Volume 8, Issue 8 - September 2007

Machinery Mayhem
How to Integrate Off-the-Shelf Products into a Custom Line
by Alan B. Goldberg

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part series about how software and machinery suppliers work with their customers. (See Part I on page 50 of the July/August issue of DWM).

Machinery suppliers face the same issues as software companies and other component suppliers. To what extent they can help their customers increase efficiency begins with knowing how their customers operate.

“The customer determines what they need, either to decrease cost or increase output,” says Jason Wobbema, sales representative for Dakota Automation in Watertown, S.D. “We evaluate, we develop a concept and we quote the machine as a custom piece of equipment.”

Return on investment is one of the key factors for customers, which he says generally occurs within a two-year period. What makes Dakota unique is that almost everything it makes is custom.

Clete Rowan, owner of Rowan Equipment and Fabrication LLC in Dysart, Iowa, says that only five percent of his work is on existing equipment.

“Some of our customers spend quite a bit of time researching all the equipment that is available only to find that the unique features they envisioned are not offered. So they search for a custom (or innovative) and reputable equipment manufacturer that can develop such a unit,” he says. Rowan will create one or two concepts and present them to the customer with an approximate cost and lead time. With an approval, the project goes into production. If there are issues to be resolved, it goes back to the drawing board.

He has developed a number of custom machines for Kenyon’s Stained Glass Factory in Grove City, Ohio (see the May 2007 issue of DWM, page 52).

“Clete and I focused on many areas in the plant and saw the value of automation and how it could eliminate 35 percent of a workforce. We worked together on a glass washer that would be conducive to my operation,” says Chris Kenyon, founder and owner. 

Building from a Base
At Sommer and Maca in Cicero, Ill., an evaluation of a product’s ability to meet customer needs determines whether it will be a standard or custom-made unit, says John Czopek, vice president of machinery sales.

“It’s always nice to be able to work from a proven platform that already exists,” he says.

Matt Sell, national accounts manager of Carlson Systems Engineering in Twinsburg, Ohio, also works from a base.

“We try to remain in our core competency and build from there. Anything 100 percent new is disclosed and risk is evaluated with our customers before any action is taken,” he says.

Stürtz Machinery of Solon, Ohio, does the same. “We always start with a standard, base machine,” says Mike Biffl, sales manager. He says modifications are done in accordance with specific vinyl profiles being processed as well as the required fabrication, which can vary, depending on the customer’s manufacturing methods. “A machine may require only simple fixtures to support the product or extensive customization to add operational functionality specific to the customer’s operation,” says Biffl.

According to Wobbema, what helps in the initial process is that many window companies have written specifications because they have been buying custom equipment so they know what they need. At Eagle Window and Door in Dubuque, Iowa, Dakota was selected because they have vast experience in the door and window industry, says a company spokesperson. Eagle needed a machinery supplier that had the ability to go from concept to installation/implementation, and Dakota was able to demonstrate that with a custom unit that was competitively priced.

Bob Daniels, engineering manager at Homeshield in Chatsworth, Ill., says that Dakota has an approach to equipment building “that [he hasn’t] seen from anyone else.” He says the company uses a system that combines one technician with one engineer through equipment run-off.

“In my opinion, this approach helps [Dakota] solve issues and make design changes quickly to meet deadlines and customer requirements/specifications,” Daniels adds.

Wobbema points out that, although the components used in a machine may be standard, no two units are alike. He explains that because every machine is different, more testing and debugging is involved. Rather than having trial runs, the customer visits the plant to see the testing that takes place. He refers to customer certification of the equipment as a critical point to verify that everything works and that the machine has been built to specification.

Daniels describes the performance of the unit as good with very little downtime since it was installed. “Dakota has been easy to work with from quote to install. Because of product changes, we also find it necessary to change the machine programming from time to time, and they have always been willing to help,” he says.

Eagle is preparing to install its fourth system with Dakota. Each system includes multiple machines and work stations.

Getting the Right Info
Claus Rieger, president of Bystronic Inc. in Hauppauge, N.Y., says a comprehensive exchange of information is imperative when meeting with a customer “so that we may clearly identify both the customer’s intended needs and the nature of the products that will be run through the machine.”

He explains that many factors are considered in the evaluation including throughput and shapes in determining whether a standard configuration will be suitable.

Czopek says the goal in working with a customer is to detail a complete scope of performance and design requirements for the new equipment. According to Biffl, the application determines how much information is needed from the customer. Information can be as minimal as dimensional profile die drawings or as extensive as a complete window fabrication manual from the profile supplier. “The more information the better. Additional information allows us to look at the whole picture and make suggestions for improved efficiency and or operation,” he says.

Sommer and Maca develops a design layout from the information it obtains, including the features that will be incorporated. A design meeting with the customer confirms that everyone is moving in the right direction and there is an approval to release the product for fabrication. The effort required for a new product varies, Czopek says. A modification can be as simple as enlarging a motor or conveyor area. Or the project can require several weeks of engineering and development to create an equipment solution.

Sell explains that Carlson helps mock up the equipment in its facility. 

“We actually build the machines out of two-by-fours and mock the production [up] to identify risk and help define the spec,” Sell says.

He explains that the entire process can take a few weeks or 12 months to define. “We do web conferencing and plant visits, which can include engineering reviews and brainstorming,” Sell says. 

Finding the Right Solution
Biffl points out that the complexity of the process depends on the equipment.

“We try to be part of their process team. The more closely we work alongside them—throughout the design, manufacturing and commissioning stages—the more likely we are going to provide the right solution for their specific needs,” says Biffl, who explains that this type of arrangement promotes a smooth integration of Stürtz equipment into the customer’s operation.

Referring to his one-of-a-kind machine “that has made a significant difference in our operation,” which is two window platforms with three different hardware systems, Roy Anderson, president of Softlite Windows of Streetsboro, Ohio, says “it is one of many ways Stürtz has responded to our needs and why we have had a longstanding relationship.”

Reliability Factors
There are other reasons why Softlite continues to rely on Stürtz.

“We find [the company] to be so flexible, compared to other companies, in [its] willingness to help us,” adds John Ryba, director of manufacturing. He says that location is a factor particularly when there is a need for parts. Having them nearby certainly helps although he quickly points out that other machinery suppliers are also located in the vicinity. “[Its] service is just exceptional,” says Ryba, and its staff also is full of problem-solvers.

Anderson explains how Stürtz offered an innovative solution with the purchase of two sash welders and two cleaners.

“We doubled our capability,” he says. Anderson also likes dealing with a company that is family-owned with a history of being attentive.

“Knowing that I can call the owner at any time is very important to me. Sommer and Maca tests all equipment at the completion of assembly. It is at the customer’s discretion to see final testing and approve the equipment before it is shipped, Czopek says. At that point, it is considered operational.

Carlson does a full qualification in-house including safety, maintenance, production, operation and quality reviews before the unit is shipped, Sell says. The entire process is repeated at the customer’s facility.

At Rowan, all equipment is tested at their location with the customer on sight for approval. Rowan points out the element of surprise.“Things do not always go as planned,” he says.

He says the timing on component availability, design, plans and information may not run parallel.

“There are times when you have to take a step back to continue going forward. We build a lot of equipment that has never been built before,” Rowan says.

At Stürtz, all functions of a machine are tested in the customer’s presence. Following approval, the unit is shipped and commissioned in the field. Training takes place at this time with more in-depth training recommended after the equipment has been in operation for a short time. Rieger sees the long-term effects of working closely with the customer.

“We are not simply trying to sell machinery,” Rieger says. “Our goal is to work with the customer so that [its] process will conform to the principles of lean machinery and save money in the long run.”

No matter how it is said, suppliers recognize that at a time when custom is the standard, off-the shelf products may not make it to the production line. 

Alan B. Goldberg has 31 years of experience in the industry.


© Copyright 2007 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.