Radicals Revisited

What happens when a progressive job shop melds with Small Town, U.S.A.? The result is an "industrial village" that may represent what contract manufacturing will look like in the next century.


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A little more than five years ago, Modern Machine Shop carried a cover story about an innovative job shop in the northeastern Indiana town of Churubusco. Entitled, “The Radicals Of Churubusco,” this article looked at some of the remarkably advanced management philosophies implemented at C & A Tool Engineering Inc., a job shop whose new cylindrical grinding facility exemplified the power of these concepts.

This shop had implemented self-directed work teams, a comprehensive quality program, a policy of employee empowerment, cross-training on a routine basis, and other bold ideas before most of them had become much used and abused buzzwords elsewhere. The shop's approach to high-precision cylindrical grinding was also unique.

Unlike many shops that think of grinding as a last step, C & A Tool saw it as the primary process for achieving the extremely close tolerances and fine surface finishes demanded by its customers for round parts. That grinding might come last only meant that other prior processes, such as turning, had to be structured to enhance and promote the effectiveness of the grinding process. And it didn't matter if the order was for one piece or 10,000--this tool and die shop did lots of volume production work.

But that was five years ago, when their Schliefhaus (German for Grinding Shop) was brand new. Since then, C & A has continued to grow, adding new facilities and buildings clustered in downtown Churubusco. This collection of integrated manufacturing buildings is what Dick Conrow, president and founder of the company, refers to as an "industrial village."

This village represents five interrelated "area disciplines" of Projects, CNC Milling, CNC Lathes, Cylindrical Grinding and Engineering. Metal Preparation and even the Maintenance Department have buildings of their own. How these areas work together to create an unusually dynamic job shop is an interesting and instructive story. It also tells a lot about the impact one company can have on an entire local community. In both regards, the effect is...well, radical.

A Walking Tour

Churubusco (population 2300) could pass for a thousand small towns in rural America. Many of the original downtown buildings, which date to the period between the Civil War and the turn of the century, retain a gingerbread quaintness that contrasts with the no-frills functionality of the modern buildings, which have been added to Main Street over the years.

Where Main and Whitley streets intersect to form the heart of town, you'll find C & A Tool's administrative offices in a row of refurbished storefronts. The offices are located at the top of a narrow stairway and are impressively unimpressive. No grand lobby. No shrine to a corporate logo. No grandiose mission statement or quality slogans emblazoned on the wall. It's obvious that Dick Conrow and the C & A management team have been concentrating on other things that are more important.

What those things are you begin to discover downstairs on the first floor of the same building complex. This is C & A's Projects Area. The tool and die makers are centered here. As we'll see, this is the heart and soul of C & A Tool.

Catercorner to these structures is the building devoted to CNC lathes (seven turning centers plus four bar machines) and right next door is Das Fraeshaus, The Milling Shop. Das Fraeshaus, opened last year, was especially designed and constructed to house CNC machining centers. Nine CNC machines are currently at work in this building.

Behind the lathe and mill departments are the Metal Prep house and the maintenance/shipping/receiving building. If you study the map, these buildings may look like they are off the back alley, but they are by no means back-alley operations.

Head back up Mulberry Street, where Churubusco's business district begins to blend into the town's older residential areas, to get to Das Schliefhaus, The Grinding Shop, which also has a vaguely Swiss exterior decor.

Across the alley on Whitley is a narrow corner building that houses C & A's "war room." This facility is a kind of informal conference area and auxiliary office space, but it once housed the company's CAD/CAM stations. This is now where project teams meet to accept, plan, and coordinate their activities.

C & A's downtown neighbors are small restaurants, dentists' and doctors' offices, car repair shops, retail stores, financial institutions, and all of the other amenities a small town has to offer. Having these establishments within walking distance to C & A's 150 employees is not just a convenience for them, it's a lifeline for the whole city. Mr. Conrow sums it up: "When C & A grows, Churubusco grows, too."

Back To The Future

"Village" may seem an anachronistic term to describe this collection of high tech machining facilities, but Mr. Conrow insists that it characterizes perfectly how they interact as fully-integrated parts of C & A Tool. "It's a throw-back to the traditions of the Old World, where the craftsmen's workshops were often clustered together to share skills and know-how, only here, we're sharing know-how with customers from around the world." (That the entrances to the new buildings make you expect to find Swiss clock makers inside is no accident.)

Although any of the various "houses" (milling, grinding, turning and so on), if set up as an independent company, would be an outstanding, even world-class, operation, they are in fact interdependent. Each facility draws on and builds on the resources of the others.

This interaction and cooperation clearly reflect the unique management structure of C & A Tool. Within each department, there are no supervisors, only "go-to guys" (the more experienced individuals who have ideas or solutions to share when needed). Operators decide as a team how they will set schedules and assign jobs. Time clocks are no where to be found. Each operator is responsible for producing and verifying the high quality of his or her own work.

Yet there are no barriers between one machining department and the rest. Here is where the "war room" plays a critical role. Before C & A takes on a job, a team is assembled there to decide if and how they can meet or exceed the job's requirements. The team consists of representatives from each department that will be involved in the work. Like field commanders coordinating their tactical resources, this team decides how to attack.

Of course, each representative at this meeting is highly motivated to take on the kind of challenging work that the company is known for. But they are also guided by a deep sense of responsibility. No one is eager to commit to something they can't live up to. Knowing when to say No is highly respected intelligence. The war room is always a grand meeting of the minds.

These initial meetings give each department an opportunity to find ways of enabling the other departments to make the project feasible and profitable. Customers often take part in these meetings. This is an opportunity for them to meet and work directly with the people who will handle their job. Thereafter, no foremen, expediters or customer relations officers are required as go-betweens.

Once a job (and the responsibility to do it right and on time) is accepted, communication becomes all important. Regular meetings in the war room take place as a job progresses, but engineers and programmers routinely work side-by-side with operators on the shop floor as front-line partners. Workstations are networked to the company's central computer, but this linkage is an aid to, never a substitute for, one-on-one team work.

"It's not how you group the machines that counts," Mr. Conrow stresses, "it's how you group the people." Thus, the industrial village gives C & A the best of both worlds. The synergy and efficiency of having like machines and their expert operators together is maintained on one hand. On the other, these interdepartmental, multi-discipline teams function as virtual manufacturing cells that can be readily reconfigured to meet the situation.

Still A Tool And Die Shop

This talk about an industrial village notwithstanding, Mr. Conrow insists that C & A Tool is still a tool and die shop. What makes the company go and grow is its firm foundation on highly skilled tool and die makers. This is why the Projects Area is truly the heart and soul of the company. The company's massive investment in CNC machining is ultimately an extension of the tool and die makers' capabilities, the logical extreme extension of the tool and die maker's art.

This ability to mix tool and die work with a "parts business" is win-win-win.

"The smarter we get at tool and die work, the smarter we get at production jobs, and vice versa," Mr. Conrow claims. "What we have here is a tool and die shop with capacity for production, and a production shop with the expertise of a tool and die shop.

"Every job starts in a tool and die shop," he continues, "and customers have the option of staying with us from design to process engineering to tooling to full production. They don't have to go from shop to shop to get the job done, whether the job involves one piece or a hundred thousand."

A telling indicator of the importance of tool and die expertise at C & A Tool is that the number of "manual" machines--knee mills, surface grinders, drill presses, toolroom lathes, and so on--in this department continues to grow. These machines have whatever advanced readouts, power feeds and programmable features the tool and die makers find handy for making molds, special fixtures, prototypes and development work.

The Back Alley Front Door

Not to be overlooked are the Metal Preparation area and the Maintenance area. These "disciplines" have their own buildings, which literally and figuratively stand behind the machining facilities on Main Street.

The Metal Prep area is particularly noteworthy because it's a part of operating a shop that gets neglected so many other places. Mr. Conrow summarizes what the Metal Prep area is all about: "This is where quality begins. We've got the right machines and the right people in every department, but none of them can function at their peak if material isn't prepared in the right way."

All workpiece material enters through this building, and these all-important guests are treated properly. The loading dock, for example, allows flatbed trailers to be unloaded with the least risk of damage to material. Because C & A does so much turning and grinding, the majority of raw stock arrives in bar form. All barstock is stored in carefully marked bins, racks or on pallets so that it can't be lost or misidentified.

A new Quality Lab has been constructed within the Metal Prep house to provide increased capacity to service the adjacent houses but also to facilitate inspection of incoming materials.

By design, the Metal Prep area lays the foundation for quality in all subsequent operations. The facing and center station located here is an excellent example. After processing, all lathe blanks depart this area precisely centered, minimizing the chances that turning operations will encounter problems with runout or out-of-roundness. Superior lathe work, in turn, prepares for superior grinding by creating known and uniform stock conditions. Likewise, through-feed and infeed centerless grinding machines in this department guarantee consistent roundness and size for blank shafts and pins.

By this time, it should come as no surprise that C & A has a separate building, next door to Metal Prep, devoted to facilities maintenance. Floor sweepers and other housekeeping equipment are housed here, as are all of the tools and supplies required to keep this industrial village in good repair.

Mr. Conrow takes obvious pride in the people who work with him, especially because they take pride in themselves. That work areas are tidy and orderly mirrors the respect shop personnel have for their jobs, their equipment, their customers and for themselves. Mr. Conrow puts it neatly: "Manufacturing does not have to be a dirty place to work."

Roots Grow Deep

Clearly, Dick Conrow's leadership style has much to do with the success of C & A Tool. This unique company is very much an expression of his unique vision. He sees things differently and these insights into human nature as well as into the nature of the metalworking business make for a very different looking job shopand for a very different kind of leadership, one might add.

One of Dick Conrow's favorite themes is control. To him, controlling people is the opposite of leadership. Yet controlling people is how some managers define management. He wants none of that. "I'm not going to make rules for anybody. I'm not going to do their thinking for them," is his way of putting it. "If people know their jobs and have the right tools for the job, then all I have to do is get out the way. I don't have to run the place."

Certainly things have been running in the right direction, for C & A Tool continues to spread its branches. The big challenge now is managing the company's growth. Mr. Conrow has what amounts to five little companies all trying to grow and prosper at the same time.

The answer, he believes, is moving the production work to a new facility to be constructed on the edge of town and letting the Projects Area expand into freed-up space in the downtown buildings. "That will keep what's here in town from losing its roots as a tool and die shop," Mr. Conrow says, looking to the future.

Roots are important to Dick Conrow. Almost thirty years ago, when he started C & A Tool with a single machine in the garage of his Churubusco home, he had a radical idea: to create a shop that would give him the freedom to produce high quality tools and to work with others committed to the same values.

That radical idea still rules.