Chris Daniels gets a call on his cell phone at 4:30 p.m. on the Friday before a long Fourth of July weekend. A customer, a Japanese-owned automotive plant in Kentucky, has broken a stamping die. Mr. Daniels is the general manager of Pyramid Machine of Somerset, Kentucky, a shop that performs die repair and die machining, among other services. For the sake of a tight production schedule, this customer needs to get a working die back in place by Monday morning.
You do whatever it takes, says the contact on the other end of the phone. But there's a problem. It's a really big die. Pyramid does not own a machine tool anywhere near large enough to do the job. (At least, it didn't when this incident occurred.) You do whatever it takes, the customer repeats.
The solution is this: Pyramid, a shop with about 20 employees, sent a team into the customer's plant, where a large-enough machine was available. A CAD/CAM station was set up near this machine. Pyramid's IT specialist networked the machine so it could receive DNC data for the large program file that would be coming. Shop personnel then set about capturing the die's geometry. They used a dial indicator to measure 2D regions of the die, while 3D sections were sent back to Pyramid to be digitized. Over the course of about 50 hours that weekend, various staff members working together in this way successfully modeled the die and then machined its replacement. The new tool was in production and making good parts in time for the Monday deadline.
Pyramid personnel worked alongside the customer's employees to carry out this job. One challenge for the customer was to find employees willing to give up the holiday weekend without advance notice. For Pyramid, this was less of a problem. Employees carry cell phones because some part of the shop's workforce is always on call. Employees hired here understand that their personal plans will often give way for the sake of customers' needs. This attitude of humility is one of the most important characteristics the shop looks for when it evaluates a new employee. Compared to this humility, says Mr. Daniels, any lack of prior machining experience is not an important consideration at all.
The attitude of service is the shop's primary competitive advantage. CNC machining centers, EDM machines and multitasking lathes to be found on Pyramid's shop floor are all up to date, and yet the equipment is not different from what can be found in other shops. Similarly, the shop can't offer an impressive tally of the years of experience of its personnel. Mr. Daniels himself helped open the shop less than 6 years ago with little relevant experience aside from 18 months as an entry-level operator in another shop. But what Pyramid does offer is the willingness and ability to fill emergency machining needs according to the customer's terms, not the timing or the priorities the shop would choose for itself. Many contract shops claim to accommodate customers to the same degree, but if more shops really were able to do this, then Pyramid would have a less secure hold on its chosen niche than it seems to have.
Pyramid serves Japanese transplant manufacturers. The focus on this market was the result of a simple calculation on the part of the shop's management. Pyramid needed work, and the Japanese plants were the ones that were busy. Management's challenge has been to translate the priorities of these Japanese customers into the procedures of the Kentucky staff. The result is a shop that, even superficially, has the look of a Japanese facility. Production areas are kept organized and very clean, while the personnel—whether they work at a desk or at a machine tool—all wear identical uniforms.
But serving the Japanese-owned manufacturers affects far more than just appearances. The focus also determined at least one significant purchase for the shop. Pyramid wants to be able to do machining work for transplants that the plants can't effectively do for themselves, and to a large extent, that means die work. Whether for repair, modification or replacement, this shop sees a lot of dies. And the very reason it sees dies from customers, not the CAD data, is that Japanese plants generally lack any electronic information about their tooling geometry. Geometric information is contained in the dies themselves. So Pyramid must rely on digitizing.
To do this work quickly, the shop bought a stand-alone digitizing unit—a Cyclone digitizer from Renishaw (Hoffman Estates, Illinois). This unit lets the shop gather the CAD data it needs off of the die itself, or even off of fragments if the die has broken. When a job involves machining a replacement for a die that is still in service, the unit lets the shop digitize the tool quickly enough that the die can be returned to the customer with minimal impact on the customer's production. Because this digitizing machine is kept in the same controlled-environment quality room as the CMM, a typical job for Pyramid not only ends up in the quality room, it begins its progression there as well.
This digitizer brings in new business. Pyramid scans customers' dies for free, just for the value that can come from having a prospect's geometry waiting in the shop's system. One transplant facility now sends all of its new dies to Pyramid to take advantage of this service, just so the shop will have the data ready in case any of these tools need work. To generate tool paths out of digitizing data files, the shop uses CAD/CAM software from Tebis America (Troy, Michigan). The shop chose this software largely because of its ease of use. At least one other CAM package previously served this purpose in the shop, but that system was less convenient and less intuitive. The ease of use is important here, because the employee creating a particular NC file generally has plenty of other tasks to manage in parallel. In the machining center area, a typical operator sets up and oversees two machining centers, in addition to generating tool paths on a notebook computer.
That typical operator at Pyramid probably never saw himself doing work anything like this more than a few years ago. Most employees came to the shop with no machining background. An employee in charge of EDM, heat treat and surface grinding, for example, was cutting wood trim for his previous employer less than 2 years ago. A woman who oversees quality throughout the shop formerly worked in an altogether different kind of manufacturing, making clothing.
There are a lot of things we look for in potential employees, but machining experience is not one of them, Mr. Daniels says. What he is far, far more interested in is an open mind and a willingness to learn. If an intelligent employee has this willingness, he says, then we can get him or her up to speed on CNC and machining technology very quickly. New employees show the same humility toward equipment that Pyramid tries to show its customers. Prospective employees are routinely asked, as part of the interview, whether they would be willing to stay late to learn how to use the machines on their own time. New employees use CNC equipment from day one. The new hire may just square material on her first day, but accomplishing this much provides a starting point. Employees prone to be intimidated by the equipment or the pace of the shop generally wash out quickly enough. But employees willing to continue learning can quickly advance. Mr. Daniels considers it an important duty for a manager to ensure that any employee committed to advancing is provided with the opportunity to do so. A new hire coming to the company with no experience might be setting up jobs after 3 months, and within a year that employee might become one of the operators who routinely juggles multiple machining centers along with a seat of CAM.
The shop's reliance on customers' own dies to convey geometric information would seem to place a limit on its geographic reach. Most plants can't afford to be without their dies for as long as cross-country shipping times would demand. But Pyramid has found an elegant solution to that problem, and this solution seems likely to provide the shop with its next leap forward in business.
The shop has entered into an agreement with a supplier of metrology equipment in California. For digitizing purposes, this supplier has agreed to act as Pyramid's branch office. Plants on the West Coast can now send their dies to this man's nearby facility for quick digitizing, allowing him to send just the data file to Kentucky. What makes this agreement so promising is the extent to which it serves the interests of everyone concerned. The metrology supplier not only gets the business from Pyramid, but he also gets to meet plants that might have needs for metrology equipment. If this agreement works in California, Pyramid will try similar arrangements to reach transplants in other regions of the country.
The data for the first such job from California came in April. The metrology supplier was perhaps the most surprised of anyone to see the arrangement work. There are thousands of shops out here, he had said. Why would these plants turn to you?
One of the reasons proved to be the shop's record of service to other transplant manufacturers. The Japanese manufacturing personnel living in the United States comprise a relatively small population that shares information routinely. Among this group, the shop's reputation had preceded it. Humility had helped to create a reputation worthy of pride.