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Versatility Tool Works & Manufacturing Company

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Versatile Metal Fabricator Offers Design Solutions and Zero Defects

Sheet Metal Fabricating

Chicago-area manufacturer uses a patented QstepTM process to cut costs and delivery time while promising high-quality parts through its VQSTM process monitoring

Often times, gaining a customer's confidence and repeat business comes down to solving design challenges that will ultimately speed up the process and save money. And tackling a design challenge often means engaging customers at the earliest stages of design in order to make suggestions on material type, heat treatment options, mechanical design, and tooling constraints. Versatility Tool Works & Manufacturing Company, Inc., a Chicago-area manufacturer of precision tooling and sheet metal products, overcame one such design challenge on a recent project that resulted in a two- to three-week reduction in lead time and a twenty percent cost savings for the customer.

In this design-challenge conundrum, the customer had been having problems with spring clips used to hold a family of LED lighting to the ceiling. The manufacturing process required annealed high carbon steel to be heat treated and plated. As it turned out, the heat treating process was causing the thin gages on the clips to distort, resulting in costly secondary inspection and reworking of nonconforming parts. Company president Ed Freimuth was understandably frustrated with the clips leaving his facility in perfect condition with everything in tolerance and all the angles correct, only to come back distorted from the heat-treating process.

"For a while, we were making the parts that way and we had a very low first batch yield, because we had a lot of these parts that needed to be reworked after the heat treating process," Freimuth said. "And then to make matters worse, we had another secondary operation of some type of plating process to protect the parts from rust and corrosion."

The heat treat process, along with the plating, added up to three additional weeks to the lead time. An alternative method was needed in order to stay within the customer's very small time frame of just a few days for delivery. That's when Freimuth took a step in another direction and began looking at pre-tempered steels and stainless steels. Versatility Tool ended up changing the customer's design from high carbon steel to full- hard stainless steel.

"Converting to full-hard stainless steel preserved the parts' spring-like properties, but eliminated the need for heat treating and plating," said Freimuth in an e-mail response. "Due to our tooling expertise, Versatility was able to design and fabricate tooling to produce the complex profile from hard stainless steel, eliminating secondary operations to save both lead time and cost."

While working with the customer's engineering group, tests were conducted on the full-temper stainless steel, and the resulting prototypes looked very promising. "We went ahead and did some prototype tooling, which actually allowed us to produce these parts in a prototype capacity," said Freimuth. "And then we tested them again with the customer, and again they performed favorably. Then we went ahead, finally, and tooled for production, and started producing the parts in a stainless steel instead of in the high carbon steels," he said.

Getting in early on the discovery stage of a project and asking the right questions to understand what the customer needs is part of Versatility Tool's QStep TM process, which helps reduce costs and cut down on lead times. Even with the stainless steel costing slightly more, the overall cost of the part was reduced by about 20 percent because outside processing operations were eliminated. That allows Versatility Tool to manufacture within a two- to -three-day period because they don't have to keep stocks. Parts go directly from their dock to the customer's dock. "And because we don't have the inventory carrying costs, we don't have the re-works, we don't have the additional work that goes into it. So it's really a favorable outcome to everybody," Freimuth said, adding that it ties into the company's "Just in Time" philosophy of delivery speed.

The QStep process, he explained, is a client collaboration process that entails discovery, engineering collaboration, tooling design, fabrication, manufacturing, and fulfillment. After a new project is brought to the table, company engineers help brainstorm tooling, manufacturing issues, and look for small changes in design that can have a big impact down the line in the manufacturing process.

"We're looking to drive the most cost and time out of the equation," said Freimuth. "Then, once we have a design, we look at the tooling aspect of it because we do all of our own tooling in-house. We're able to control the schedule and the design in that area as well, and that, a lot of times, is a big advantage to customers."

Based in Alsip, Illinois, just 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Versatility Tool Works ( serves the architectural lighting, institutional lighting, electronic controls, construction, POP display, office product, cabinets, and medical industries. Services provided include precision sheet metal fabrication; stamping with up to 200-ton presses; tooling design and fabrication; robotic welding; laser cutting; turret punching; metal forming; and precision machining. The company employs about 20 workers and is doubling their shop space by the end of the year by moving into a new 45,000 square foot facility. And with the added space, comes added equipment, including a new Amada EM servo driven turret press that allows for added lights-out automation. Also, this fall the company is adding a new Amada C1 turret/laser combination machine, also equipped with lights out automation. The laser / punch combination machine will allow for the making of path holes with a laser all in the same process on one machine.

"We're really excited about it because we've been working with a surgical instrument company hoping to be able to win some of the business by being able to make the parts 90 percent complete on one line, rather than having to move them around and do other secondary operations," said Freimuth. "So combining the laser capability with the metal forming capability is going to be a huge additional competitive advantage that we're going to have."

Using Six Sigma process monitoring as part of its VQS TM (Versatility Quality System), the company is able to boast an impressive zero defect rate on four billion stamped components, Freimuth said. High-speed stamping of small components in a short period of time made Versatility Tool Works look at its process several years ago to ensure quality at extremely high volumes. By embedding sensors in the stamped tooling, the company was able to analyze the process.

"We set some very stringent inputs, some very stringent tolerances and specifications around our material inputs based on the testing," Freimuth said. "And once we had those set and we satisfied ourselves that we could maintain those, then we looked at the process. So we really looked at process monitoring as a means of achieving zero quality defects. We looked at the inputs to the process, we looked at the process itself, and then we looked at the controls that need to be inside of those to ensure that we're getting a good product out."

By monitoring the process, the company could guarantee that the output of the process was going to be zero defects. "That's the classic model, and it really worked in our situation," Freimuth added. "We're pushing now four and a half billion pieces without a single customer quality complaint for that particular project."

Besides being a major producer for the lighting industry, Versatility Tool Works started its own line of specialty tool storage cabinets ( about four years ago. The company is also building relationships with Mitsubishi and Salvagnini to make specialty cabinets for their equipment. Along the same line, Versatility Tool Works is making tool boxes for large OEMs like Amada. Freimuth's company builds all the tool boxes that Amada sells in North America. They're specifically designed and engineered to fit Amada's tooling, whether it's for their turret presses, their press brakes, or some of the other specialty machinery they make.

For the medical industry, Versatility Tool Works is producing medical cabinets and storage devices, such as controlled access cabinets for dispensing equipment or medications. Therefore, the cabinets have complex locking and traceability systems. Much of the products are done in stainless steel and carbon steels and along with the boxes come accessories for monitors and different diagnostic equipment that could be mounted onto the cabinets.

Crucial to the company's QStep recipe is its fulfillment collaboration with customers. "We've really worked with them on controlling the amount of product that we ship to them, and giving them only what they need," says Freimuth. If stock sits on the production floor or a customer's floor, that adds cost. So Versatility Tool Works strives to "make to order," where production only meets what the customer is consuming.

"We have a couple customers where we're receiving daily production schedules on what they're running in their plant," says Freimuth, "and we have forward looking capability for four weeks. We plan our production schedule to meet that. We've got a set portfolio of parts that we produce, and we can see what they're going to be running in their production, and then we have to match our production schedule to make sure those parts are there on the required day, when they want to run that on their line. That's something that we've come to be very good at. It's really forced us to become a much better, leaner, more cost effective manufacturer by being able to plan and coordinate our resources so that the customer is getting those parts when he wants them. And he's not getting extra parts; he's getting exactly what he needs, when he needs it."

Freimuth says that while flowing the work through the shop in this manner produces definite cost savings, the benefits go beyond that. Years ago, if a customer ordered a thousand light housings, and it took three hours to set the machine up to run those light housings, the conventional way of thinking was to say, "Let's make 2,000," according to Freimuth. "That way, the impact of the set-up is halved over those pieces," he explained. "Well, it may take us 15 hours to run a thousand of those parts. Now, all of a sudden, we've put 30 hours into the schedule. And what's starting to happen, when you start to think like that, is that the machine could have been making another customer's parts or the same customer's parts 15 hours earlier. Therefore, we just extended somebody's lead time by those 15 hours. Now we start to stack up more and more of that on top of each other. What starts to happen is your lead times grow and you're not really giving your customer what they want.

"So we've really looked at the system dynamics of the shop," he continued. "If the customer needs 500, we're going to make him 500, because if we make him a thousand, our next customer who's standing in line behind him is going to get his parts a day later, and this problem compounds itself time and time again. So by looking at this, we've really been able to impact our lead times and shrink them down significantly."

This is key because in certain industries, and with certain customers, it really is what drives the company to be able to get some of those orders. "You're nimble and you're agile enough to be able to respond to their needs in the time that they need it," Freimuth says. "And that keeps them coming back time and time again if you can show that, 'Yes, we're able to do this and we're able to get them out of trouble,' because they're constantly looking for that kind of help."

When dealing with one customer who was concerned about the time it took for a job to be completed, Freimuth said he discovered a "Time Response Spiral" that showed that no matter how long a project was given, it tended to take one or two weeks longer because the work wasn't being managed properly as it flowed through the shop. Freimuth tackled this problem by employing a Web-based metric he learned while partnering with the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing ( Called "Calculating Your Manufacturing Critical-path Time (MCT)," the mapping tool tracks the work flow from the perspective of time rather than cost. Freimuth found that cost and quality are positively affected if the time-from beginning to the end of a project-is compressed.

By following a Value Stream Map, Freimuth is able to put into practice a continuous and steady work flow that has created significant cost savings, he said. Some of the process mapping analysis has involved the time involved with waiting for materials, confirming the PO, and machine time.

"We started concentrating on these types of things, then they helped us become better at becoming a make-to-order shop. We've adopted some of these principles, and they've significantly affected our on-time delivery, as well. But it's still a work in progress for us, I'd say, as we move forward," he said. "But this is definitely something that is going to be an area where we're going to continue to formalize what we're doing and really look at moving away from the cost metric and into a more of a time-based metric."

This technical information has been contributed by
Versatility Tool Works & Manufacturing Company

Click on Company Name for a Detailed Profile

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