A few years ago, a former business associate of mine telephoned me. During our discussion, he indicated that he was going to follow through on a life-long ambition to start a manufacturing company. I thought that I knew this guy well. He had spent a number of years with one of the major accessory producers in our industry. In the last couple of years, he served as the Midwest manager for a workholding manufacturer. I believed that he had the manufacturing, marketing and management background that could make this startup company profitable.
What I could not see was how my former coworker could succeed in his ambition, that of improving the process to manufacture soft chuck jaws for lathe chucks. You are probably thinking exactly what I was thinking at the time when I heard this news: “Why in the world do we need another jaw producer?” Fortunately, my friend Jack Whigham felt much stronger about being able to supply a better chuck jaw at a competitive price.
It’s now been three years since Jack started his company. He says he’s used every bit of that time to perfect his manufacturing system. Now he believes he has created a process to produce superior chuck jaws in large quantities very cost effectively.
Based in a suburb of a large metropolitan area, the company has immediate access to one of the world’s best markets, but one that is also the most critical. Winning over one new customer at a time has not been easy. The startup faced competition that has been around for a long time, serving the needs of a large and well-established customer base. In this situation, you have to have something outstanding to get the attention of the average job shop owner.
Jack believed that he did. By furnishing jaws that are 100-percent machined, thus requiring no rework or additional machining to true them up, Jack was sure his new company had a product the market would respond to. Because all jaws are balanced, they have the same weight and center of gravity, which is important in controlling spindle vibrations. According to my friend, these cost-saving features have caught the attention of enough manufacturing operations in his part of the country that the firm is now ahead of his optimistic business plan.
I have talked to some of his customers, and they tell me in great detail how useful having datum surfaces on chuck jaws is for setups and fixture building. (The jaws are made from precision steel blocks; each jaw is broached on six sides to tight tolerances on the width, height and squareness of the sides.) As Jack points out, “Each jaw is exactly what we say, a precision squared block.”
Remember I originally questioned the need for yet another manufacturer of what has become a commodity product. I had accepted the status quo. Fortunately, there are plenty of individuals like my friend who are not satisfied with the status quo. They set out to do something better, and they work hard to prove to the rest of the world that they have.
As important as it is, process improvement is not very difficult. It is something that should be part of your constant thoughts as you go about the day-to-day activities of running a business. Concentrate on fixing one little thing, then go on to the next. We should recognize the problem and analyze the conditions. After reviewing the possible solutions, we should choose the one that appears right for our situation. Finally, go over the results and tweak the process as necessary to achieve maximum results.
The main lesson is that none of these essential things happen if you simply accept the status quo!