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Master Spring and Wire Form Co.

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Company Embraces Innovative Manufacturing Practice that Improves Lead Times


The technician is setting up a CNC wire former with 0.080-inch, 17-7 stainless steel to make a wire form for commercial farming equipment.
Photo courtesy of Master Spring and Wire Form Co.

Although it may be an eye-opener for many, the QRM methodology has been shown to reduce costs and improve quality, even while shrinking a company's lead times.

By focusing on helping companies reduce lead times across the extended enterprise, The Center for Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) is working to make U.S. manufacturers more competitive in the global marketplace. Established in 1993 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the QRM Center (www.qrmcenter.org) is based on the principles espoused by Founding Director Rajan Suri in his book, Quick Response Manufacturing: A Companywide Approach to Reducing Lead Times. Today, it is a consortium of faculty, students, and about 50 member companies led by Prof. Ananth Krishnamurthy, who earned his Ph.D. in industrial engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the guidance of Prof. Suri.

The QRM Center works with a broad range of manufacturing companies competing in an environment that requires production of custom-engineered parts in low volumes, amid a high level of part variety. One of them is Master Spring and Wire Form Co. (www.masterspring.com), a small, custom contract manufacturing company in River Grove, Illinois, that has successfully shortened its lead times by implementing the principles of QRM, according to Master Spring General Manager Steve Skolozynski.

Design-2-Part Magazine interviewed Prof. Ananth Krishnamurthy and Steve Skolozynski, who talked with D2P about the basics of the QRM approach, including what it is, why it's needed, and how it can help small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies reduce lead times for high-mix, low-volume, custom-engineered parts. In the interview, Prof. Krishnamurthy explained that although QRM applies to all manufacturing processes, it refers to the flow of a manufacturing order through an organization, rather than the "actual act of manufacturing."

"We distinguish that using the terms white space and gray space," Krishnamurthy said. "The actual machining process, metal cutting time, welding time, or molding time, is the gray space. The rest of the time a job is waiting to get on a machine, waiting for a designer to work on it, waiting for information from the customer, is called the white space. So, if you take a total lead time for satisfying an order, let's say 12 weeks, the actual gray space machine cutting time is only about 5%, maybe three or four days, but the rest of the time is just waiting because of inefficiencies in the organization."

Steve Skolozynski agreed, saying that QRM is not about asking people to work faster. "When you look at the actual touch time (gray space) in any given process, it's actually a small amount of time," he said. "So it's not working faster, but how to get rid of all that waiting time. QRM takes all of the widely accepted principles that people have been using in manufacturing for 50 years, and it says that many are false."

Krishnamurthy pointed out that contrary to what many people think, QRM's success in reducing lead times has no adverse effect on quality. "In fact, by reducing lead times, there is actually an increase in quality," he said. "This is one of those things that people aren't really aware of, or don't recognize. People think if you speed up the process, you might have to compromise the quality. When you change the workflow and the processing, the quality improvement possibilities actually stare you in the face. As you shrink the lead times, you'll actually have more time to work on quality improvements.

"People will also see the quality opportunities because the workflow is much better," he added. "We've done studies across a wide spectrum of industries and companies. When the John Deere Company looked at reducing lead times with their supply base, the defective parts per million with suppliers actually reduced significantly as their suppliers reduced lead times."

"When you first go to a QRM class, they give you a quiz with 10 true or false questions," said Skolozynski. "I would say nine out of ten people answer them the wrong way because they're using the generally accepted, standard ways of thinking. But once you get into the QRM program, you tell yourself 'I can't believe I was doing it that way.'"


An assortment of parts manufactured by Master Spring and Wire Form Company. The parts shown, in groups from left to right, include compression springs, extension springs, torsion springs, and wire forms.
Photo courtesy of Master Spring and Wire Form Co.

Following is the second of two interviews in which Prof. Ananth Krishnamurthy and Steve Skolozynski talk with D2P about the unique ability of QRM to solve lead time dilemmas. 

D2P: What would you say is the starting point for reducing lead times and implementing Quick Response Manufacturing?

SS: They've given that little 10-question quiz to top-level company managers, and the majority get the answers wrong about what leads to shorter lead times.  You not only need your top-level management to believe in the program, but you have to get all of your employees to believe in it too because they will constantly be challenging you as you initially start to change the way you do things. For example, they wonder why we want them to stop a machine before we've finished a large volume run. They ask, 'Can't we just run these parts for one more day?'

So it's an uphill battle with them at first. If you just give up and let it go, you'll lose the benefits of QRM. If you let a little bit of it go, then it'll all go away.

AK: There are two factors at work here. One is the education and awareness from upper level management to the shop floor. The second part is the metrics. You can say what you want, but people across all levels will react to their own metrics when given something new. You need to think about the metrics too, because some companies can talk the talk, but they don't think about changing their metrics, so they see their objectives slide back.

SS: That's a good point. If you're going to say 'Let's make all of these changes,' and you measure efficiency and machine utilization, it won't lead you to the changes you need to make with QRM. One of my employees, a guy who's been here a long time, was really against making these changes. We had him play with a model that the university came up with, where you add more machine capacity, which makes your utilization rates go down. And you can add more setups, which make your efficiency go down, but by doing all of this, you actually greatly reduce your lead times and get more parts out the door. So once he saw these things, he started understanding what QRM was all about. So you do have to change your metrics.

What we've learned at the QRM conferences is that if you focus on shrinking time, the costs will take care of themselves. We made a leap of faith to trust in this program to see if it works, and sure enough, everything else fell into place.

AK: When you shrink lead times, your costs will go down, quality improves, and your delivery times are better. Those are all the right kind of metrics that you want. The focus on lead times aligns all of those dials in the right direction.

D2P: Steve, in working with the Center for QRM, Master Spring has made some changes that have produced positive results.  Talk about your interaction with the Center for QRM, and the results that you've achieved.

SS: Basically, we signed up for QRM, and then signed up for a student project. So we had a graduate student come out to our plant to collect data, analyze it, and then come up with areas that we needed to look into to improve. It took quite a bit of time to collect and verify the data and then run it through their quantitative model. But, from that process, he was able to make specific recommendations. One of the biggest things was the optimal batch size on our wire formers. And then there were a lot of other little improvements that have helped.  In the meantime, we sent a number of our lead employees to two-day QRM workshops. We've implemented many of their recommendations, but there are still changes that we need to work on.

We eventually hired the student, and he measured the results of our study. Our quoting lead time went from two days to one day, our manufacturing lead time on our wire formers went from an average of 17 days to 12 days. And then, over the course of time, our sales grew by a fair amount, so our lead times crept back up. However, the model matched what the effect on our lead times would be from the increased sales.

I have a funny anecdotal story about it. We implemented the QRM program in the beginning of 2010. In 2009, the big slowdown and recession in manufacturing happened across the board for everyone. Our sales in 2010 rebounded to 2008 levels, and we started the QRM at the same time. I told our employees, 'Isn't this pretty nice, we're putting a lot of jobs through the plant, everything is working very smoothly, and there's not all the crazy activity that comes with forcing jobs through the shop.' They said, 'Yeah, it's  nice, but just wait until it gets busy.' I had to prove to them that we were busy.  They didn't think that we had bounced back from the recession yet, but we were actually way above our 2008 workload. So the QRM was running so smoothly that they couldn't tell the difference.

Now, in terms of continuing with QRM, they have a number of different conferences throughout the year. They have student presentations, where all of the students present the projects that they've worked on. So, there is a lot of interaction after the program gets started. As a member company, you get to go to all of those events, and if we have a question or need advice, we can call the university. And once you get into QRM, you begin to find all kinds of white space areas that need to be fixed.

D2P: Is QRM a take-off from Lean Manufacturing, an adjunct, or something totally different?

AK: I think QRM is built upon a lot of things that Lean Manufacturing provides. But I think it also overcomes some of the limitations of Lean Manufacturing when competing in low-volume, high-mix, custom markets. So I think QRM is a great complement to Lean. People have used Lean and QRM together in their organizations, but let me tell you where it builds and where it defers. Lean talks about setups and production, preventive maintenance, visual signals, eliminating waste, and so on. These are all important areas.

Where QRM differs from Lean is in recognizing that there is a certain side aspect of variability that is actually important to a company. It includes the variability of the high mix of products, and the variability in terms of the customization that you offer to your customers. It is also the variability of the demand that you see and are willing to accept, and the variability due to the customer's changes that you are willing to accept. All [of these aspects of variability] are very core to the business of small- and medium-sized manufacturers.

It defines who you are. They are not the ones who only manufacture two products at 100,000 products per month. They are the ones that take the small, custom jobs and want to be good at them. For these people, variability is core to their business, and it allows them to exploit that variability. Lean Manufacturing doesn't allow you to do that; it works very well in high-volume, low-mix settings.

Quick Response Manufacturing allows you to build on some of your basic foundations, and to take Lean to the next level. One simple example: If you take your lead time from 10 weeks to one week because of the changes you made with QRM, you don't have extra inventory because what you're expediting in a week is now your regular business.

D2P: We understand what you mean by controlling the white space, but how, for example, can you control what outside vendors are doing, like plating companies or metal suppliers?

SS: You're absolutely right. You have to look at a whole bunch of ways to control things. For example, we worked with a supplier that gave us their pricing model, so we could estimate their prices without waiting for a quote from them, which might take a week. You also have to search around and talk to vendors and say 'We've got a lot of work, but it's all short turnaround. Can you help us with it?' Also, sometimes you'll find that some vendors take a week to get it done, so we have to shrink our other times as much as possible. It really is a challenge. Then sometimes you have to pull the outside service in-house to get it done faster.

You just have do the best you can to control your own white space as much as possible. The professor told me about the way some OEMs are using QRM, like John Deere. John Deere is starting to go to its parts suppliers to tell them to use QRM, or else they want to see your process map to help you eliminate white space. So we also have to get all of our vendors to buy in, too.

AK: I think the recognition from John Deere's perspective is that you are only as fast as your slowest supplier. So it doesn't help to get nine companies on board if the tenth one is slow and late with its parts. In terms of vendor contracts, how much is that external vendor lead time affecting your own business? If you are able to convince your outside contractors to give you quicker turnarounds, you may be paying a premium, but you may be saving a lot of other wasted time and getting more business for yourself and the other vendor. We've had suppliers adopt this program, like Steve's company, and then tell the larger vendors, 'Look, we can turn these things around very quickly. If you are able to turn your work around quickly, there's more work for both of us.'

D2P: Steve, from your perspective as a company specializing in small- to medium-volume, custom-engineered springs and wire forms, what is the key to delivering high-quality custom parts within short lead times?

SS: Obviously, top management has to decide what to focus on. We decided to focus on short lead times. This means you might have to be comfortable with a little bit of extra machine capacity available, and multiple setups on the same job to run your optimal batch sizes. Top management has to be strong when  focusing on short lead times, so employees don't fall back into the old, traditional ways of thinking. The next thing is getting everyone on board to focus on the same things, and then looking at the entire process, not just the shop floor. We need to look at the job from the time it comes in the door for order entry and quoting, till it gets into design or engineering, then to the setup person and onto the machine.

Ideally, when implementing QRM, you would have one person that stays involved with it all day long. Because when you get involved with the day-to-day tasks of running the business, you don't always have time to focus on QRM improvements. We hired a QRM graduate student for about one-and-a-half years to help us jump-start QRM. Companies try to do as much as possible with the fewest numbers of people. But at some point, you might need to assign someone to supervise the QRM program full-time so you can keep making improvements.

We started studying the program with the students in the summer of 2009, and then we hired one of the students in January of 2010 to manage the QRM program. If your sales grow, it puts more pressure on the whole system. You have to look at all of the factors that are affecting you—'Do we need more machines, do we need more cross training?—whatever it takes to keep eliminating white space.

D2P: Can you tell us a little bit about your rapid prototyping of springs and wire forms?

SS: With QRM, we're trying to run our optimal batch size, so we're changing the setups on our machines every one to three days. So by doing this, if someone calls and needs ten prototypes in one week, we don't have to tell them to wait until we're done running a 100,000-piece order. Because of my optimal batch sizes, I can put the prototype job on the same machine that it would go on during regular production. Since we've reduced our lead times for regular orders, we can turn around 10-piece orders very quickly. Our standard tooling is in place, our machines are in place, and our processes are in place, so it will go through the same processes as our production parts and they can get them in one week.

The customers love it when you tell them 'This is the same way it's going to run when you want to put the part into production: the same tooling, same machines, the entire same process.' If it's a new part that's complex, we may have to make special tooling, so it might take longer to get out the prototypes.

How we got to QRM was that we always competed on-time. Originally, it was always by brute force, forcing the order through the shop and pushing everyone to do it quickly. The CNC wire formers are built so you can use standard tooling to make very complicated parts. When we used to run the older equipment, the fourslide and multi-slide machinery, we needed to use hard, custom tooling that exactly matches the shape of the part. Those machines were very fast, but there was a lot of tool making, which takes time, and that's all you can make with those tools. The servo wire formers that we have now are very flexible; we can use standard tooling with flexible setups. The wire formers surround the wire with a whole bunch of typically standard tools that come in and out to coil it and bend it into any shape.

At one point, we decided we can no longer compete on time by brute force within our shop. So we said 'Let's buy the latest equipment, all CNC servo wire formers that have really short setup times, fast cycle times, and easy changeovers.' So we did that. That put pressure on our inspection equipment, so then we purchased the latest inspection equipment. This put pressure on our tooling to be more precise, so then we got equipment to make better tooling. Then we purchased job management software that managed the whole shop so we could organize everything. But then we needed something to rally all of the employees around for process improvement, which is how we started using QRM. The equipment obviously helps, but QRM is taking us further along to reduce the white space, or waiting time.

The rapid prototyping process is the same as the production process. We can do the work quickly on our wire formers; we're running optimal batch sizes so the client won't have to wait to get machine time, and there won't be a lot of lead time to make complex tooling, like on the fourslide machines. If they want to go into production after the prototyping, we can use the same machine, the same tooling, the same program, and get it going quickly.

D2P: As an ISO 9001:2008 registered spring manufacturer that emphasizes quality, do you see any challenges in implementing Quick Response Manufacturing, with respect to quality?

SS: I would like to add one thing about quality. One thing that puts pressure on the overall quality is the communication process. That's because in making custom parts, there is a lot of communication with our customers. Their engineers are telling their purchasing agent what they want. Their purchasing agent then explains it to our engineer, and our engineer has to explain it to our setup person. If we need to make custom parts in a week, like for prototypes, and there are changes going back and forth, that's where the pressure is. So our communication has to be tight throughout this whole process. If someone forgets to tell someone something, it causes problems. But QRM improves the communication process, so the quality can also improve.

D2P: Most of your business comes from orders with releases of one piece to 200,000 springs and wire forms.  How did you zero in on this niche?

SS: This is the niche my grandfather focused on when he founded the company in 1945. He worked for a large spring company and he could see that the smaller orders weren't being taken care of, so he split off to start this company. So our strength has always been turning around the smaller and medium orders very quickly.

This technical information has been contributed by
Master Spring and Wire Form Co.

Click on Company Name for a Detailed Profile

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