Every product has its critical performance characteristics, those features that can vary from perfection in only the smallest ways. They are referred to with various names; quality controlled characteristics, critical characteristics, even diamonds. Our philosophy is to identify those processes with the least inherent variability and target them to these most critical of features. Sounds pretty obvious, but one would be amazed at how often this is overlooked in manufacturing. If an inherently stable technique is employed the challenge of maintaining quality becomes significantly easier. This is not only critical to the product but also to the machine operator, releasing him or her from the stress associated with constantly checking and monitoring an unstable condition, often one over which they have little control.
Making the difficult easier through application of a number of disciplines is the mantra. All aspects of manufacture must be considered, starting with the identification of those critical product performance characteristics important to the customer. These are often unidentified on a drawing and must be ‘discovered’ in collaboration. In some cases they must be independently ‘inferred’ and that can only occur when there is a deep understanding of the market challenges that drive the product design itself. This is work beyond the normal scope of just machining a component. It often means knowing ways to solve a challenge that are transparent to the customer, knowing what they need even when it has not captured in print or conversation. This may dictate fixture design, tooling choice and sequencing, programming, inspection, material handling, documentation and record keeping. All must be given their due attention and must be constantly evaluated for opportunities to improve.
It also means we ask questions like, “If I can give you this information embedded in a barcode would it help your assembly process?” and then finding an elegant way to do just that. Making a customer aware that we can hold a tighter tolerance than a competitor may allow the reduction in a range of necessary shims or even eliminate shimming altogether. In one case we eliminated a ‘machine at assembly’ requirement by employing new proprietary technology. Instead of matched pairs that needed to be married throughout machining, packaging, and assembly any two shown and opposite components could be paired. They just worked. Part number identification occurred before the parts came out of the machine. The cost savings, according to the customer was “huge”. A competitor says it is impossible but we did it perfectly for five years. Offering a customer added value by employing techniques and processes of which they are unaware must be at the forefront of your culture.
Process development begins by identifying the unique challenges to machining a new component. This is part of the quote process. Fixtures and tooling concepts are designed concurrently, and in-house, to ensure each individual operation can be optimized so that costs can be determined accurately. When there are conflicts in what is possible priority is always given to the most critical part characteristics. Known machine parameters and limitations are simulated around a solid part model, establishing such things as tool lengths and fixture clearances. Consideration is given to potential problems that cannot be known until actual machine testing begins. By designing in-house, control is kept, potential problems are identified early and solutions can be readily implemented. The feedback loop is continuous in a manner not possible when project development is contracted out. Previous lessons learned become tribal knowledge and mistakes are not repeated.
Traditional ‘stopwatch’ cycle times hold minimal value. More important metrics are: Does output vary from shift to shift? Is quality consistent regardless of operator experience? Are overall performance levels consistent and sustainable? Is the difficult becoming easier? Are assets being allocated and utilized strategically?
In our manufacturing philosophy, productivity is measured by producing what your customer needs, in the volume he needs, and delivered on-time daily, if not hourly when necessary. It means being able to change product mix on the fly, electronically if possible, or with the minimum amount of mechanical intervention. We do it in minutes, not hours, and often in seconds.
Already the market leader in 2013 at 285,000 mountings we increased shipments to 589,000 in 2015. That’s 100% increase in 2 years! A strong market helped but the overwhelming growth was new business thru increased market penetration. Quality performance was stable or showed improvements and internal scrap rates were maintained below 00.5 %.
We are a Horizontal Machining Center-based company, with all of our machines from one builder, Niigata. Tools, pallets, and programs are interchangeable. As a practical matter the newest machines tend to be utilized for the most demanding work but the majority of our production can be run on any machine. Niigata is committed to backward compatibility which for us means a pallet from the newest machine could be used on one over a decade old if necessary. This provides us tremendous flexibility to react to our customer’s changing requirements. Production will increase for whichever customer is winning a market segment and a decrease in production will occur somewhere else. We can react, or, by watching market trends we can be proactive and plan for a swing before it filters back through the supply change.
Just as important, we understand how the transportation industry segments go through cycles and structure our investment in growth accordingly. Remaining financially sound when markets are down is a requirement we take seriously and we prepare for those inevitabilities.
While the overwhelming majority of the products machined at Accurate Gauge are commercial Truck Differential Carrier Mountings this does not define the limits of our core competencies. We have excelled on many other difficult components, including serrated pinion flanges, split half differential cases, bearing cases, transmission cases and others. Many products have a singular performance characteristic embedded in them requiring the application of an optimal process that solves the crucial issue consistently.