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Waukesha Metal Products
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Workforce Investing and Production Flexibility Make International Metalformer Shine
The servo stamping press at Waukesha Metal Products has enabled the company to overcome some production challenges. For one customer, the ability to program the servo-press ram speed during forming yielded burr-free, finished parts stamped complete in a progressive die without any visible wipe/form marks. It is an example of how Waukesha invests in R&D and the process earned the company a productivity award.
Photo courtesy of Waukesha Metal Products
Having recently been appointed to Wisconsin's College and Workforce Readiness Council, president of Waukesha Metal Products Jeff Clark has taken a solidifying step in the direction of nurturing his company's considerable growth and success--ensuring its talent base.
As manufacturing as a whole experiences a growing skills gap that has caught the attention of politicians this election year, Clark recognizes and is working towards achieving a home-grown influx of young people into high-demand manufacturing jobs. Getting young people interested in manufacturing means reaching them even at the middle school level and changing the worn-out stereotype that manufacturing is a dangerous and dirty job that is the first to be threatened during a recession. No industry is immune to downturns, as seen with the recent banking scandal that left tens of thousands unemployed. But parents typically tend to dissuade their kids from entering into manufacturing jobs, thinking they're the first jobs to be threatened during economic hardships, Clark noted, adding that people need to realize that manufacturing is on the upswing and the reshoring trend is continuing.
"Manufacturing is growing and it's coming back. If we don't make things here, there won't be an economic engine. We have to make things here to have a viable economy," Clark said. "We have to change the perception of manufacturing. It's something we work on locally, but I would love to see someone come up with a national methodology like the guys who did the Got Milk? campaign."
Wisconsin-based Waukesha, with facilities in Sussex and Grafton, has experienced considerable growth from an $11 million business with about 40 people in 2005, to a $30 million business and about 125 people in 2012. While much of that growth has to do with being diversified and flexible enough to export about 50 percent of its products to 34 different countries, the key to its steady growth as a company really centers on the quality of its employees, Clark said.
"It's not about capital equipment. It's not about what you have, but who you have; that's my belief on how we'll continue to grow," Clark said. "To me, talent is the differentiator because that is going to be the limiting factor in this country." With three summer youth apprentices, two interns, and with the framework in place to co-op with local colleges, Clark is set on finding young talent and planning ahead. "We want young people going into engineering and into tool and die and welding. And if they know what (courses) to take, they are better capable of making a good decision," he said, explaining that the number of employees that will be needed during the next seven to 15 years is significant due to a retiring workforce.
Low Volumes and Flexibility Are in Demand
According to Clark, it is no longer about cost, but about being the "best value supplier" overall when it comes to competing against other countries for customers. With companies looking to regionalize, shorten supply chains, innovate, and focus on lower volumes, Waukesha has attracted a lot of international attention. "They've (other countries) grown sophisticated enough to know that some of these lower-cost countries, like China, in the end aren't really providing the best cost alternative for them, whether it's quality concerns, delivery concerns, or inventory concerns," Clark said.
Waukesha's major international customers, such as Mexico, are looking to keep inventories low and flexible in order to keep up with the ups and downs of demand. "It's about lower volumes: People aren't producing millions of things anymore. The production volumes are lower and more flexible, so there might be more variety within types of products. That flexibility gets troublesome with an extended supply chain," Clark said. "So you stay competitive, you provide that good value and timeliness. Being able to provide products in a very short window reduces everyone's costs and inventory. The life cycles are much shorter on products, so you don't want to have products that go obsolete. People are trying to shorten that window." Enabling that flexibility and adaptability to create options for its customer base has made Waukesha more competitive. "We're more flexible than some of the others. The low cost countries are really great at repetitive, high-volume types of business, but it's not quite there as much."
Providing engineering support and research and development has attracted a growing customer base for Waukesha that is focused on innovative products. Last November, Waukesha won the 2011 Zierick Manufacturing Corporation Productivity Award--one of eight Awards of Excellence in Metalforming presented annually by the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA)--for significantly reducing the price and increasing productivity for high-volume stainless steel cassettes that hold dental instruments. "We spent time and dollars perfecting that in process, and really creating some new tooling applications with some of our supply chain partners to make that effective and make that work for the customer," Clark said.
Naysayers shook their heads when Clark first thought to produce the part complete in a progressive die, but Waukesha's engineering staff figured out a way by adjusting the tooling and using servo press technology. Getting a cosmetically perfected part was part of the challenge. Due to cosmetic and burr-free requirements on the brushed-finish type 304 stainless steel, existing cassettes had been manufactured using a labor-intensive, seven-step fabrication process that included sanding, removing PVC protective coating, using protective film, and taking extreme care to ensure scratch-free surfaces.
"With the servo press, we were able to control the velocity of that ram infinitely, so we were able to slow it down to form the product and move to the next station without creating excessive marks," Clark said. "So that's where we spend time in our R&D efforts. That's where our engineering group and our tool makers who are highly skilled come into play."
Some operations were eliminated by making the flat blanks in the progressive die, using a time saver machine to deburr and then form in the servo press. It was a process improvement resulting in a quick six-month ROI for the customer and a 70 percent reduction in price per part, allowing the parts to immediately become competitive for export to the Asian market. After the process was perfected, the cassettes were re-quoted using a full progressive die process with no additional steps involved for de-burring before the final electropolish process. Sensor technology built into the tool includes short feed/ long feed, part out, and stripper sensors on each corner. An advanced die sensor technology program is part of Waukesha's R&D efforts and up to 40 sensors are put in to monitor levels.
"We're actually measuring a part in the die," he said. "We're using vision systems that actually look at parts within the tools to make sure it's doing what it's supposed to be doing."
The servo press technology keeps Waukesha on the cutting edge and allows workers to infinitely program the ram velocity and have better control of the metal forming within the tool. "The servo press gives you the ability to slow down, to stop, to come up really quick, and then go down again to reset the material," Clark said. "We can do more work in a smaller tool because we can control that ram velocity. And by allowing that metal to form better, giving it some time, you don't have as much failure, you can do more work. That's what we see as the advantage going forward. Our belief is that we will be investing in servo presses going forward. There's more flexibility with the servo technology, and if it can reduce floor space by doing more work on a smaller press, everyone is better off."
Focus on Innovation for Diversified Industries
In business since 1971, Waukesha started out with tool and die-making, expanded into stamping in the 1980s, and doubled its stamping business with the acquisition of Parkview Metal Products of Illinois in 2009 during the recession. In November 2011, Waukesha expanded its fabrication capabilities and diversified its customer base with the acquisition of Metal Skills Plus of DeForest, Wisconsin. Earlier this year, the company won the 2011 Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Award in the Small Business category. Waukesha Metal Products now has a stamping and tooling facility in Sussex, Wis., and a fabrication facility in Grafton, Wisconsin.
This international metalforming supplier markets by the credo: "Engineered for Durability and Strength" and caters to a diversified clientele, serving customers in the automotive, industrial power, telecom, electrical controls, aerospace, military, lighting, medical, and solar industries, among others. Automotive comprises 40 percent of the company's business, and with about four to five percent of revenue being reinvested into R&D, Waukesha has developed a patented shaft flange that has been popular with the auto industry.
The Sta-Collar® annular shaft flange is a solid, one-piece product that prevents the lateral movement of a vehicle's stabilizer bar, limiting vehicle roll and sway. Shipped internationally, it comprises about six percent of the company's revenue line, shipping to Africa, Thailand, and Japan, among others. Demand is stable for this specialized product, but because it creates better stability, it is used mostly in vehicles that tend to roll and sway, such as SUVs, trucks, or high-performance cars that need a stiff ride. Research and development is currently aimed at looking into using the product in other applications with other industries. A good example of how the company innovates to stay on the cutting edge, Sta-Collar is the only proprietary product that Waukesha manufactures, as the company prefers to put its research dollars into process improvement and creating new capabilities.
Alternative energy is a growing market for Waukesha Metal Products, especially on the fabrication side, which is lower volume but has greater applications. One example is a solar-powered garbage compactor being used on the East Coast. Because Milwaukee is situated on the Great Lakes system, Clark is starting to see growth from the water and waste water industries, specifically related to metering, treatment, or processing. Within automotive, the hybrid cars have been picking up steam with energy efficiency parts like turbo chargers. The size of the engines are getting smaller, but the RPMs are generated out of the turbo charge, which saves energy.
Clark continually stresses innovation as a key driver in the success of his company. "I think adaptability and flexibility are really those differentiators we have been able to be successful at, and part of that is being able to change and improve and create new processes or capabilities or product," Clark said of his R&D team. "You have to separate it because if you get dragged into the production side of requirements, you don't innovate as much."
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