Expanding Understanding

Nov. 11, 2009
One shop is growing its way through the recession by managing its data, its capabilities, and its progress thoroughly and effectively.
A wide portfolio of turning and machining centers fill the 75,000-sq ft machine shop, allowing M&S Precision to supply a range of customers thanks to comprehensive data management.

Even if you’ve never been to Greensburg, Indiana, everything there would seem familiar. It’s a Midwestern town with plenty of solid old commercial buildings, handsome Victorian and Craftsman homes, several churches, and a square anchored by a 19th Century courthouse.

But, even if it’s familiar every town is different. One of Greensburg’s quirks is a tree growing through the courthouse roof, as apparently it has done for many decades. There isn’t much evidence of the global recession in Greensburg, and the sky-high tree is a fitting image for growth, or durability, or vitality — all of which apply also to M&S Precision Machining, Inc.

You might also think you’re familiar with M&S Precision Machining, but a closer look at its production processes and its personnel also reveals why it’s among AM’s Best Shops for 2009.

The shop was established just 15 years ago, in a garage according to John Semyen, whose title is Vice President for Advanced Planning and Business Development. His role, however, is more specific: Semyen provides the insight and oversight that has M&S Precision growing through the downturn.

“We never stop looking for new business,” Semyen explains, and as a consequence it is machining products for a wide range of markets: automotive, defense, plumbing fixtures, as well as finishing services for foundries and forgers.

In 2001 M&S moved from its first site to a 5,000-sq ft location, where it continued to machine premiumquality brass and aluminum fixtures for Delta Faucet, a mainstay customer. That site was expanded later to 11,500 sq ft, but the need for more workspace remained. In April 2007, the shop purchased and moved into its current facility. It has 75,000 sq ft of manufacturing space, plus 7.5 acres of adjacent open space that Semyen points to for expansion.

The move was keyed by M&S Precision’s decision to diversify its customer base. That began after new investors purchased the company in 2005, with John Semyen arriving in 2006.

The expansive plant appears to be a wide open space, but it houses numerous bar turning centers and a variety of horizontal and vertical machining centers in 2-, 4-, 5-, 6-, and 8-axis configurations, from a checklist of major suppliers. Positing that he believes there’s no longer any such thing as a “bad CNC machine,” Semyen states with conviction that he prefers not to “lock in” to a single equipment source. “I buy the equipment that suits the job.”

In addition to the turning and machining functions, the processes at M&S demand several bar feeders, automatic cut-off saws, inline parts washers, and even two six-axis robots for some of the work cells.

Establishing the production cells was a critical factor in the decision to relocate. The cells magnify the potential for productivity. “I have one operator that runs four machines, and each machine is running a different product,” the v.p. explained. “The bottom line to the buyer is cost.”

Call it “cost” or “productivity,” but by either label M&S Precision is increasing its performance standard and gaining the attention of manufacturers.

One is ThyssenKrupp Bilstein, a global manufacturer of automotive shock absorbers, for which M&S machines seal packs. This line of business warrants more than a work cell: the shop has set up a separate, climatecontrolled production center with four CNC lathes. It’s a commitment that won the business away from a German machine shop that had been producing the seal packs on single indexing machine for several decades.

• M&S Precision Machining Inc., Greensburg, Ind. www.ms-precision.com

• Number of employees — 45

• 2009 sales — N/A 2008 sales—N/A

• Markets served: Automotive, defense, plumbing fixtures

Launched at M&S last December, the Bilstein line produced 1.2 million parts through its first eight months. “When I was discussing it with the customer, he told me: ‘John, they’re producing one (seal pack) every 12 seconds; you’re running them on four machines and you’re producing one every 60 seconds. ’

“I said: ‘No, We’re producing one every 15 seconds, because we’re running four machines.’ They were using a $1.5-million indexer to produce one (seal pack) every 12 seconds; our four machines cost $500,000.”

In addition, the distinct machining centers allow M&S to produce four different styles of the product, and at about one-third of the investment cost.

The successful start of the Thyssen- Krupp Bilstein line may allow M&S to build its presence in the automotive market. Semyen describes how a recognizable list of OEMs and Tier One automotive firms have audited the shop in recent months, because the weak economy has forced them to locate new suppliers. “They’ve all been knocking on our door now because we’re stable, we’re economically viable, and we have the room to expand,” he explained.

Nor do such audits present much concern. M&S Precision is rich in production and performance data, and can document its capabilities to within one hour in some instances.

There are three primary databases, one for gauging capabilities, another for tracking production, and one more for scrap volumes. “I can segregate (data) by part number or by machine, and identify what the issues are, and then we have the data available by product, as well,” according to Semyen.

Further, the information allows M&S to maintain a thorough qualitycontrol program. A Six Sigma black belt, Semyen began implementing that approach once he arrived in 2006. “We started to incorporate some of the standard techniques, like the ‘5 Whys,’ gathering data, and avoiding what I like to call ‘calibrating gut feeling’.”

That’s his description of the guessing game that starts once a problem emerges and no one can identify its particular cause. “We’ve been gathering significant amounts of data on all our various products and all our equipment to see how our equipment is, identifying where the issues are within our equipment, and in some cases moving specific products off that equipment to other equipment,” he reported. The shop relies heavily on SPC systems to measure capabilities as well as to interpret output data.

In the works is a plan to fit every CNC with a computer and dualscreen display to show the work order, production report, and SPC data in real time. The data will be drawn directly from the CNCs’ gauges and will track performance automatically. Such a system is already in place for the Bilstein production area.

This will have obvious benefits to customer service, as it will allow M&S to report progress on orders, to incorporate changes more effectively, or even to convey cost-saving opportunities to the customer — a notion Semyen does not dismiss. “A lot of companies may improve their process, and bank the benefits, and while there’s nothing wrong with that we will improve the process and bank part of the benefits, and pass some savings on to our customer.”

The benefit to M&S Precision is in the clear understanding it gains of its capabilities. An ongoing application of that understanding is seen in the shop’s progress at machining low-lead brass (C2745) plumbing fixtures, in tune to emerging safety standards in California and Vermont (and perhaps eventually nationwide.)

The high-end plumbing fixtures machined from brass rod continue to be a core line of business for M&S. As that market shifts toward new material standards, the shop aggressively developed the capability to machine the low-lead product.

Working with the new grade of brass, they ran tests for various products, adjusting and adapting the tooling, different coatings and geometries on the tooling, feeds and speeds. It matters, because C2745 is much harder than brass.

“We’ve spent probably 12 months doing just R&D work, at our own expense,” Semyen recalled. But, he added that when the orders began to arrive “we did our first low-lead brass part from launch to PPAP within three weeks.”

Undoubtedly there is more growth ahead for M&S Precision. It’s growth that will be measurable not only in familiar ways, like the expansion of the workspace or the rise in sales volumes. Rather, its growth will be demonstrated by the way the shop understands and maximizes its capabilities.

About the Author

Robert Brooks | Content Director

Robert Brooks has been a business-to-business reporter, writer, editor, and columnist for more than 20 years, specializing in the primary metal and basic manufacturing industries. His work has covered a wide range of topics, including process technology, resource development, material selection, product design, workforce development, and industrial market strategies, among others. Currently, he specializes in subjects related to metal component and product design, development, and manufacturing — including castings, forgings, machined parts, and fabrications.

Brooks is a graduate of Kenyon College (B.A. English, Political Science) and Emory University (M.A. English.)

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