All Top Shops Are Winners

Standing out in one category is not enough to earn a spot among the highest-performing CNC machining businesses.
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The 2019 Top Shops CNC machining benchmarking program Honors Program winners appear in a panel discussion at the most recent Top Shops Conference

The 2019 Honors Program winners appeared in a panel discussion at the most recent Top Shops Conference. This years’ event is virtual.

I was halfway through writing the third of four profile articles on the 2020 Top Shops Honors Program winners when I began to panic. The story I was writing was about machining technology, but it was supposed to be about shopfloor practices and performance. Meanwhile, the machining technology award-winner seemed to have a lot to say about human resources, and the human resources award-winner seemed particularly knowledgeable about business strategy and performance. Had we picked the wrong companies for the wrong awards?

Upon reflection, I don’t think so. However subjective it might seem to let editors help determine which shops are contenders for awards, the quality of the dataset driving the choice makes it virtually impossible to go wrong. The honors program is reserved for top shops, and becoming a top shop requires excelling in all four categories.

Not that this occurred to me after spending hours staring at a spreadsheet of benchmarking data, trying to determine which pre-selected shops stood out the most in each of the four categories. With deadlines looming, my struggles with the third article made it easy to feel as though we had made some mistake. As much as I thought the data had pointed to Pacon Mfg Inc. as the shopfloor process winner, I couldn’t help but pivot repeatedly to the shop’s automated five-axis machining systems, which are the first of their type to be installed in North America. 

The same thing had happened with the second article. The business strategies winner, Rimeco Products, might have been the shop-floor process winner. Inventing products that could provide an extra revenue stream while focusing on a single market niche makes for a good business story. However, I could have instead focused more on the kind of process standardization that the product embodies, and how that product helped drive standardization throughout the shop’s operation. 

Meanwhile, the human resources category winner, Tier One Machining and Assembly, specializes in “transition sourcing:” that is, managing the manufacturing of entire product lines in some cases for biomedical and life sciences industry customers. However, the article I planned to write would barely mention this, focusing instead on the shop’s culture. Although I had a solid case to make for a human resources win, what better candidate for the business strategy award than a company that specializes in essentially managing large portions of customers’ businesses for them? 

Then I realized that the machining technology honoree might well have something to say about human resources.  Like the other winners, we chose this shop based on what stood out about its survey responses without knowing its identity. In this case, however, associating the data with the shop revealed that I had already visited Advanced Precision Engineering (APE). I’d also been floored by the extent and pace of its investments in five-axis machines, palletized HMCs, turn-mills, collaborative robots and more. With Top Shops data backing my initial impressions, I saw no reason not to hold APE up as a model of a technologically sophisticated machine shop. But upon reflection, my mind kept returning to the first thing CEO Alan Soucy told me about what drives APE’s success: people. “We hire for good hearts,” as he put it. Perhaps I should have tried to learn more about that?

Understanding the error in my thinking about these articles required another conversation. I’d asked Steve McClure, CEO of Pacon Mfg., for a second phone interview to help refocus the article I was struggling to write about the shop’s process rather than its technology. He made my task easy. The article ended up being about how lean manufacturing principles drive the shop’s choice of technology, as well as how five-axis machining is inherently lean.

This revelation triggered another: The fact that I could have profiled any of these four winners in the context of any of the four categories was not a problem, but rather an indicator of the strength of the underlying Top Shops data. By virtue of being top shops — that is, by ranking in the top 20th percentile of survey respondents based on an aggregate of differently weighted metrics — these businesses excelled in all four areas. The reality is that Top Shops honorees are not “winners” so much as ambassadors: representatives chosen to exemplify one narrow subset of characteristics that make CNC machining businesses successful.

This is worth keeping in mind as you peruse our coverage of the four honors program winners, all of which have multiple stories to tell. It is also worth keeping in mind as you develop your own company’s story, ideally by building on the specific processes and practices that our data and articles continually reveal to be characteristic of North America’s top shops.