You Can Always Improve

During my 30-year career in our industry I have been exposed to some very innovative men and women. They are like most people involved in contract manufacturing—doing what they need to do to get the job done, and to stay profitable.

During my 30-year career in our industry I have been exposed to some very innovative men and women. They are like most people involved in contract manufacturing—doing what they need to do to get the job done, and to stay profitable. It's really what we're all trying to do in one way or another. But wouldn't it be a little easier if we didn't have to think of everything ourselves? Wouldn't you like to peek over the shoulder of your peers once in a while to see how they are tackling their process problems, and maybe learn a trick or two that you could use as well?

That's the objective of this column. Every month we intend to share some of the most innovative ideas that metalworking professionals are employing on their shop floors to keep their enterprises current and healthy.

Sometimes we'll talk about the process of improvement itself. But mainly we'll talk about specific and practical ideas for improvement.

Some shop owners who've employed such thinking have changed the way we all look at a process. These ideas generally don't just pop into someone's head in the middle of the night. Rather, they are the direct result of someone's need to solve a pressing manufacturing problem to keep their business viable.

Jim Chick is a good example. Back in the early 1980s Jim had a small 5-man shop in the Pittsburgh area doing contract work. One day a customer presented him with an unexpected challenge. The customer had already placed a big order for a part resembling a hydraulic manifold. It was pretty typical job shop stuff, produced on a vertical machining center with two setups to complete the process. The problem was that after Jim had quoted the job and received the order, the customer decided to take delivery of the parts in a number of small releases over an extended period of time.

This was an important order to a small shop, and they didn't want to lose it. But Jim didn't want to lose his shirt either, and he couldn't justify the inventory to run large lots and then release the parts in dribs and drabs. So the problem was how to remain profitable with multiple setups for small batch quantities.

The solution was a workholder that would allow multiple parts to be set up under the spindle. It was basically a vise with two movable outside jaws and a stationary center jaw. The workholder allowed two parts to be held in a single clamping, yet was only slightly larger than a conventional single-station vise. It thus allowed both the first and second set of operations to be performed in a single, quick setup. It was efficient too since each time the machine cycled another part was completed.

The original workholding units were built to operate on Jim's vertical machines, but he soon adapted the concept for horizontal applications as well. And in time this solution became well known all over the world as the Bi-Lok vise system from Chick Machine Company (Butler, Pennsylvania).

This solution to one small job shop's process problem ultimately changed the way that most of us look at workholding on vertical and horizontal machining centers. Indeed, today there is hardly a major vise manufacturer anywhere in the world that does not offer some type of multiple-part setup capability.

Not all process solutions result in a marketable product, of course, but the ideas that shops implement to improve the flow of material through the production cycle can be just as important for us to share. They all can affect the performance and profitability of someone's business, and usually many.

That's precisely what we intend to do in this column—to put forth as many good ideas to improve as many metalworking processes as we can. For example, in the coming issues we will visit "Big Three" auto plants to report on the small changes they are implementing to maintain their global competitiveness. Major multi-plant contract manufacturers will share some of their approaches to limiting downtime, as too will many of the small and medium sized job shops that are the backbone of our industry.

Our search will take us well beyond our own borders. While the U.S. is the single largest machine tool consuming nation in the world, we still only account for 20 percent of the whole market. Good ideas are everywhere, and on my international trips I'll be on the lookout for products and techniques that might help solve some shops' problems back home.

So please join me in this column every month, and feel free to contact me with your thoughts as well. Knowledge is a wonderful asset, but it only becomes truly powerful when it is shared.