Two realities in manufacturing

February 19, 2008
By: Tim Heston

Ever since we emerged from the recession earlier this decade, I feel I've been living in two economic realities in manufacturing: One where economic expansion returned and another where the recession never really left.

The presidential candidates know the second reality, judging by their stump speeches that say how the country needs to save manufacturing. I"m sure it"s been on their mind today as Wisconsinan economy with a manufacturing base that's been making headlinesholds its primary.

I think it's safe to say, though, that two Wisconsinites, Jim D'Ambrisi and John Butler, don"t represent that second reality. D'Ambrisi is president and Butler is vice president of operations at FabriFast LLC, a Hartford-based job shop launched in 2004 and, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has had six consecutive quarters in the black. How? The company focuses on short-run work, goes after small jobs larger competitors won't touch, and touts quick turnaround time with the tagline "Redefining Rapid Metal Fabrication: Production in Two Weeks." The report added that the company aggressively promotes cross-training to clear bottlenecks. "We don"t just talk about cross-training people," D'Ambrisi told the newspaper. "We actually do it."

This paints a picture of the first reality about a thriving manufacturing base, and it's a reality that I think many politicians don't grasp. Why would they? Part of their job is to hear from constituents who aren't happyand in manufacturing, that includes those who work for (or used to work for) struggling companies in automotive and other sectors.

True, many small shops have told me that they have seen a downturn during the past few months, but the sky isn't falling. A lot has changed since the last recession. They're lean, agile, and ready for changes in customer demand.

Consider Muncie, Ind.-based Mid-West Metal Products Co. Inc., where Plant Manager Jeremi Dobbs has developed a work flow that keeps the customer in the loop, always, and boils down the manufacturing processes so that everyone in the companyfrom the laser tech to the shipping clerkknows how, where, and when certain parts are routed.

It wasn't easy to develop such a plan, of course, but Dobbs prevailed, and the shop has kept busy because of it. But to make the plan really work, Dobbslike FabriFastputs heavy emphasis on cross-training. A welder cross-trained to operate a press brake may go to the bending area to ease a bottleneck. (For more on Dobbs, check out the March issue of The FABRICATOR, coming soon.)

Whenever I hear a success story, flexibility seems to be the anchor that tethers all the elements of successflexibility in business planning, cross-training, automation, and so on. Dobbs, D"Ambrisi, and Butler have thrived, in part, because their shops tout flexibility requiring fast changeovers, fast response times, fast fabricating, and workers with diverse skills to support it all.

To me, this represents a far more interesting reality, and unlike the doom-and-gloom manufacturing reality that seems to take up a lot of ink these days, this agile reality is one I feel is here to stay.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

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