Problem Solved: A Growing Contract Manufacturer Focuses on Quality and Service
Motivated employees, said to be AMG's greatest strength, provide the experience, talent, and engineering support needed to solve manufacturability problems and ensure the highest quality.
To compete and thrive in the global marketplace, manufacturing companies in the U.S. must cover many competency bases almost perfectly. One company in Lynchburg, Virginia, meets this mandate head-on, combining engineering support with precision machining and fabrication capabilities to produce high-quality parts for industries such as food processing, defense, medical, automotive, fiber optics, and commercial nuclear power. The strategy appears to be working for AMG, Inc. (www.amg-inc.net), an ISO 9001:2008 certified contract manufacturer whose stated mission is to achieve "total customer satisfaction through service, quality, and delivery." To meet rising demand for fabricated parts and components, AMG recently completed a 10,000-square-foot addition to its fabrication department and has invested heavily in obtaining welding certifications for its staff.
"All of our welders are certified, and we now have a CWI (certified welding inspector) on staff," says AMG President Greg Morris. "Many of our customers look for shops with equipment capacity and certified welders, especially in industries such as defense and food processing, which require an extra measure of control. This has been a big plus for us for the past year and a half. The quality that comes out of AMG has risen significantly with this program."
Even though the company's welding workload does not justify robotic automation at this time, the company has upgraded its welding capacity with more welding machines, and the new facility is said to have a better shop layout and workflow pattern. Morris says that parts fabrication is one of the fastest growing segments of its business because it is taken so seriously throughout the company.
"There are so many shops like ours out there that just hire a welder, but don't do a very good job of educating them to specific AWS (American Welding Society) requirements," he explains. "We've also increased our other fabrication equipment, which now includes three precision press brakes. We've had customers tell us, 'Since you're doing the welding, you might as well do the forming, too.' We often perform light assembly, but we definitely have the capability to handle complex assembly."
Besides sheet metal fabrication and welding, AMG offers CNC milling and turning, electrical discharge machining (EDM), and laser cutting. The company can process a wide range of materials, from exotic metals to engineered plastics, thanks to a staff with experience in the nuances of high-tech equipment and robust shop management software. Its key staff members include two manufacturing engineers who can assist customers with material choices and the manufacturability of parts, components, and subassemblies.
According to AMG Accounts Manager Joe Brandt, the company can provide customers with machined and fabricated prototypes for either a complete component or subassembly. "We don't actually handle product design, but we are very good at working with our customers' engineers to make a part more manufacturable," says Brandt. "Often, we will be invited to a customer's facility when they're doing a design review for a new product. They'll ask for our opinion about the best way to machine, fabricate, weld, or form the part. We're always willing to help in this way."
When asked how AMG is able to understand its customer's needs well enough to actually solve their manufacturing challenges, Morris didn't hesitate. Recognizing that each customer is different, with its own list of requirements and "wants," he stressed the importance of communication, particularly the face-to-face variety.
"For AMG, face time with the customer is the first step in understanding the requirements of each," he said. "AMG prides itself on communication, [including] communication to our team regarding the customer's requirements and wants, and communication regarding internal requirements. This constant communication throughout our organization and with our customers allows us to pull ideas from our account managers to the guy sawing material. The sum of these ideas will sometimes develop enough momentum for a customer to make a print change, allowing both parties to be more profitable."
Another source of pride is the company's high-tech facility and state-of-the-art equipment, which is continually being updated, according to Brandt. "We put money into new equipment on a continual basis because we're always trying to keep up with the technology curve," he says. "One of our assets is that we try to be the latest and greatest, if we can. We have a large array of different types of production equipment, including in-house wire EDM, laser cutting, and CNC machining equipment."
For laser cutting, the company uses a Trumpf L3030, 4000-Watt Laser. "What stands out is how our guys program the equipment, making sure the part is right the first time, and giving the customer a clean, deburred part in a very timely manner," says Morris. "In the food processing area, laser cutting is used for all of the panels that we have to form, and also the cabinets that we make for other applications. So it's a vital piece of equipment that cuts down on time and effort for initial cutting."
Because AMG offers a diverse mix of manufacturing processes to complete jobs from start to finish, the company considers itself a one-stop-shop. In addition, AMG is on the Approved Supplier List for two nuclear power companies, having produced parts that are used to repair piping in the reactors. These parts are not critical to the performance of the reactor, but are for preventive maintenance. Moreover, every part or component must be documented for the nuclear industry before it is shipped.
"With our large array of in-house capabilities, we are less reliant on outside services, which helps shorten our lead times," AMG's president insists. "This also helps us ensure the quality of our products, because we have 100% control over our processes. We have a significant number of parts that require 100% inspection, like some of the nuclear industry parts, where everything we do is tightly controlled, right down to the chemical certifications of the materials."
The company's work also includes projects for clients in the telecommunications arena. "A lot of the parts we make for the telecommunications industry are fiber optic furnace parts, and handling equipment, such as spool carts that are used to transport their products," says Brandt.
"We make a lot of the tools that are used to heat up the fiber in fiber draw process applications, in the processing of the fiber itself, from heating it to cooling it, coating it, and spooling it," adds Morris. "For one customer, we build fabricated boxes, charging station racks, and computer racks used in telecom facilities. These aren't high production parts—usually about four or five at a time are manufactured. But it's fairly precision work for fabricated parts."
Although the telecommunications work does not require any special manufacturing processes or engineering procedures, the parts and components must be handled in a clean, burr-free environment to maintain high levels of quality. "In general, clean, burr-free components are a must," Morris affirms. "We don't really consider this a challenge because everything that comes out of our plant is clean."
To achieve this high standard, the company doesn't work with any cast iron or other dirty materials that will contaminate parts nearby. "Our fabrication shop is like a clean room environment, so we don't have any materials in there that will contaminate the telecom or fiber optic parts," Morris continues. "Even the deburring we do is handled in another part of our plant."
Employees Motivated to Achieve Higher Quality
Many obvious factors contribute to a company's strength in the marketplace, but its greatest overall strength may be more subtle. In AMG's case, the company maintains that its greatest strength is the high skill level and vast experience of its employees. The company was started in 1977 and, in the 34 years since, has reportedly hired about 270 people. Approximately 100 of those people are still employed by the company, according to Morris.
"This experience and talent gives our customers a lot of continuity, especially on repeat parts," he says. "It doesn't help production if you have to continually educate someone on the same parts."
One reason that AMG has such low employee turnover is its ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), which makes every employee a part-owner of the company. "Because our employees have a stake in the company, they want to work harder, faster, and offer better quality," says Morris.
Engineering support, modern equipment, and precision software all tie together to give the company the ability to create precision products on a repeatable basis. "When it comes to tight tolerances, once again it comes down to our highly-skilled staff and our high-tech equipment," says Morris. "The key is to have the expertise first, and then excellent equipment to repeat the process. We probably invest between $500,000 and $750,000 per year on new equipment. We also try to update our 3D modeling and CAD/CAM software on a regular basis, which gives us an expedited production set-up."
According to Brandt, AMG's software package contributes greatly to its high level of efficiency. "With this software package, it allows us to take data right from the solid model and create coding for our machines, and then we can run the part and inspect the parts right from the 3D model," he explains. "This allows us to work with our customers' engineers on limited-dimension drawings, which decreases lead times, and helps us assist them with design and engineering issues."
Adjustable Fixture Helps Solve Part-Making Puzzle
As a solution-oriented manufacturing company, AMG embraces the responsibility of taking on even the most challenging projects. One involved machining a precision guide rail from what Brandt described as "very tough, customer-supplied material, rough cut from plate." The proprietary material, in the Inconel® family, required a substantial amount of machining--nearly 5/8-inch of material had to be machined from every surface. A major challenge, according to Brandt, was to produce a part that was straight--within 0.010 inch over three feet--following the extensive machining.
"I wouldn't say it was the biggest challenge we've ever had, but it was tough for several reasons," he recalls. "It was a defense-related part, so precision was very critical, and the size of the job and the amount of revenue involved also made it critical. Also, we were working with customer-supplied materials, which were very limited, so we had no margin for error. This made the stress level on the job very high, which is why we've probably got it fixed in our minds. We had a piece of material that started out as three inches square, and had to end up two inches square."
The straightness of the finished part, a critical requirement, was challenged by the fact that the material moved when machine operators tried to cut it. "We had to come up with fixtures that were easily maneuverable, so we could machine the part, release it, and then let it relax before we could re-clamp it and re-machine it," Brandt explained. "And, it all had to be done in a certain time frame, so we could make a few dollars on the job."
Brandt says that AMG was so successful with the parts that it ended up running the job for the customer three times. On the second and third production runs, AMG was able to save the company time and money on the job. "When we took the job in, it didn't look like we would win, but when we all put our heads together and figured it out, it turned into a winner for us and the customer," he summarized.
Inconel is a registered trademark of Special Metals Corporation.
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