Greater Expectations

How Machine Builders Meet and Exceed End Users’ Wants and Needs. And How Well Users Say Builders are Doing it

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January 2008By Jim Montague, executive editor

The customer is always right. Now, you just need to know what he wants. Oh, and you also need to figure out what he needs before he knows that he needs it. And, finally, you have to deliver both at the lowest possible price. Sound difficult? You know it is.

For instance, Bill Bargholtz needed a few parts—at least 5 million per year—and a little help.

As senior manufacturing engineer for Ark-Les Custom Products (ark-les.com) in New Berlin, Wis., Bargholtz recently sought and found a way to upgrade and assemble the six-part, hidden washer-lid switches his company makes for Whirlpool’s washing machines. These complex, cigarette pack-sized switches are difficult to put together because they contain a set of small, tricky spring contacts.

Because the volume that Whirlpool needed justified automating Ark-Les’ assembly process, Bargholtz wrote a detailed, six-page specification that machine builders could use to draft bids. Eight were completed and sent back to Ark-Les, including several on CAD files and one pencil sketch. “You need to specify everything, so when you start using a machine, it does exactly what you want,” says Bargholtz. “I’ve seen enough misunderstandings to know they can cost you double before you clean up the mess. The bids ranged from things I knew wouldn’t work all the way to the Mercedes Benz of machines.” 

 

Little, Big Assembly
Figure 1: Ark-Les reports that its Mikron G05-based system paid for itself in less than half the time originally planned.
Photo by Ark-Les and Mikron
Mikron Assembly Technology (mikron.com) of Denver, Colo., proposed linking three modules by conveyors, as well as using a standard frame, camshaft and motors to reduce lead time and focus on Ark-Les’ unique tooling needs. However, Mikron’s plan was the second highest bid of those submitted, so Bargholtz compiled a matrix to show how each bid would perform financially and in production. It showed that some of the other proposals simply couldn’t deliver the required 5 million units annually. Mikron also delivered clear sequence of events data, and showed how many units Ark-Les could assemble in an eight-hour shift (Figure 1). “When you present that to management, you can make the argument that if we spend the money now, it will be worth it,” says Bargholtz.

Users Growing Up  

Whether driven by economic forces or technological advances, machine builders increasingly are joined at the hip in long-term relationships with their end users, who are requiring them to go ever further above and beyond the call of duty. Luckily, some of the keys to success are based on some good old-fashioned values, common sense, and interpersonal skills.

“Our users are becoming more educated and savvy,” says Frank Lauyans, president of Lauyans & Co. (lauyans.com) in Louisville, Ky., which builds engineered material handling systems. “There are more of two main types—those who know what they want and seek the best price, and those who think they know what they want but lack some knowledge and have to rely on vendors a bit more.”

For example, Lauyans recently developed the NAO 8 parts storage system to assist users of its vertical lift modules (VLMs), but also decided to release more information than usual about it on the Internet to aid its educated users. “We even exposed pricing information,” says Lauyans. “We reason that the more we teach our customers, then the better they’ll be able to shop. Also, bringing our models to the Internet allows smaller customers to use them, too, and helps us assist them as they grow.”

Procedures and Potholes

The basic process of end users seeking quotes from machine builders, builders submitting proposals, and the subsequent back-and-forth meetings that lead to purchases and installations remains much the same as ever. What has changed is the growth of their respective specifications and to-do lists, the increased level of cooperation between builders and end users, and the lengthening of their relationships.

“We begin with a consultative effort to find out what a particular user needs, and that means a lot of questions about what they’re trying to do,” says Paul Beduze, Mikron’s business development manager. “We also make sure a potential end user is a good fit for our narrow focus, and that a project will have a good ROI. For instance, we define anything less than 100,000 parts per year as manual assembly, so we need to calculate parts per hour labor costs and payback time to decide if a proposal will be worthwhile.”

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