Quality assurance gets an upgrade at Eaton Fabricating

Ohio fabricator revamps its quality regimen

The FABRICATOR April 2014
April 14, 2014
By: Tim Heston

Eaton Fabricating Co. Inc., Grafton, Ohio, revamped its front office and shop floor operation to ensure parts emerge from machines right the first time. The key is that management gives operators time to perform quality assurance checks at every stage in manufacturing.

Figure 1
A technician at Eaton Fabricating Co. forms a part on the shop’s electric press brake, which offers fast bending cycle times. The company uses the machine to bend numerous small parts.

When it comes to quality checks and first-article inspections, which add value, and which do not? A shop may have thousands of active part numbers on the floor, and they don’t share the same quality requirements.

Say a fabricator standardizes its approach, sets the bar high to meet the requirements for its most stringent jobs, and checks all parts the same way. Is this overkill? Considering the seven traditional wastes of lean manufacturing, unnecessary quality checks could fall into the “overprocessing” category, considering the shop is doing more work to a piece than the customer requires. In lean manufacturing terms, does this represent a waste?

Lloyd Roach Jr., production manager at Grafton, Ohio-based Eaton Fabricating Co., doesn’t see it as a waste at all, and it’s not because standardizing quality procedures is just procedurally easier. It’s because in the highly variable world of high-mix, low-volume manufacturing, he found that performing first-article inspections on nearly every job, after every major manufacturing step, really does lead to happier customers, less stressed employees, and, ultimately, a more profitable business—so much so that Eaton’s new inspection procedures have been written into the company’s ISO obligations. The company hopes to obtain its ISO 9001:2008 certification sometime this month.

As Roach explained, to make this approach work required three elements: a strong maintenance program, significant productive capacity, and a strong structure for quality assurance.

Keeping Available Capacity Available

Roach’s thumbs have flipped through many dog-eared repair manuals. He’s aligned drives, replaced motors. If given enough time and the right tools, he probably could tear down and rebuild most of the machines in the shop.

He works on them like he’s known them most of his life. That’s probably because he has. Roach worked for the family business as a teenager, joining his father Lloyd Sr. and cousin Ray Jr. along with his great uncle Ray, who launched the business more than 50 years ago with his brother (and Lloyd’s grandfather) Cecil. Starting, like so many fabricators, in the garage, they began by fabricating ornamental ironwork, including handrails for local farmers.

By the 1980s the company had grown to more than 100 employees, thanks mainly to a large contract from Chrysler to build the axles for the Dodge Omni. It was quota work. To keep the contract, the shop had to produce a certain number of axles per day. Although a small portion of the shop was devoted to job shop work, most workers clustered along the Omni axle line that bifurcated the company’s 35,000-square-foot floor.

In such an environment, a down machine can halt the entire line, so early on the Roaches instilled a culture of preventive maintenance. And if they did have to do some reactive maintenance, the shop’s owners rolled up their sleeves and performed repairs there and then.

Productive Capacity

In the early 1980s, the more axles a work center produced per hour, the easier it was for Eaton to make its quotas. But today Eaton’s 65 employees process an entirely different product mix. In 2008 company leadership transitioned to the second generation of family owners, right as the economy was slowing. Eaton wasn’t highly leveraged, but other fabricators in the area weren’t so lucky; they entered the downturn in debt and didn’t make it out the other side.

“We have experienced about 30 to 35 percent growth since the downturn hit,” Roach said. “When most were on the decline, we saw a big uptick in business.”

Figure 2
Technicians perform periodic spot checks. Along with this, QA personnel perform first-article inspections on most parts after every major manufacturing step.

During that time the company expanded its customer base to eight major customers (compared to six before the recession) that provided repeat work, alongside a database of hundreds of customers who provided low-volume, nonrepeat work. Today the shop fabricates enclosures for the telecommunications OEMs and powder coat equipment providers, among others. And it has its own product lines, including industrial washers and batch ovens.

The very fact machines now are so productive makes their availability even more important. The shop, now at 110,000 sq. ft., has two new high-kilowatt lasers with linear drives that give between-cut traverse accelerations measured in multiple Gs. It also has a TRUMPF electric press brake with a 40-in.-wide bed designed to form numerous small parts (see Figure 1). This complements four other press brakes and three rail-type punch presses. And the company has built up a fair amount of roll forming capacity. It also has 17 welding stations, a powder coating line, and two specialty assembly areas.

Parts flow from laser cutting and punching to forming, then to tacking, welding, grinding, and powder coating. The company attempts to schedule like gauges together for the punch presses, where tool changeouts can be a burden on throughput. The shop’s new press brakes have push-button tool releases and advanced controls, and operators use common tools for many jobs, so job changeovers in forming aren’t too arduous. As Roach explained, it usually takes a few minutes to change over, no matter what job traveler arrives at the forming station.

A Second Set of Eyes

Over the years the shop continued to invest in new equipment. Counting all the new brakes, punches, and lasers, the company has 17 machines that are less than a decade old. Because the machines can cut and bend extraordinarily quickly, the company has much more productive capacity than it did just six years ago.

According to Tim Walsh, QA manager, the company of course had a quality program six years ago. Parts were checked and documented to meet customer requirements, but the process wasn’t formalized. “We run a lot more parts than we did [six years ago],” Walsh said. “But we’ve brought quality to the forefront now.”

Before the transformation to the new quality regimen, details were missed. Does this job traveler have the right drawing? Did the right revision make it to programming? Then there were job travelers that disappeared. “A lot of times job travelers wouldn’t make it from the front to the back,” Roach said, “and we would end up pulling up paperwork again.”

Thus came a cultural shift away from the traditional “feed the machines” mindset and toward a more measured approach to manufacturing part flow. As company leaders saw it, all the machine tool productivity in the world wouldn’t help make the company more money if the machines made parts that didn’t meet customer requirements, be it because of a wrong part revision, a sloppy setup, or anything else. Modern fabricating machines churn out parts as fast as ever. Floor technicians need to be sure that the machine has the right information and that the parts it produces are good (see Figure 2).

The shop has invested in enough machines to ensure it has excess capacity. This in turn gives everyone a little time (though not much, considering lead-time demands) to check their work at key stages of production. Before a drawing leaves the front office, a second set of eyes checks them to ensure it represents the latest revision and what the customer wants.

“Our project managers, including myself, may get a repeat purchase order in with a revision change,” Roach said. “That purchase order then goes to our quality department for a spot check, then it’s released to the programming department for any changes. Once the changes are made, it goes back to the quality department. We compare the Eaton print to the customer print, going from point to point, ensuring everything is good to go.”

Once the order is on the floor, QA performs a full first-article inspection—after the first piece in a small lot size, and spot checks every few hundred thereafter, depending on the volume and nature of the job. This occurs at cutting (using a flat-part laser inspection machine), bending, hardware insertion, tacking, welding, and every other major manufacturing step.

Many parts are inspected inline, while some parts are brought to the QA area, located in the center of the shop floor. One-off parts go through operator inspection at each stage, then a final QA inspection before shipping. Everything else goes through first-article inspection at each stage of production.

QA personnel record quality measurements the old-fashioned way, pen on paper. They then scan that document in and save it to the customer files on Eaton’s server. As Roach explained, he could have made the procedure digital, but the shop processes so many products that developing a standard digital form for them all would have been more trouble than it was worth. And besides, it opens the door for errors, like mistyping data.

Eliminating Information Waste

Does Eaton’s inspection protocol add to overall manufacturing time? “Operators do wait for this inspection,” Roach said, “but not for long. A typical inspection is only two to three minutes, and the inspectors walk the floor spot-checking to minimize the downtime.”

While they were ramping up for ISO and undergoing the associated process mapping and obligation-writing, something dawned on company leaders: They found that many problems stemmed from misinformation, what Dick Kallage of Barrington, Ill.-based KDC & Associates (and columnist for this magazine) calls the “information waste” in lean manufacturing.

“In the past for a repeat order, somebody would just pull a job from an existing file and send it out to the floor,” Roach said. “The next thing we knew, we learned that we missed a rev level, like a hole position change. Then we’d have to go through and do the entire job again.”

In one sense, a machine producing incorrect or bad parts is worse than a machine breakdown. At least the broken machine isn’t consuming electricity. Considering this, waiting around for a few minutes for a second set of eyes to review an order doesn’t sound too arduous.

“All this required a change in philosophy,” Walsh said. “We had to change everyone’s mindset. Once people started seeing the results, they began to see how much easier their jobs became.”

FMA Communications Inc.

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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