Survival—Are factors other than the economy dragging down your operation?

February 10, 2009
By: Art Hedrick

Art Hedrick, longtime consultant to the sheet metal stamping industry, has observed three internal factors that can negatively affect an operation. In this economic climate in which so much is at stake, you want to make sure that your business does not suffer from these self-destructive characteristics.

I'm not going to sugar-coat it; our economy stinks. As optimistic as I'd like to think I am, I am also a realist. Maybe it's because I live in Michigan, the heart of the U.S. automotive industry. Need I say more?

Like many of you, I also have felt the effects of our economy. Financial outlooks are quite bleak for some die shops and stampers. I wish I were writing a "how to" article about deep-drawing techniques, or several ways to reduce pierce punch breakage. Something to help you reduce your stamping and die-building costs would be great. However, with the economy the way it is, I really doubt if some of the tooling tips I can offer, such as changing the clearance for a piercing operation or polishing a radius in a drawing die, will have a dramatic impact on your overall company profit. No doubt every improvement helps, but realistically, these tips probably won't save your company.

I am not an economist, nor a financial expert, and I certainly don't want to pretend that I have the magic solution that will solve our financial crisis. However, throughout my career as a consultant, I have made some common observations with respect to die shops and stampers. Sharing this knowledge may help your company to be far more competitive.

Observation 1: Shops Tend to Stay in Their Comfort Zones

With the exception of a few shops, most die shops and stampers have a certain niche in which they like to operate. This becomes very apparent when I conduct training in these zone-comfortable shops. Shop owners often like to show me the type of parts that they make and request that I customize the training to fit their needs. Often they say things like "Our shop doesn't do much drawing, so you can skip the section on drawing and go right to the cutting and bending part of the presentation." Of course, I am more than happy to do this. But I can't help but wonder why this company doesn't want to know how to make a deep-drawn part. If I ask why, the standard reply is, "It's just not what we do best. We are really good at brackets; leave the drawing to somebody else."

My opinion is, if you have the equipment to make a die or a part, you should be quoting it. End of story.

I believe the main reason that companies often don't quote parts or dies that are out of their niche is that they really don't know how to make them. They are afraid because they have never done it. Training can eliminate this fear.

Also, keep in mind that companies often are looking for ways to combine several parts into a single part. This usually requires using a drawing or alternate process. Ignorance of a profitable process that you could be doing may be the downfall of your company.

Observation 2: Arrogance Impedes Progress

I'll probably get a couple of nasty e-mails for expressing my opinion about this matter, but please take a look at the data. I currently have 106 clients. These are companies for which I have either conducted training or consulted. Of those clients, nine are die-building shops, five are steel suppliers, and the remaining 92 are production stampers. Most often the main reason a production stamper requests consulting or training is that it's having difficulty producing an acceptable part. Usually the die is at fault. So why is it that the ratio of stampers to die shops is so lopsided? I have a theory. Many die-building shops are arrogant. They don't think they need any help, because they already know everything there is to know about the die-building process. If you don't believe it, just ask them. Don't get me wrong, most shops eventually do conquer most of their tooling problems, but not without a huge cost. They often use the old costly trial-and-error method of troubleshooting. Decisions about how to correct a tooling problem often are made for no reason other than the solution worked on a similar job.

Please accept my apologies if I sound brash; I don't mean to. I work with many toolmakers who have great attitudes and communication skills. As a toolmaker, I once thought I knew everything. There were two ways of doing things—my way and the wrong way. I guess (hope) somewhere along the way I matured. Today I know one thing about myself: I don't know everything about dies or stamping, and I never will. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize what I don't know.

One of my mentors once told me this: "You don't know what you don't know." How right he was. Now it's what I don't know that scares me. Admitting ignorance is not a weakness, it's a strength.

When I conduct a course for a company, one of the first things I tell the group is that I don't know everything about stamping dies, and that I certainly am not trying to tell them how to do their jobs. Instead, I will tell them this: "Please view this session as a meetingamong tooling professionals in which we are going to discuss ways to improve our stamping or die-building process. I happen to have a couple hundred slides, so I might as well be the leader of this meeting." This is how we both learn. Pretty much everything I know, I learned from somebody else.

Efficiency and profit are direct results of understanding. Understanding comes through sharing. Humility is a sign of leadership. Only well-led companies will survive.

Observation 3: Companies Don't Invest Much Time or Money in Culture Building

What often separates a successful company from a failing company? Think it's the machinery? How about the technology? How about the intellect of its employees?

Although all of these factors can affect a company's bottom line, in my opinion, nothing can add greater profit to an organization that a well-trained, happy, self-motivated, creative, and cooperative work force. A "we" organization generally outperforms an "us and them" organization. The good news is that cultural development doesn't have to cost a lot. A good working culture is a product of behaviors. We can change our behaviors at no cost.

Good cultures begin with good leaders. Leaders are interdependent thinkers as opposed to independent thinkers. In other words, they realize that a company's success requires the efforts and knowledge of every individual in the organization. A leader cannot achieve success alone. Good leaders spend a great deal of time developing a culture in which the employees are self-motivated. They make every individual feel important. By example, they show others the value of leadership and encourage them to help develop more leaders. Leadership is a learned behavior.

Good leaders spend time developing teams. They look to the work force for solutions to problems. They ask questions instead of giving direct orders. There are no bosses in successful companies, only leaders.

Despite your diligent culture-building efforts, keep in mind that some individuals may not be team players. Even though their technical skills may be great, their bad attitudes proliferate throughout and poison the entire organization. Their overall cost is greater than their value. I'll cut to the chase … now's the time to reduce your labor cost by eliminating nonteam, toxic players.

I really hesitated to write this article for fear of negative reader response. My intent is not to offend anyone. I simply want to point out that improvements can be the result of open and honest communication and training. As for the economy, I am optimistic. We can get through this, but not without each other. Never say never. Keep plugging at it. You eat an elephant one bite at a time. For my friends in Canada, in the infamous words of Red Green, "Keep your stick on the ice."

Art Hedrick

Art Hedrick

Contributing Writer
Dieology LLC
8730 10 Mile Rd. SE.
Rockford, MI 49341
Phone: 616-894-6855
Author of the "Die Science" column in STAMPING Journal®, Art also has written technical articles on stamping die design and build for a number of trade publications. A recipient of many training awards, he is active in metal stamping training and consulting worldwide.

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