How U.S. Manufacturers Thrive on a Global Stage

Burr Oak Tool and Oak Press Solutions Says the Keys to Success Are to Compete, Succeed, Repeat

By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

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Industry Week and Siemens Industry co-hosted Manufacturing in America: Capture the Competitive Advantage in Chicago recently.

One of the presenters, Newell Franks, chairman of the board and CEO of machine builder Burr Oak Tool and Oak Press Solutions, Sturgis, Mich., discussed his company's history, its current challenges and a few of its frustrations in a way that many a manufacturer could understand and appreciate. His company builds machine tools that air conditioning and refrigeration manufacturers use to make evaporator condenser coils.

SEE ALSO: You Can Compete on a Global Scale 

"The question," Franks says, "is how can a U.S.-based manufacturer thrive on a global stage."

His focus is on four factors: people, technology, customer voice and innovation.

Franks says his company is lucky to be in a rural area where people understand the law of the harvest. "A lot of our workforce grew up on farms," he says. "They appreciate that if you don't do the necessary preparation, you can't expect a good harvest, and that translates to the workplace."

In addition, Franks points out the need to stay current with technology. "In 1965, a state-of-the art Cincinnati Milacron machine tool could make an incremental move of one-thousandth of an inch — that's the smallest move it could do," he explains. "Its fastest feed rate was 40 inches per minute. The rapid traverse speed was 100 inches per minute." He compares that to today's Mazak machine. "The smallest move that it can make is four-millionths of an inch; its feed rate and its rapid traverse rate is 2,350 inches per minute."

"This is a key," Franks continues. "We make sure our people have the tools they need to compete."

Franks laments that this is sorely lacking in most U.S. companies. He pointed to a host of machine tool companies, all defunct, that were the best in the world. "They committed suicide," Franks adds. "They stopped innovating, stopped investing in equipment and stopped training their people."

Anticipating customer need — a critical element in Franks' view — can be difficult. Customers don't understand their needs, and product problems arise, he says, when they change an element in their processes and don't recognize the effect it has on the machine tools.

To make new machines to satisfy customer needs, the design process sometimes needs to change. "For our Triumph tube-bender, we threw out the playbook and purposely used young engineers who didn't know much about the tube-bending process," Franks explains. When trying to leap to the front, he adds, remember that Henry Ford would say experts were people he could no longer use, because all they could tell you were the reasons why you couldn't do something.

"It's one reason why customers are in awe when they see what we've done, compared with our old machines and what our competitors produce."

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