Talk and Trust Conquer Complexity

Nov. 13, 2013
Criterion Manufacturing Solutions Provides Reliable Machines That Meet or Exceed Customer Expectations on Time and on Budget
About the Author

Jon Ertle is vice president of sales at Criterion Manufacturing Solutions in Comstock Park, Mich., which manufactures CNC routers and CMM-style gauging machines, and delivers custom production, automation and gauging equipment.

Criterion Manufacturing Solutions started in the late 1980s making measuring equipment, coordinate measuring machines (CMMs) and robots measuring parts with touch probes. Though we began in the furniture field, potential users in automotive saw what we were doing and wanted similar capabilities. Then medical, energy and construction users wanted them too. We've always had good relations with our customers, who would ask us to build new machines for different applications, so our engineers naturally learned to move similar capabilities from one industry to another. Criterion became known for solving difficult problems.

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However, over the years, our machines and those made by others became much larger and more complex in order to handle more difficult applications. This resulted in two main problems. First, as machines grew larger, our engineers had to become more compartmentalized. People had to become experts in their own areas, had less crossover between them, and so one group might not understand as well what another was asking for. Second, as machines also grew more complicated, the guys that used CAD programs 10 or 20 years ago to draw, design and build machines must now include 3-D parametric solids, finite element analysis and sophisticated simulations, and prove the dimensions of a machine or robot just to produce a bill of materials.

As a result, where one mechanical engineer used to be able to understand the full scope of work on a project, we now have different experts for CAD, software, controls, project management and other tasks. So we also need an expert to bring them all together. There are a lot more and different responsibilities now.

Criterion's philosophy is to provide reliable machines that meet or exceed our customers' expectations and do it on time and on budget. But, because each of us can't be an expert in every field, we've learned it's even more important for us to communicate with each other. When any problem comes up, we immediately tell each other and inform our customer. This helps us resolve most challenges a lot faster. We even started an internal Accountability, Communication and Expectation (ACE) group to improve how we meet customer expectations. By keeping a schedule with each other, we can better communicate emails, voice messages and texts. We're just trying to find the best ways to communicate with each other and schedule regular updates on where we are with each project. All types of communication are available, but we've found there's still nothing as good as face-to-face, so we also have in-person meetings at least weekly and use GoToMeeting online conferences.

For instance, we just commissioned a large CNC machine for steel cutting, which is unique because our customer was unable to find it anywhere, mainly because it hasn't been available since the 1970s and '80s. All steel-cutting machines on the market today cut at 12,000–18,000 rpm. However, our customer wanted to cut at speeds of 4,000 rpm to remove slag from the outside of large castings, and needed a heavy-duty, low-speed machine. They cut steel blocks that weigh about 80,000 pounds, so they needed a machine that could travel over about 30x12x7 ft.

Consequently, our CAD guys produced simulations of all the machine's traveling dimensions; the software guys made sure it would be able to perform its tasks; and the mechanical guys checked all of the applicable calculations. We had 25 staffers working on this project, but even though they have different roles, no one at Criterion focuses too much on their particular job description. We all just want to get the job done in the best way possible, and we're very fortunate to have good people we can trust to do it.

We're not experts at communication, and we're still working on many issues, too. However, I think we try to foster better communications by meeting every week, and then build trust by making sure that no one is afraid to voice questions and concerns. Just doing that can help communications a lot.

On the leadership side, we also must have a lot of trust and encouragement. Everyone has to be able to feel they can admit when they screw up, ask for help when they need it and be willing to help each other. But if you can get that fulcrum over to the trust side, then it will build on itself for a long time.