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Simplicity and Common Sense, with Advanced Machining Capability

Dec. 22, 2011
A machine shop finds a winning strategy as it learns that being competitive demands attentiveness, understanding, and the resources to be available for any type of opportunity.

In 1957, when John Parsons was trying to get manufacturers to adopt the NC technology he had developed, Wayne Mercer opened the Mercer Machine Co. with a single lathe in his basement in Indianapolis. Now, 54 years later, Mercer Machine is run by Brian and Tracy Robinson, who bought the business in 2008 from Tracy’s parents, who had taken it over from Rita Elliot (née Mercer) and her husband Dave.

Mercer Machine Co. vice president Brian Robinson stands with the shop’s latest Okuma acquisition, an LB3000 EX-MY. “It’s amazing what you can do with this machine,” Robinson said. “Things no one tells you you can do, suddenly you’re doing.”

Today, Mercer has a 14,400-sq. ft. shop and 16 full-time employees, and running 22 hours every day. According to vice president Brian Robinson, Mercer does production sawing, turning and milling and some EDM work. “We work with carbon steels, high-alloy materials, Hastelloy, titanium, Inconels, Waspoloy, aluminum and iron castings, and many serious exotics, as well. We serve aerospace, automotive, racecar components, agriculture, and defense.

“With the new Okuma LB3000 EX-MY multitasking production center we’re increasing the size of our net, going after new markets, taking a hard look at aerospace engine coolers and a large array of medical applications. It’s amazing what you can do with the new Okuma — things no one tells you that you can do, suddenly you’re doing. If you can imagine the shape and geometry of a complex part, you can program and produce the part in a single setup.”

A house of Okumas
Robinson said Mercer has been an Okuma user since 1976. Currently, there are 11 Okuma CNCs on the shop floor.

“I can still remember the first Okuma,” he said. “It was an LSN-10 with a GE Mark Century 550 control. At that time Okuma offered their lathes with three different controls. As well as the GE control, you could get an Okuma OSP-2200 or a Fanuc 2000C, and that’s what made the machine ‘talk.’ It was tape-fed: The machine read a tape, and when the job was done, the tape would rewind and start the next part. We’ve still got the old teletype machine that created the tapes.” All of the following machines had Okuma controls.

Robinson related that early in his career with Mercer he ran Warner & Swasey turret lathes. “I can remember operating a Warner & Swasey turret lathe, and a little later on a bunch of Fuji automatics that worked off of micros witches, which were, at the time, considered the latest, best thing in technology.”

An impressive range of parts can be made with a single fixturing on the LB3000 EX-MY. Note the tiny, delicate pins next to the penny, the very complex, long shaft, and the large gear blank.

From that first CNC in 1976, Robinson added, Mercer Machine has bought Okuma CNC products steadily through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. “ I bought my first Okuma mill in 2006,” he said, “then in 2009 I got my second Okuma mill. The latest Okuma CNC is the LB3000 EX-MY multitasking production center. You could say we’ve been leaning on Okuma pretty heavily — and Okuma CNCs are not exactly inexpensive. But, this is a case where you really do get what you pay for.”

Surviving tough times
The outsourcing wave that started in the 1980s and gained momentum in the1990s, coupled with the 2008-2009 Recession, led to casualties in the precision parts-making business. Many machine shops closed, especially shops that produced a small variety of simple parts in high volumes, jobs that could be reassigned easily to a shop offshore, whose only competitive advantage was low-cost labor.

“We’ve always known there would be some very hard times,” Robinson said, “and we intentionally salted away money just for those times. More important, we’ve always been a very lean operation, and we’ve never ‘put all our eggs in one basket.’ We’ve always had a diversified customer base. As a CNC shop we constantly look for jobs that require multiple secondary operations. Plus, we’ve always had very strong, reciprocal relationships with our customers.” Robinson added that Mercer has one customer that warned him that a job they were working on was probably due for outsourcing. That customer gave Mercer enough lead-time to find another part before they moved the one part offshore. “What a marvelous example of a great customer-supplier relationship,” he said. “Imagine, a customer held us in such high esteem that they informed us of the loss of a job before the job actually went away. I think this is reflective of our commitment always to give customers top quality and on-time delivery.”

As a businessman, Robinson admits he understands the move to offshore production: It’s all about chasing cheap labor. What he cannot understand is why manufacturers don’t see the downside of offshoring —long supply lines, theft of intellectual property, extended lead times, the frustratingly high number of substandard parts that arrive and must be returned to the source for reworking.

This part is an aerospace component with very close tolerances and a super fine finish.

“We have a customer right now who is having his parts made in Germany,” Robinson said. “The parts come back here, and they aren’t right and have to be sent back to Germany for reworking. He’s about to start working with us. All he really wants is just to have control over his product. It’s these kind of experiences — quality control, the Japanese earthquakes and tsunami negatively impacting automakers worldwide, shipping and storage, the rising cost of oil, and the fact that Chinese labor rates are increasing at 17% annually —that have taken the luster off cheap labor (if it ever really was cheap) and are causing many manufacturers to begin reshoring to domestic suppliers.”

The LB3000 EX-MY
Offering high accuracy with enhanced multi-tasking capacity, the EX Series is the flagship 2-axis lathe in the Okuma lineup. Built on a high-quality, box-slant bed and a thoroughly tested thermal design, the EX series is able to achieve machining dimensional change over time of less than Ø5µm.

Further, the LB3000 EX offers a maximum machining diameter of 13.39 in. and max. machining length of 39 in. With a ball-screw driven tailstock, along with X and Z rapid traverse rates of 984 and 1,181 ipm respectively, the LB3000 EX-MY was created with accuracy and flexibility in mind. In addition, the LB3000EX can be equipped with (M)illing capability, a sub-spindle (W), Y-axis, two bed sizes (500 and 1,000 mm) and two spindle sizes, making it a machine that fits a wide array of applications and needs.

“I have a bar feeder and parts catcher on the new Okuma,” said Robinson. “I can load up the feeder with bar stock and the Okuma will run until it’s out of stock. It runs without operator intervention, and it keeps my quality and throughput consistently high. Without operator involvement I don’t have operator-induced variabilities. I can run very simple parts and very, very complex parts. The machine is just tremendous at repeatably holding tolerances and surface finishes.”

A simple part: This is a pin for electrical transformers with a cross hole drilled through the diameter, then is chamfered on both sides, and parted off. The cycle time is 67 seconds. If this pin wasn’t being made on the LB3000 EX-MY, the cycle time would be three minutes, because the part would have to be parted off the bar, then go to the mill, have the drilled, chamfered on one side, then flipped over and chamfered on the other side. That would be three distinct setups and operator involvement in moving the part from setup to setup, resulting in possible quality variations from pin to pin. Now, the part is done in a single setup.

A more complex part: “This part is for an aerospace customer,” Robinson explained. “On the LB3000 EX-MY, we start out with 3-in. long bar stock, bore the jaws out, rough turn, finish turn, thread a 3/4 in. -10 thread on the end, and then mill and drill three holes in the flange face — all in a singe setup. Cycle time is three minutes, 30 seconds. Before the new Okuma, I’d have to chuck the part, turn everything down and thread. Then I’d have to take it over to the mill, get a chuck, bore out the chuck jaws, chuck the part on the turned diameter, then drill the three holes, debur, and then send it on to the customer. With the LB3000 EX-MY cycle time has been greatly reduced, I’ve eliminated workholding and building fixtures — and operator involvement.”

Another example: Robinson said Mercer does some hard turning, but not on the LB3000 EX-MY. He’s got an Okuma LB15, circa late 1980s, that’s setup to do hard turning all day long, holding 0.0006-in. tolerance with a 5 micron finish.

“The ease of programming is just great,” Robinson said. “You know, we looked at other machines over the years, but so many of them don’t build their own controls. The Okuma control is very user-friendly, it comes to the operators and setup people very easily. And the newer Okumas come with the P200 control with WindowsXP built in. If there’s a problem, Okuma can look right into your machine via the Ethernet and see what’s going on and help fix it. This is standard on the LB3000 EX-MY. The P200 is very intuitive, very easy to learn and you can change things on the fly. In addition, I’ve got manufacturing software in the control, so the operator can pull up the software and see their job routings and such, right there on the screen.”

Another contributor to this success story is the Mercer Machine’s Okuma distributor, Gosiger Inc., Beach Grove, IN. “Gosiger is a great bunch of guys,” Robinson offered. “If I call them, I’ve got a service guy out here the next day or the day after. Many times we can talk a problem through over the phone. They just listen and then walk me through the solution. They’re very knowledgeable, and very responsive. What a pleasure, working with service personnel who actually know what they are doing.”

The backstory is that before Gosiger bought the distributorship, it was owned by Joachim & Jones. Wayne Mercer ordered the shop’s first Okuma machine, an Okuma LSN-10 with NC control in January 1976. (Mercer had been keen on John Parsons’ NC notions, and he became an early adopter of NC technology.) Once the Gosiger team gained the franchise, they realized that they didn’t have enough display space to show the Okuma line (there were two models then), so an arrangement was struck for Mercer Machine to be Gosiger’s showroom. Gosiger brought its potential customers to show the Okumas in action on Mercer Machine’s floor. Robinson also praised his shop’s employees, noting the shop floor superintendent took his position on a part-time basis for just two weeks. That was 15 years ago, and he’s still at it. “We’ve got a very good team of people here,” he emphasized. “They’re dedicated, loyal, and they always get the job done. We believe in them, and invest in them. We’re always looking at what we can do to keep them happy. Like most places today, skilled workers are hard to come by. We’ve found it easier to reward them rather than lose them. And, they should be rewarded commensurate with their abilities, talents, and their contribution to the company.”

A strategy for the long run
“There’s really nothing complicated about our strategy,” Robinson said. “We cast a very large net, selecting only those RFQs that require serious multiple secondary operations, which is what the LB3000 EX-MY is dedicated to producing. We keep our eye on our customers, our competitors and on developments in new advanced technology. We invest regularly to stay ahead of the competition, allowing us to do what others cannot. We try to learn from our mistakes, of which there haven’t been a great number during the past 57 years. Then we work very, very hard to be the best supplier a customer can find.

“Our strategy for the way we address our employees, customers and suppliers is again really quite simple,” Robinson continues. “We treat our employees as family and our customers and suppliers as our best friends. It’s just a matter of honesty. We listen to our employees, customers and suppliers very, very carefully. Then we try to meet or exceed everyone’s needs.”

And if that strategy ever needs to be re-emphasized, Wayne Mercer still makes regular visits to the shop, just to keep everyone on their toes.

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