Monthly Archives: October 2013

100 Years Down the Line

Courtesy of The New York Times. By BILL VLASIC

DETROIT — THE moving assembly line was the simplest of inventions, born of necessity to meet the exploding demand for automobiles in America in the early 20th century.

Angie Tostea on the assembly line at Ford’s plant in Wayne, Mich. The line, a legacy to the entire industry, celebrated its centennial this month.

And while it turned 100 years old this month, “the line” remains as integral to the progress of the auto industry as it was in the days of Henry Ford.

The assembly line is a constantly evolving industrial ballet of workers and robots building cars. And automakers like the Ford Motor Company are finding that building multiple models on the same line is a huge key to success in the intensely competitive global marketplace.

Updating the assembly line is a big part of the “One Ford” corporate strategy that has helped the nation’s second-biggest automaker lead the recent recovery of the American auto industry.

“There are probably very few inventions in the auto industry that started 100 years ago and are still here today,” said John Fleming, Ford’s executive vice president for global manufacturing.

So much has changed in the industry since Mr. Ford installed the first, rudimentary assembly line at his company’s Model T plant in Highland Park, Mich., in October 1913.

But automakers around the world use essentially the same basic method of mass production, turning a bare automotive chassis at one end of the line into a finished car at the other.

In the beginning, the line was a critical step toward ensuring that the same processes were repeated over and over to manufacture one specific model of the highest quality. Now, the modern assembly line produces a wide variety of vehicles that are virtually custom-built at a moment’s notice for customers in far-flung markets.

“You are always asking how you best organize the work inside a vehicle plant to be most efficient,” Mr. Fleming said.

To achieve efficiency, Ford has dropped extraneous divisions (Mercury), sold off luxury brands (Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover), and streamlined its product lineup. By doing so, it can concentrate on building cars like the Fiesta subcompact and Focus sedan at factories in North America, South America, Asia and Europe for customers in each of those regions.

But those best-selling models could not succeed without assembly plants that use the same techniques, whether in the United States, Germany, China or elsewhere.

Ford is in the midst of one of its largest expansion programs, with factories going up in China, India, Russia and Thailand. The foundation of the plan is its continuous effort to innovate and improve the humble assembly line, and replicate it in diverse, growing markets.

The company’s advanced manufacturing technologies include lower-cost, faster stamping processes that reduce the time it takes to produce sheet-metal parts. It also uses three-dimensional drawings to create prototypes of components that can be tested in days rather than months.

On the line, new robotic systems used in the final assembly process can detect even the tiniest specks of dirt and prevent imperfections in paint that mar the surface of a sparkling new car.

The advances are a testament to the automaker’s relentless drive to manufacture better cars — and a reminder that one of Henry Ford’s favorite sayings still applies in today’s world. “Nothing is particularly hard,” he said, “if you divide it into small jobs.”

The first moving assembly line was a primitive — and ingenious — way to speed up production and cut costs.

Ford’s engineers created a system in the Highland Park plant in which a chassis was pulled by a winch and a rope stretched across the factory floor. Stationed along the 150-foot-long line were about 140 workers, each of whom added particular parts to the vehicle.

The Model T’s 3,000 parts were assembled in 84 distinct steps, all made possible by the line. The process reduced the time needed to assemble a car from 12 hours to fewer than three. Other functions in the plant were improved and accelerated to keep up with the new, quicker pace of production.

“Along with the line came overhead conveyors to move parts, wheel-painting machines and many other labor-saving innovations,” said Bob Casey, former curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum and author of “The Model T: A Centennial History.”

The assembly line became a working laboratory that Ford engineers constantly tinkered with. Other auto companies followed suit and adapted their own versions of the line. Soon, competition became the driving force to improve production.

“Automakers never stopped seeking ways to make this old technology better,” Mr. Casey said.

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The building is “perfect” but…

By Lloyd Graff

What do you do if the perfect building for expanding your company has just one flaw – it borders “the ghetto”?

My client posed this problem to my daughter and I over fish tacos, as we overlooked the water near Oakland, California. His machining business is thriving these days with clients from aerospace to apple picking. He has outgrown his land-locked 20,000 square-foot brick building, still owned by his dad, who is in his 80s.

Stanley, our client, is no novice at real estate. He has a side business flipping homes in the Bay Area and owns a valuable piece of land his own home sits on. He has been searching the area near his factory for a new location for his business for quite awhile but cannot find a suitable property at a price he can afford.

Then the perfect building finally appeared. Solid construction, accessible, big enough to satisfy his expansion needs, and priced right. Just has that one problem – the Oakland ghetto encroaches on it.

Stanley doesn’t see it as a race issue. It’s a safety issue. It’s an image issue, an employee recruiting issue and a real estate value issue. Ultimately, it is about money. Do you invest more than a million bucks in the perfect building that some people are afraid to go to?

I posed to him the idea of renting the property. The downside of that is he would have to invest $200,000 to move and rewire his equipment, so he hates to commit to a temporary situation. He’s been in his present building for several decades.

He is worried that women buyers and employees might be scared to come to a building in a suspect location. My daughter admitted that she might have reservations visiting if it was in a high crime location.

Stanley knows that doing nothing would cost him a ton of new business opportunities. Buying the building, despite its big question marks, might enable him to make a lot more money than he would sacrifice in potential property value appreciation.

He feels he can deal with the safety issues and still hire and retain good people with the new building. What would you do in Stanley’s place?

Question: Is it better to rent or buy?

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The Davenport Screw Machine Won World War II

By Noah Graff

16-year-old Apprentices Filing a Part at Brehm Präzisionstechnik GmbH & Co. KG in Ulm, Germany

“The Davenport screw machine won World War II,” Massimo Bonaldo said to me, as we ate kebabs in a rural village 40 minutes from the center of Hannover, where I was to attend the EMO Machine Tool Show the following day. Massimo is the technical manager of Tajmac-MTM S.p.A., the Italian headquarters of ZPS, one of Europe’s top machine tool builders.

I had trekked throughout Germany the previous two weeks, visiting elite manufacturers and machine tools dealers. I had walked through state-of-the-art shops, packed with the latest INDEX MS machines, Hydromats and CNC machining centers. And now I found myself hanging out at midnight with three Italian ZPS technicians in middle-of-nowhere Germany, with one of the company’s top engineers giving me a history lesson on the good old noisy American Davenport. The reason the Davenport won World War II for the Allies, Massimo explained, was that the Germans were using European single-spindle machines to bang out ammunition, while the Americans spit out bullets like mad with 5-spindle Davenports. Times have changed since the days of American multi-spindle domination. Today Germany is the place to be to see tons of manufacturers full of the best multi-spindle screw machines on the market. That’s why Graff-Pinkert sent me there to find machines.

The first shop I visited on my trip was Brehm Präzisionstechnik GmbH & Co. KG, about 100 km southeast of Stuttgart. The shop was immaculate and packed with some of the best modern machine tools on the market. It was one of those places us machinery dealers like to say “is so nice, you can lick the floor.” I had barely met Thomas Brehm, the company’s owner, at a conference in Europe a year before. I emailed him prior to my trip to say I was coming to Germany and wanted to visit his shop, even if he didn’t have anything he wanted to buy or sell, and he graciously extended me the invitation. When I arrived, he took me to lunch at a local restaurant, where I ate some excellent veal with mushrooms. Brehm spent several hours showing me around the shop, which featured 20 beautiful INDEX MS 32 machines. He also gave me the inside scoop on running a manufacturing business in Germany.

Because of labor laws established long ago in Germany (similar to those in much of Europe), it is generally illegal to fire employees. Almost all of Brehm’s employees stay at the company 30 to 40 years, which is why he characterized employment at the company as a “marriage.” Brehm said that more than 50 16-year-olds compete for five apprenticeship spots each year at the company. To me, the idea of a 16-year-old signing up to a job for life is difficult to fathom. What if the kid no longer wants a factory job in five years? How can an employer know what type of person a 16-year-old adolescent will be five years, let alone 30? But who am I to judge, as German companies like Brehm appear to have lots of content, quality workers, while American companies repeatedly lament that they can’t find good talent.

Later in the trip, I visited some shops near the western border of Germany, not far from Cologne. One dealer had 10 old Gildemeisters in the basement of his home that doubles as his office. The machines belonged to his family’s production business, which existed prior to him becoming a dealer. I visited another job shop in that same region, high up in the mountains. I crawled up one-lane roads in the rain to get there. I asked the company’s owner, a fourth generation in the family business, why so many shops in Germany are located in such remote, crazy spots? He told me that his company was 122 years old, so in the old days the factory needed water power from the mountain streams.

I hadn’t heard of the shop in the mountains before that day. My visit to the shop had been arranged on the spur of the moment that morning when I got a tip that they may have had some equipment for sale. When the owner greeted me at the door, I was amazed as he handed me a crisp business card belonging to Rex Magagnotti, another salesman at Graff-Pinkert, who had traveled to the shop 16 years before. I suppose that a 16-year time lapse between our two visits was just a blip in the company’s 122-year lifespan.

Question: What career path did you envision for yourself when you were 16?

Noah Graff is a machine tools dealer at Graff-Pinkert & Co. and an editor at Today’s Machining World.

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Apprenticeship Survives

By Lloyd Graff

The Hydromat Management team (President Bruno Schmitter center) pose with two new Apprentice graduates as they receive their diplomas.

One of the prevailing myths in manufacturing today is that “there are no good people.” The reality is that there are good people, but you have to invest in them to make them top notch.

Hydromat, the Swiss-American rotary transfer machine company in St. Louis, is making that investment today in young people coming out of nearby community colleges with a four-year in-house training program. The apprenticeship approach still works well in Europe, but it is rare to find companies in the U.S. with the long-term view to commit to a $50,000 training program in exchange for a two-year work commitment from the candidate.

Rob Luth makes a Project Cost/Benefit Analysis presentation to the Executive Staff as part of the final exam. Luth would later become promoted to Hydromat’s Mechanical Engineering Manager.

Hydromat skims the elite from the 350 local kids who apply. Kelley Dumey, the company’s HR specialist, searches for technical aptitude, but it also looks for the unusual ones with drive to go with their skills. She is looking for long-term Hydromat employees who can make a difference in the company, not just fill a slot.

Students start out in the machine shop using manual and CNC equipment and then move on to the grind shop for three months. Then they move to assembly and electrical. Rebuilding is the next stop, which enables the trainees to tear a machine down and physically see the wear points of a rotary transfer. Accompanying technicians on service calls also acquaints them with real-world issues Hydromat clients face each day in the high production high precision world.

Bruno Schmitter, President & CEO (seated) and Steve Thomas, Machine Shop Superintendent, review apprentice projects during the final judging before graduation.

To graduate students need to put in 144 industry related training hours per year. The Hydromat apprenticeships are highly sought after. Less than 1% of applicants are picked and not all make it through. But Hydromat is a demanding work setting with extremely high standards. If a young person makes it through the Hydromat apprenticeship they have instant credibility. For them, it’s the stuff that builds a career. For Hydromat, it’s all about building a business and a culture that thrives.

Question: Should the federal government help fund large-scale apprenticeships?

Question: Was the Tea Party stand good for America?

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A Threat to Car Dealers

By Lloyd Graff

General Motors is cautiously experimenting with selling cars online using a hybrid strategy of making the sale online, while running the transaction through a participating dealer. GM is gently tiptoeing into the Web strategy because its dealers are still a vital sales force. Dealers also have huge political clout and pay for a lot of brand advertising. But the specter of Google, Amazon and Tesla has to be spooking them.

Google is developing a self-driving car which could be available by 2020. Amazon is a sales colossus that could go into the car business with a Chinese or Korean import. Tesla sells out of company stores in shopping centers or straight from the factory. These are scary models from companies with enormous resources and great reputations. Car dealers have zealously guarded their turf and fought back every challenge, but the ramparts are being breached.

I recently read a blog that drew an interesting analogy with the car dealership issue.

When a hotel or banquet hall prepares a room for an event, they invariably arrange round tables for 10 people. Why? Because it is the most efficient arrangement for the waitstaff to serve the food and for the florists to place the flowers.

But it is an awful configuration for the people attending the event. In a noisy venue, nobody can talk to a person across a 10-person table. Anybody who has ever sat at such a table knows that it is probably futile to even ask for the nuts or cream on the other side of the table. But this arrangement never changes because the servers own the room and they care only about their convenience, not the one-time-only visitors.

The car dealers worry about their businesses, their brick and mortar, their service departments and financing businesses. I wonder if they really care about maintaining their customer service experience that so many people despise.

The car dealership model is still intact, but the GM move certainly indicates a potential threat.

Question: Have you enjoyed your car dealer experiences?

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