An emphasis on process rather than creating products is the goal for some metalworking companies these days. Given that manufacturing jobs are still being outsourced and domestic and overseas markets for U.S. manufactured products are continually shifting, manufacturing companies such as Sandray Precision Grinding Inc. (Rockford, Ill.) err on the side of caution and do secondary operations and advanced technologies for their customers’ parts, instead of creating their own.
Marc Gouker, president of Sandray, says there are no Sandray products. The company’s strategy is to work on their customers’ parts that require multiple, complex secondary operations, skill sets that can’t be found offshore or elsewhere, as well as advanced technologies.
“We do every kind of grinding possible,” Mr. Gouker says. “We do centerless, OD/ID, surface grinding, flash grinding, double disk grinding—you name it, we do it.” The company processes steel, alloys, aluminum, plastic and powdered metal in the markets of aerospace, automotive and off-road vehicles. Multinational manufacturers the company services include John Deere, Caterpillar and Cummins.
Mr. Gouker runs one of the largest grinding operations in the state of Illinois and has been in business since 1961. The company has 48 employees working in two side-by-side plants of 34,000 sq. ft. total and runs two shifts Monday through Friday that add up to 18-hour days.
Focusing on Unique Services
Sandray receives customers’ parts that need to be morphed into something else to be complete. About 99 percent of everything it does requires several operations. “We’ll do a centerless OD job where we actually chuck off the ID—jobs where we’ll stack as many operations into a single setup as possible,” Mr. Gouker says. “We’re pushing hard, especially on our CNC equipment. We may run 200 or fewer parts on a particular order, but we’ll load up as many operations in a single setup as we think we can (sometimes we take the CNC beyond its purported capability), and run the job. A single setup, faster throughput, closer tolerance and finish consistencies, repeatably perfect part characteristics—these are customer expectations.”
Mr. Gouker is guardedly proud of being a successful service provider. He knows that to remain this way, he must stay ahead of the competition. To do this, he has to invest in the latest advanced technology and always be tuned into ways to make his services increasingly more unique, which usually involves more advanced technology investment and a constant rethinking of how to process jobs.
With about 40 grinders in house (some domestics, most from the Far East), many manual machines, and an increasing population of CNC machines, Sandray has equipped itself to meet just about any grinding challenge. “We’ve bought 13 or 14 CNC machines over the past 4 to 5 years,” Mr. Gouker says. “I firmly believe in investing in the latest and best. It’s what keeps us ahead of the competition. The trick is that you’ve got to keep investing, keep learning and keep advancing.
“Our position is to continuously buy new technology that allows us to do what our customers require and our competitors can’t quite do. Our motto at Sandray is ‘to meet or exceed customer expectations,’ which we do by emphasizing quality through the elimination of human involvement and variability by the use of advanced technology. If you don’t keep an eye on the future—if you take a break from the competitive battle—the future will blow by you with a vengeance.”
The Lone Studer
One of the company’s latest investments is a Studer S151 (from United Grinding Technologies), a CNC internal cylindrical grinder for individual and small series production.
Mr. Gouker elected to go with the grinder for many reasons. He’d heard about its speed, accuracy and flexibility from other grinding shops and from customers. He also heard about the value of investing in a Studer from Integrated Machinery Systems (Itaska, Ill.) who sold the machine to Sandray in September 2010.
“This is one case where you really do get what you pay for and more,” Mr. Gouker says. “We knew about the machine’s flexibility. What we didn’t know is how to define this flexibility. We’re doing things on the machine that no one told us we could do.”
The pictogramming software allows the operator to string the individual grinding cycles together while the Fanuc 21i-TB control generates the ISO code. StuderGRIND is programming software for special applications such as form and thread grinding and profiling the grinding wheel for complex workpiece forms. The program is created on the PC and transferred directly to the machine control.
“I don’t do programming, but when we purchased the Studer grinder, I had the programming down in less than a half day,” Mr. Gouker says. “The flexibility is astonishing. If you can imagine a part, the shapes and geometries, the S151 will produce the part.”
Mr. Gouker describes a couple of jobs the company produces. One job is a tractor component for John Deere made out of 8620, heat treated to 53 RC. “We’ll grind an ID, come out of the hole, move over and put an indicating line on the OD, all in one setup,” he says.
A second part running on the grinder requires two concentric circles—a 3-inch diameter hole followed by a 0.5-inch diameter hole. “We use the first spindle, which is usually slower than the others, to grind the larger diameter. Then the machine automatically indexes the grinding spindle turret head 180 degrees to the second wheel head, which then grinds the small hole in the bottom of the large hole at a much higher rpm.
“We’re doing a job now on the Studer, which is not set up to do OD grinding,” Mr. Gouker says. “In the middle of the cycle, I stop the chuck, spin it backwards and move out and grind the OD. It’s like grinding an ID, but from the outside.”
“I get impeccable service from IMS,” Mr. Gouker says. “I have the IMS service guy’s phone number right on the machine. I can call him anytime from 6 a.m. when I get in until 5 p.m. He’ll either pick up the phone on the first ring, or he’ll call me back in 5 to 6 minutes. It’s absolutely full support, which is very important when you run as many different jobs as we do, and deadlines get shorter and shorter.”
Mr. Gouker says the grinder is the only Swiss grinder in house, and it’s the only machine he’s bought through IMS. “Right now, the machine is still new to us. We’ll get error messages and don’t really know what we’re doing,” he says. “All I have to do is get IMS on the phone, explain the error message or problem, and they can walk me through the situation right on the phone. If that doesn’t work, they send someone out right away. Service like that in this day and age is a real blessing—having someone at your side who knows your machine inside and out and is available to you almost at any given moment.”
Mr. Gouker admits there were many shops that did not survive the Great Recession because some weren’t positioned to survive and were not strategically diversified. Many had relied on one or two long-time customers doing basic parts—parts their long-time customers soon found beneficial to outsource for cheaper labor. This, then, left them with few options: Buy new advanced technology to make them more diversified and open to more complex jobs, sell the business, merge with another company, or shut the doors and walk away. This applied to shops that made products as well—raw material going in one end of the plant and finished parts coming out of the other.
“We have centered ourselves on diversification from the beginning,” Mr. Gouker says. “We believe the path to success lies in the investment in advanced technology and its creative use. We intend to buy more Studers over time to replace our manual machines and to become more attractive to customers who need multiple operations that we can do in a single setup.”
Mr. Gouker shares some sympathy with those who fell during the Great Recession. His larger point is to invest in the best, and then slug it out with the competition.
“Grinding has always been a very competitive business, even before the recession,” Mr. Gouker says. “However, for those determined, there is always a way through. Position yourself so you can do something your competitors cannot, which involves technology and imagination. Then fight—fight like it’s October 2007.”