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Micro Forms Inc.
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Three-tiered approach to Quality Gives Metal Stamping Company a Solid Foundation
Innovative tooling design and in-die sensors bring added quality to precision stamped parts
For many years, a metal stamping company in Garland, Texas, near Dallas, Micro Forms Inc., has adhered to a three-step approach to total quality management. The approach includes quality through design, quality monitoring and control, and continuous improvement. Some of it is based on the company's adherence to ISO certification edicts; however, much of it comes from a long-standing connection to precision, high-quality manufacturing.
"Quality through design is the use of our experience in the field of metal forming that enables us to recognize critical areas of part and tool design that can impact end-product quality," comments Brad Shelton, sales manager at Micro Forms, in an email response. "When coupled with the process control obtained through use of in-die sensors, this quality through design approach increases consistency, production up-time, and reliability of every aspect of the stamping process. Continual quality monitoring for consistency and reliability by every employee, each with a keen eye for quality, is a keystone of our success."
Continuous improvement is the third tier of the company's philosophy. "We understand that every production process can be improved," Shelton added. "Therefore, we continually strive to reduce waste, remove inefficiencies, and ensure quality."
All of these elements of quality assurance work together in the Micro Forms plant to bring about a high level of quality for its customers. "We've used this three-tiered total quality approach even before we became certified for ISO-9001, essentially on the premise that if you design well, you can often design out any potential for quality issues within the tooling," said Angus Gascoigne, the company's finance manager, in an interview that also included Shelton. "So perhaps we over-design our tooling to the point that we often refer to it as a 'Swiss watch.' The quality of the tooling is what affirms the quality of the end-product."
Quality tooling design and building is combined with in-die sensors for monitoring and control of the tooling while the job is running. The company's punch presses run anywhere from 40 to 50 strokes per minute to maybe 600 strokes per minute. "We're not a high-speed stamper, but we do run them in the hundreds of strokes per minute," says Gascoigne. "This sensing device guarantees that the end product will be correct. If the quality control person or machine operator notices a potentially negative trend on any particular dimension, they'll stop the process and make any necessary adjustments and then continue on with the run."
Value-added Secondary Processes Make Company a One-stop-shop
Not only does the company offer a complete tool and die shop in its metal stamping plant, but also many value-added processes on-site that include heat treating ovens, spot welding machines, prototype presses, specialty packaging, and mechanical assembly services. Engineers are also in-house for tooling design, as well as engineering consultation and assistance for its diverse customer base. The 35,000 square-foot plant operates with 29 employees for industries that range from aircraft, consumer products, and electronics, to medical equipment and oil and gas tools. The stamping company turns out a variety of stamped prototypes and parts in low to high volumes, including connectors, clips, brackets, heat sinks, contacts, flat springs, and ground bars.
Micro Forms (www.mforms.com) is attractive to a variety of different types of customers, partially due to its versatility, flexibility, and approach to high quality. "I believe that being solution-oriented is the appeal," said Shelton. "Once the customer has that experience with us, they see our value. Our capabilities are not tied to one industry or type of customer, but to precision stamping. If it's in a precision stamping environment, we have a solution for them."
Sometimes, engineers at the OEMs do not understand the flexibility of metal stamping. "We can look at their products and provide them with a metal stamping solution that they had not considered previously," states Gascoigne. "For example, we often replace die cast parts or other metal parts that are machined or fabricated. These can often be replaced by metal stamping, provided the volume is there. And quite often, it offers a more attractive solution from a cost perspective."
Gascoigne says that the key with customers is to listen to what they want, as well as what their customer wants. "We're able to interpret that and provide them with a solution that's compatible with their product and process," Gascoigne remarks. "And we offer concurrent engineering. We can sit down with their design engineers and product engineers, and again, it's listening to what they have to say. We have so much experience here, over the 40-plus years we've been here, that we're able to come up with an answer for them. Another thing is that we're not averse to telling them, 'You know, this is not compatible with what we do. You need to go try process X, Y, or Z.'"
In-die Sensors and Proprietary Processes Make Operation Cost Effective
Micro Forms lists innovation and cost as two strengths that the company offers. However, it also offers in-die sensor technology, expert tooling, tight tolerances, and proprietary processes to increase productivity. All of these strengths would appear to make its operation more cost effective and efficient.
"We're talking about several things here," says Shelton. "We sensor the tooling to keep the machines running more efficiently, and if we're running more efficiently, it enables us to run tighter tolerances and, of course, we can offer a better price. The expertise part of it, as Angus was talking about, is we that have many years of experience on hand. We can look at a part and tell if this is the direction that we want to go, and this is how we're going to design the tooling. So we avoid some learning curves with our expertise."
Innovation is a key focus at Micro Forms, an area that enables the company to offer its customers efficient solutions to complex technical problems. "Innovation requires a mindset to do things differently or better, or the things that others cannot or will not do," Shelton says. "Without expertise, the innovation may just be a dream. With expertise, we make that dream a reality because we know how to get there. From producing complicated stamped parts to converting expensive sheet metal fabricated parts into inexpensive stampings, we know what will and will not work and we take a one-on-one approach to make the parts meet the customer's design intent and to help reduce their costs."
The company's level of expertise is also said to give it an edge on difficult, challenging parts. "Some stampers may no-quote a job, or quote it high because they're scared of it," Shelton says. "With our expertise, we can be very competitive on these types of parts. We're not going to turn away a challenging part. On the innovation side, several times we have designed and implemented proprietary processes or equipment to handle a specific job. We pride ourselves on our ability to be innovative."
Stamper Solves Challenging Problem with Technology Built In-house
One particular example offers proof of the metal stamping company's ability to handle a challenging situation. The customer was having trouble and quality issues with a 10-foot-long part made by another manufacturer. The part had tight tolerances, including a ½ degree tolerance from one end to the other. Micro Forms was able to solve these quality issues for the customer and give them the parts that they needed.
"This is a good example of what we mentioned regarding innovation," says Gascoigne. "This customer essentially received a bad product that ended up in the field and was used by the end user. It caused the end user problems, and was costing our customer in excess of $250,000 each time there was a failure, even though they were buying the product for less than $20. It was for the oil and gas industry, and goes into what is called a slick gun for fracturing oil wells. It allows the oil to move from the base material around the drill head into the drill hole. This part was getting stuck down in the oil well and turning off the well because the angles were wrong on the part. It would take them hours or even days to fix the problem."
The metal stamper ended up designing and developing a proprietary process for twisting this piece of metal to a ½ degree tolerance over ten feet. "The end product is actually quite simple," says Gascoigne. "It's a 10-foot-long strip of metal that's twisted by metal stamping. We did it both mechanically and electronically, using PLCs (programmable logic controllers). We first designed our own piece of equipment for the gearing to go into. There is only one of these twisting machines in existence in the world, and we made it to do this forming. Ultimately, we ended up providing the customer with a more expensive part, but one that they've never had a problem with in the five years that we've been running it."
In another example, a customer was making some of its parts in China. One particular part had a feature with a tolerance of +/-0.001-inch, with deliverable quantities of 100,000 to 200,000 per week. China was producing the parts on-time; however, its quality was so bad that it was stopping the assembly process and causing major customer complaints and failures in the field.
"The part in China was a copper connector for a fiber optic telecom cable," Shelton recalled. "Basically, we had a relationship with this customer, so we knew of the problem. So we offered to take on the problem to give them a solution. So they moved the tooling from China to here. We not only made that work, but we built another tool to take care of maintenance and ramp ups for supply. We've now run millions of parts for them."
When the manufacturer delivered the tooling from China to Micro Forms' dock, the company modified, reworked, and enhanced the tooling to produce within tolerance and demand, but according to Shelton, the project did not stop there. "The next step we took was to build extra inserts, buy extra punches, and have available tooling replacements for immediate changeover for maintenance issues," he explained. "But again, we did not stop there. Next, we built an entire new tool on our dime. The new tool produced beautifully and actually became our preferred tool for production, and when spikes did occur, we just added the secondary tool in another press and exceeded demands."
Apprenticeship Program Brings Needed Skills to New Personnel
Shelton says that one of the company's core beliefs is that continual training must occur for all of its employees, especially the younger staff members. This belief has spawned a formal approach to training in the form of an Apprenticeship Program.
"You can't hire a tool and die maker very easily anymore, so training internally makes it easier to pass on the new technology," says Shelton. "People in the Apprenticeship Program are in hands-on training all day long. So we're training people every day, not just whenever we have time. They basically get saturated with what we do. They're being trained on the new technology, as well as the old technology. Most of the young people in this program are high school graduates. They might start in the shipping department or the press room before they get to be a tool room apprentice. We're trying to spread our knowledge as much as possible."
Gascoigne says that part of the problem with an apprenticeship program is that many companies aren't willing to take the risks that come with training an apprentice. "The reality is that an apprentice is going to make mistakes that may cost a company a considerable amount of time and money," Gascoigne remarks. "An important part of the program is learning how to correct a mistake if they make one."
All OEM customers are looking for the same things, says Shelton—price, quality, delivery, and service. "We sell value, so our job is to make the customer's life easier. It all has to be effortless for the customer; otherwise, they're going to move somewhere else. They want ease of doing business, and they want price. If you're not the cheapest, which we're not, we have to prove our value. We can do that with quality and delivery and service and innovation and being solution-oriented. And we don't have an automated attendant on the phone."
Everyone in the U.S. manufacturing sector is aware of how the global economy has changed how business is transacted and how goods are produced. "Several years ago, everybody was talking about quality, but they really meant price," explains Gascoigne. "But I think now there is a genuine understanding of quality as being value, so it's number one right now. And on-time delivery comes after quality."
The total cost of doing business is constantly on the minds of manufacturers and OEMs in the quest to make their operations as lean and efficient as possible. With this effort, partnering between the two parties is more essential than ever before.
"I think that high quality saves them money," says Shelton. "On-time delivery saves them grief. Customer service makes it easy for them to do business. And solutions cut costs. Basically, then, our initiative is to be their solution. If we can do that, it's going to lower their costs. Not all of our customers are local; in fact, most of them are not. So we're saving them money by them not having to make plane trips out here once a month to keep us in line. We have a pulse on their forecasts—for example, what they're going to need next month. So we try to manage their usage in a way that parts are ready when they need them. So we're like an extension of their company."
Micro Forms recently received an award for Best in Class 2012 for the metal stamping classification. It was awarded by one of its customers, an aircraft company that it's been doing business with for many years. "We are on ship-to-stock status with them," says Shelton. "The award has to do with quality, delivery, and service. We are on ship-to-stock status with many of our customers. Ship-to-stock means that they don't have to inspect the parts that they receive. When they receive parts from us, they go right into stock because we've proven our quality with them. We also received a Key Supplier award from the gaming industry in 2004, and we're on a preferred supplier status with many of our customers."
Gascoigne says that the awards are nice to win, but what he considers to be the company's greatest reward is when a staff member gets a phone call from a potential new customer. "They say that they have known someone that has worked with us before and they knew this was something we could help them with," says Gascoigne. "We get that a lot. Even people who have not heard of us, but hear an engineer talking about us, give us calls. We have companies like Texas Instruments, who, when they have a problem that they cannot resolve with other companies, they come to us to find a solution. We're not the least expensive option, but they know we can help them out."
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