world from its Oceanside, Calif., facility. Despite the trend in moving manufacturing overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor pools, SMMU believes it is poised to remain competitive while maintaining its U.S. base of operations.

The A member of the CRT frame is a roll formed strip of chromium molybdenum steel, and the B member is a cold-rolled steel tube cut and bent for the application. When brought together, they form the CRT frame for the front of a television.

The game of international trade excites and incites. Take China as an example. China's economy is growing by leaps and bounds, and the country's entrepreneurs and state-owned industries are searching internationally for potential customers. New players are jumping into the North American marketplace at an increasing rate. Earlier this year Chinese computermaker Lenovo Group Ltd. bought IBM's personal computer business, and the year before another Chinese company formed a joint venture with Thomson of France essentially to take over its television business, which includes the RCA brand.

For China, the growth is employing millions and raising the standard of living for its citizenry. For others, the growth sometimes is viewed as a threat. In the U.S., many believe that China's voracious appetite for manufacturing jobs has wiped out entire domestic industries, with the demise of the toy and cookware segments usually cited as proof.

But not all is lost. Some U.S. manufacturing segments are still hanging on, and fabricators in those segments are learning to compete against Chinese and other international forces.

The several different B members lie on a worktable on one of SMMU's production lines so that operators can reference them for visual checks.

SMM USA Inc. (SMMU) is one such company. For the last 15 years, it has supplied cathode ray tube (CRT) frames to some of the largest, high-end television manufacturers in the world from its Oceanside, Calif., facility. During that time the company has witnessed U.S. television manufacturing activity shrink, foreign companies assume ownership of venerable brands, and new Asian brands grab shelf space in U.S. discount stores. Despite the many changes, the company has remained competitive as a source of these high-precision fabrications because of its flexibility on the shop floor, its commitment to automation, and its relationships with customers and suppliers.

What Is SMMU?

SMMU is a subsidiary of a Sumitomo group member in Japan. When a major television manufacturer set up operations in the U.S., it asked its longtime supplier, Sumitomo, to establish North American operations as well. That led to the creation of SMMU and the establishment of the Oceanside Division.

Line technicians manually load steel members into jigs before robotic GTAW units join the pieces together.

Today the company operates out of two facilities. Building 1 is a 70,626-square-foot building that houses three active production lines, and Building 2 is a 142,970-sq.-ft. building, of which SMMU is using only 74,295 sq. ft. for two other production lines.

Building 2 houses a production line for a 29-inch CRT frame. Because the product line is SMMU's highest-volume product—approximately more than 100,000 frames monthly—the line is dedicated to this one frame design. Other frames produced are two types of 32-in. and 36-in. frames, one for a high-definition wide television, one for a traditional wide television set; a 34-in. frame for a flat-screen model; and a 38-in. frame. Typical volumes for these products run anywhere from 115,000 to 170,000 units per month.

In the past SMMU also has fabricated 17- and 19-in. frames for computer terminals and frames as large as 42 in. In June the company produced its 33 millionth frame.

Employment at SMMU reached its peak in January 2000 at 200 as the company dealt not only with its TV frame manufacturing business, but also took on monthly production of 430,000 computer monitor frames for two large customers—one of which was in Mexico. With the emergence of LCD flat-screen technology in the computer market, that business shrank, and personnel has leveled off at 125 spread over three shifts.

SMMU always has prided itself on its fabricating flexibility, but the company was truly put to the test when it took on the manufacture of the monitor frames.

SMMU has approximately 100 robots in its fabricating facility. This robot handles the loading and unloading of CRT frames at the shotblasting unit.

"When we started with computer monitors, we started with the 17 inch and went into the 19 inch. But they also had several different models of those [in the two size categories], so we had to convert our lines to fit the other models," said Karin Spink, SMMU's vice president, business development/administration. "For instance, the 17-inch model might have had two models, so we learned to convert one line over rather than setting up two separate lines.

"Then around the same time we started to do the 34-inch [CRT frame] with the curve, and the customer started to go with a little bit flatter screen. So we just converted another line," she added. "From that standpoint, we learned that it would be much more profitable for us and give us better productivity if we were more flexible."

The company has not forgotten that lesson as it has matured.

Let's Get Flexible

Line 3 in Building 1 is a good example. The line is set up to manufacture four different models of the 32-in. and 36-in. frame sizes. The line capacity—whether the line is producing 32-in. or 36-in. models—is roughly about 43,000 a month.

"The flexibility in the lines is twofold," Spink said. "For example, a customer will take an existing model and then make a design change, but it will keep the old model as the market transitions to the new model. So we have to have flexibility within the line.

For the CRT frames to work correctly in a television set, the welded joint between the A and B member must be sealed completely. To check this, a pinhole is left in the B member, and an inline vacuum test takes place. If the seal is good, a pin is inserted in the hole to keep the inside of the tube clean, and the frame continues down the line. If the seal is bad, the frame is taken off the line to be manually rewelded.

"Then there is the flexibility between the lines," she continued. "If there is a high demand for something, we can balance it by supplementing production on one of our other lines. We could change tooling to accommodate the increased demand."

If the CRT frame has been produced before and the shop floor can rely on previous robotic programming, a changeover in the line simply involves a change in jigs and robotic hands.

The changeover for a roll forming line, however, is a bit more complicated. But SMMU still has been able to introduce its own version of a quick-change act on its two lines.

Because quality of the A members, the cold-rolled strip of steel that acts as the horizontal brackets of the CRT frame, is so critical, SMMU roll forms and cuts its own components. Some A member components, particularly on the new flat-model frames, have a tolerance of only ±0.5 millimeter in which one frame can differ from the next.

Even with the tight tolerances, SMMU personnel can change out all the tooling on one of its roll forming lines within a day. Theoretically, the fabricator could run two jobs for two different A member sections, which could be made of 7-mm-thick steel strip, on the same line in the same day.

The welding jigs are specially designed so that they grab the metal pieces and ensure the steel members are in the correct position before the weld takes place.

Ramping up to handle the huge influx of computer monitors helped SMMU learn flexibility lessons, but company officials credit the shop floor personnel with perfecting its production approach. An extensive training program contracted with the state of California, which took place from 2000 to 2002, helped cross-train employees so they could do more than one job.

"Even though our lines are similar, there's enough of a difference on each line that, if you haven't worked it, you can contribute to inefficiency and potentially make a mistake that could lead to a bigger problem," said Jeffrey Wright, SMMU's production manager.

A typical production line requires seven workers: two to load the four section members that become the frame, one process technician near the front of the line and another toward the end, and three employees to assist with unloading and packaging. Previously production line operators did not float from loading to unloading, and process technicians stuck to one end of the line where they displayed expertise, such as proficiency in the milling process. Now shop floor personnel do more than one job on more than one line.

"One week we may run Lines 1, 3, and 4, and Lines 1, 2, and 4 the next week," Wright said. "Well, the people on Line 3 can easily go to Line 2 and handle that."

The cross-training effort has energized employee enthusiasm and made it easier for SMMU to respond to situations as large as a change in production volume or as small as a medical absence, according to Wright.

To foster the cross-training environment, the company documents everything. That way if a new employee joins the fold, he or she gets the same training as someone hired previously.

"We found in the very beginning that we had senior operators that really knew what they were doing, but when they transitioned away from the company, some information went with them. So as information got passed along to the next person and then to the next person, we saw a loss of knowledge," Spink said.

SMMU achieved its ISO certification in 1994. Its commitment to ISO standards ensures that production and specification changes are incorporated into written manuals. As a result, new employees always have the latest training and specification documents.

Automation Propagation

SMMU shop floor personnel fabricated this racking system to keep all the packaging materials neatly organized and within a few steps of the production line's end.

Technology and a skilled employee base contribute to a flexible shop, but automation boosts shop floor efficiency for SMMU. Zentaro Ito, the company's assistant engineering manager, estimates SMMU has about 100 welding and material handling robots in its two buildings. That makes SMMU unique among U.S. manufacturers, which tend to rely mostly on human labor. FANUC Robotics, the manufacturer of SMMU's robots, estimates that for every one robot in a U.S. factory there are 238 humans.

To grasp a firmer understanding of how automation is used in SMMU's facility, a closer look at Line 4 in Building 2 is beneficial. This line is dedicated completely to fabricating 29-in. CRT frames and turns out as many as 5,000 per day.

The two A members, formed on the roll forming lines in Building 1, and the two B members, cut to length and formed on stamping presses nearby, come together in a welding cell at the front of the production line. A production line operator loads the four members into an automated jig that clamps down when the four members are in place. Four Fanuc gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) robots using tungsten electrodes and argon shielding gas handle the joining duties.

Once joined, the frames are placed on the conveyor and move to an in-process inspection station. Just as gauges, special jigs, and statistical process control software are used to keep tabs on fabricating quality of the A and B members, so too are those tools used on the production line.

In fact, a vacuum test is done automatically on the frame to check for pinholes. The vacuum test hooks up to two small holes that were previously drilled into the two B members. If the weld joint is airtight, a pin is automatically inserted into the tube to ensure the inside remains clean. Then the frame moves on to the annealing process.

'During this time a precisely controlled electric furnace heats the frames so that internal stresses related to forming, bending, and welding are released.

From there a conveyor moves the frames to a computer-controlled FANUC robot that loads and unloads the frames onto a carousel inside the shotblasting unit. After the metal shot removes contaminants from one set of frames, leaving a clean, pear-grained surface on the frame, the carousel rotates, exposing the newly loaded frames to the shotblasting process and introducing the newly cleaned frames for unloading.

An NC milling operation takes place next, and another FANUC robot loads the frames into the milling machine. Here the A members' curved edges are milled to get a smooth surface and proper radius. The tolerance on this process is ±0.08 mm. The tight tolerance is necessary so television manufacturers can apply a mask that assists in controlling beam direction.

After milling, an inline inspection takes place. The operator looks to see if the milled surface is within specs. Also, the operator manually fills out a statistical process chart, which, Wright said, helps to keep the employees engaged with the quality process.

"We feel that's important because it gives it more of a personal touch rather than just waiting for the computer to tell you if there is a problem or not," he said. "Not only does it require the technician to calculate the data, make the plot, and sign off, but it's also on a regimented schedule. It keeps them in tune with what's going on."

If the frames prove to be OK, a robot moves the frames to the automatic robotic deburring units.

Another robot moves the frames from the deburring machine to a chamber where an organic oil coating is applied to prevent oxidation from occurring during periods of storage and shipment. A dryer blows off the excess coating and aids the evaporation of the remaining coating.

At the end of the line, operators are responsible for the last inspection, as well as packaging.

"Even our packaging people are in tune with what is going on. They can spot issues if they pop up and quarantine that production lot of CRT frames," Wright said.

Also occurring at this stage is a data inspection. Inspection results for each manufacturing lot are collected and stored in SMMU's production database. A printed copy of the data inspection certification is included with each shipment to the customer.

In this instance that The FABRICATOR witnessed, five CRT frames were assembled for one wrapped package. This approach for this particular customer allowed SMMU to fit more frames in the shipment because the smaller-sized packages could be configured more easily depending on the amount of shipping room available. Previously larger-sized packages couldn't be broken down to accommodate smaller slots that may have been available on a shipment.

The frames are wrapped manually and loaded onto reusable racks for delivery.

The automated approach with a dash of human intervention seems to meet SMMU's needs. The company remains competitive in an industry in which many OEMs move to Mexico and China to take advantage of reduced labor rates.

Meanwhile the approach has not meant a sacrifice in quality. Right now SMMU has a total goal of eight rejections per year for all product lines.

"We set internal targets that are usually more stringent than what our customers require," Wright said.
Working Together

The reusable racking system is just one area in which SMMU has worked with its customers to deliver cost reductions. Such an approach is key to keeping the doors open for business in Oceanside.

"It all begins with the customer," said Hitoshi Suzuki, SMMU's director and senior vice president.

Ito offered several examples of SMMU's cost-reduction efforts:

  • A recent investigation of material for the CRT frames revealed that a suitable alternative steel may be feasible. It also happens to be less expensive than the current steel selection.

  • An extensive look at the die that cut the tubing used to create the B member led to some tooling changes. Now, for instance, the Komatsu 60-ton press used on Line 1 produces cut tubing that results in less scrap, but still provides the strength needed to stand up to the bending die in the next production step.

  • The roll forming lines used to rely on a double cut to separate one A member from another. Engineering and quality personnel worked together to develop a single cut that met tolerance requirements and resulted in a scrapless production method.

Donald Houser, SMMU's vice president of operations, said such an approach to cost reduction may be a derivative of a Japanese approach to manufacturing.

"I've been with the company for more than 15 years, and one of the reasons I came to work here was the Japanese management style," he said. "One of the things I first noticed was the way they treat their customers and vendors—trying to establish relationships, sharing ideas, and sharing costs.

"So when we talk with our vendors and the people who are in [our customer's] procurement positions, we say, "Let's not always take the cheapest, but let's look and see what makes the most sense,'" he added. "The Japanese influence is in the fact that we want to get the cost down, but also consider what some of the other costs are. "That's the influence on our management style—work with vendors, get corrective actions, simplify processes, and maintain costs. And it works."

Manufacturing in the U.S.

The approach has worked well, apparently. When it first set up shop in California 15 years ago, SMMU had two North American competitors, both on the East Coast and both with automotive ties. Today both of those competitors no longer serve the CRT market.
Competition in the current marketplace comes from companies outside U.S. borders.

"China comes up a lot," Spink said. "But again, it goes back to quality. The frame is a specialty type of product, and it requires that kind of collaborative effort with the customer. It requires high quality, flexibility, and ability to react to changes."

The lessons of the past have taught SMMU valuable skills for the future. The company is in the right frame of mind to take on today's fabricating reality from its U.S. base of operations.

SMM USA Inc., 4055 Calle Platino, Oceanside, CA 92056, 760-941-4500, fax 760-941-0900,

FANUC Robotics America Inc., 3900 W. Hamlin Road, Rochester Hills, MI 48309, 248-377-7000,

Komatsu America Industries LLC, 199 E. Thorndale Ave., Wood Dale, IL 60191, 630-860-3000, fax 630-860-5680,

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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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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