Addition Through Subtraction

The American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont, has historic machine tools on display. So does the Cincinnati History Museum.

The American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont, has historic machine tools on display. So does the Cincinnati History Museum. Yet throughout the country, some contemporary, functioning machine shops unwittingly try to compete with these attractions.

Adding the right new equipment is an important component of a shop’s success. It is so important, in fact, that many shops fail to recognize how much value can also come from subtracting the right old equipment.

First there is the cost of space. As the price of square-footage rises while the value of a seldom-used machine tool declines, eventually there comes a point where one has overtaken the other.

But in an environment of tight lead times or JIT, just the presence of an impediment may be more costly still. How many extra miles do employees travel in a year to step around that machine? How much tooling or gaging can not be stored within reach of a more productive machine tool just because that older machine is in the way?

It can be difficult to believe that something as powerful and useful as a machine tool could become a drain on productivity. Old machine tools remain where they are precisely because they do still have usefulness yet to give. But the important consideration for a dated machine is how much hidden cost is being paid just to keep that potential capacity alive.

One company now making such considerations is Fansteel VR/Wesson, a cutting tool supplier in Plantsville, Connecticut. The company has historically been a maker of both standard and custom tools—specifically carbide and PCD/PCBN inserts, as well as toolholders and milling cutters. But now the company is adapting itself to let the custom tooling fill a much larger share of its business. The change in priority calls for a more responsive production process. Accordingly, the company is modernizing equipment, expanding employees’ skills, and reorganizing the shop into cells that are well-suited to JIT production of a continually changing mix of tool designs.

I was a first-time visitor to the plant, so the changes were difficult to see. But one sight helped to make the scope of the change apparent—the company’s “bone yard.” This was the nickname for a heap of machinery that was all intended for scrap because it no longer delivered sufficient value. By now, that equipment is probably gone. But as a measure of the non-productive load that an established manufacturer might easily find itself carrying, this company’s bone yard made for an impressive exhibit.