It could be said that the Bridgeport Series I represents both the past and the future. The basic design of this turreted knee mill dates back to the late 1930s, when it was introduced by the Bridgeport Machines Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Incorporating an innovative turret and swiveling ram, the Series I was quickly recognized as the most versatile milling machine of its day. Improved and refined over the years, the Series I held its position as the classic standard milling machine right up to the second year of this century. That year, the parent company of Bridgeport Machines encountered financial difficulties, forcing the Connecticut plant to close. Whether or not the Bridgeport milling machine would ever be made in the United States again was a question.
However, the investment firm that acquired many of Bridgeport Machines’ assets believed that the Series I was still very much a viable product. The firm soon identified a U.S. machine tool builder that appeared capable of returning the Series I (and its CNC version, the EZPLUS, formerly called EZTRAK) to production. After negotiations were completed in the fall of 2002, Hardinge, Inc. (Elmira, New York) emerged as the builder taking on the challenge to reintroduce this classic milling machine.
Remarkably, in less than 6 months, Hardinge has apparently met this challenge, taking the first Hardinge-built Series I to WESTEC in March 2003. In doing so, the company has not only kept the classic Bridgeport alive, but it has also made a strong statement about machine tool building in the United States. The company has contradicted all predictions that only low-wage sources overseas could build and market such machines economically. By early April, regular shipments of the Series I standard machine with power feeds on the X or XY axis were underway from Hardinge’s Elmira manufacturing facility. Production of the CNC EZPLUS machine was scheduled to commence shortly thereafter. The company has met its goal of being able to maintain the present pricing for these machines and says the quality and reliability standards also have been maintained or exceeded.
Hardinge’s rapid re-introduction of the Bridgeport milling machine may well become a textbook case history of how the principles of lean manufacturing can be applied. It is also a striking example of effective project management.
The Bridgeport production line in Elmira takes up floor space that is only 10 percent of the size occupied by the previous production line in Connecticut, yet it has 75 percent of the old line’s capacity. On the new line, cycle times have been reduced by 50 to as much as 80 percent. Further contrasts between the old and new lines are summed up in Table 1.
Of course, the company that has learned the most is Hardinge itself. According to Doug Rich, vice president and general manager of U. S. machine operations for Hardinge, techniques learned and refined on the Hardinge/Bridgeport line are being introduced elsewhere in the Elmira facility. “We had already started the transition to lean manufacturing. The Bridgeport line is helping us speed up the transition by giving us an opportunity to validate what we’ve already learned and to apply this knowledge in a startup application,” he says.
Bridgeport division manager Rick Elliott, who headed up the Bridgeport project, adds that there is no cookbook formula for applying lean manufacturing. “We drew on many sources for the principles and techniques of lean manufacturing. Our big accomplishment was pulling together what we needed for this application.” The new line applies such concepts as minimal piece flow, setup reduction, Kaizen (planned improvement blitz), Poke Yoke (error proofing), statistical process control (SPC), total product management (TPM), Kanban (pull through inventory management) and others.
Mr. Rich says of the effort: “I set some high standards for Rick and his team. Rick did the hard part—he took that vision and turned it into a reality with better than expected results.”
Hardinge seems to have secured a future for the Bridgeport Series I. According to Mr. Elliott, this future includes further improvements and evolutionary changes—not only to the production process but also to the performance and features of the machine. “A methodology for achieving continuous improvement on several levels at the same time is integral to the concept of lean manufacturing. From the outset, we knew our vision for the Bridgeport project could not be limited to maintaining cost, quality and reliability. It had to include a dynamic path to adding value, improving performance and enhancing reliability,” he says.