February 2012 / Volume 64 / Issue 2|
By Alan Richter, Editor
|Swiss Automation’s success is based on machining complex parts quickly, accurately and consistently.
It’s easy to think that a parts manufacturer is selling one thing: parts. But Dave Powell, sales engineer for Swiss Automation Inc., pointed out that the Barrington, Ill., job shop is selling two other things as well: expertise and time. “Our approach is, OK, here’s a part and we have to make 5,000,” he said. “How long does it take to make them consistently?”
To produce about 30 million parts a year, Swiss Automation operates around the clock and employs a battery of 115 production machines, with most being CNC Swiss-style machines. The others include CNC multiaxis turning centers. To keep pace with machine technology advancements, the company regularly invests in equipment, spending as much as $4.5 million annually on buying new machines and upgrading existing ones.
All images courtesy A. Richter
Last year was certainly no exception. Swiss Automation expanded its operations by buying a 33,000-sq.-ft. building in Cary, Ill., and installing 27 machine tools of the same type the company utilizes at its Barrington facility. The expansion was the result of a few customers significantly ramping up their operations. “The only way we felt we could help them was by adding machines and another facility, but not in 12 to 14 months—now!” Powell said. “Buying an existing building allowed us to make parts there within 2 months.”
With space tight at its main facility in Barrington, adding equipment there requires removing an old machine, but “old machine” is a relative term at Swiss Automation. “We only get about 12 years out of our machine tools. They are still good, useful machines at that point, but we trade them in for something better and faster with more bells and whistles,” said Ken Malo, founder and president.
Good, useful equipment from other shops won’t find its way into Swiss Automation because the shop doesn’t buy used machines. “We like to have the best,” Malo said. “We find it pays to have the latest and greatest. It also flatters the shop men, knowing they’re entrusted to giving them their best care.”
There are no boundaries to where those machine tools are built. Depending on the job requirements, the company uses a number of Swiss-style machines from Switzerland-based Tornos S.A. and Japan-based Marubeni Machine Tools Co. Ltd., which builds Citizen machines. “Tornos machines are more like racehorses,” Malo said. “They’re speedy and very useful for brass, aluminum and some stainless. We find Citizens are more like Clydesdales; they’re good workhorses. But the Tornos take the metal out quicker due to cutting freer machining materials with smaller stock diameters.”
Having the latest machine tools helps motivate workers to keep those machines in good operating condition. “They know they’re not working on beat-up pieces of junk they can hammer away at and abuse,” Malo said. “They know if it’s a brand-new, out-of-the-box machine, they have to take care of it and keep it maintained, and it returns good parts 24/7.”
In addition to part-producing machines, the company also invests heavily in equipment to inspect and measure those parts. Swiss Automation purchased more than $250,000 worth of inspection equipment last year. “Video inspection is where we’re seeing some big advances,” Malo said.
Mike Merrill, foreman for Swiss Automation, pointed out that acquiring an OASIS optical profile inspection system proved particularly beneficial. “The OASIS is for checking parts on the floor instead of using a comparator,” he said. “Operators checking parts with multiple dimensions on a comparator can take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the part.” In contrast, inspecting a part on the OASIS consumes about 2 seconds. “It’s all about speed, accuracy and consistency.”Targeting Tricky
Swiss Automation primarily produces parts for the mobile hydraulics industry, such as for farm equipment, end loaders, graders and lifts, but also for the medical, defense, firearms, pneumatic, automotive and other industries. Regardless of the industry, the parts are not run of the mill.
“We make complex, difficult parts with a lot of features,” Powell said. “We make parts that look like a piece of Swiss cheese using 24 tooling stations on some machines. The most-complex-parts segment is a very small but growing segment of manufacturing, and we’re very good at it.”
As a result, the company is continually searching for customers needing parts that are challenging to machine. “It’s not cost effective to make a simple, cheap little part on a $500,000 machine,” Powell said. “You have to have the right kind of part.” He noted that the shop’s customer base is comprised of companies typically at the top of their industries, enabling Swiss Automation, which was founded in 1965, to continue being successful. “Our big customers have been able to expand and then sell overseas, and it’s been huge for us,” Powell said. “You have to get on board with successful, hard-driving companies. You take each other along for the ride.”
That ride involves machining parts with tolerances as tight as ±0.0001 " and surface finish requirements as fine as 8µin. Ra. While part features and tolerances become more challenging, part volumes continue to shrink, limiting the attractiveness of Swiss Automation’s customers sourcing from low-labor-cost countries. “We don’t do five of this and six of that; we can’t make any money on those orders,” Powell said. “But for midrange orders, 500, 1,000 or 5,000 lot sizes of difficult parts, they’re probably not going to shop the world for that, and that’s been a big part of our success.” Swiss Automation estimated sales of $28 million in 2011—a 32 percent increase compared to 2010.Most Valuable Resource
Swiss Automation understands that the latest and greatest machine tools are only as good as the people running them. The company has 172 employees, including 56 added last year. “It takes a different work ethic and mentality to be able to run these machines,” said Marc Moran, foreman.
But the workers Swiss Automation hires don’t necessarily need a background in Swiss-style or other types of machining. That’s a good thing considering there are probably not that many experienced machinists looking for work in the area. “So long as they’re mechanically inclined and tinkerers and inventors and thinkers,” Malo said about the qualities the company seeks in new employees. And for the first time, it hired several recent industrial-engineer graduates last year. “They’re quicker thinkers,” he said, noting that recessionary job market was offering only 70 percent of their pre-recessionary pay scale.
It’s not unusual, though, for someone to rise up through the ranks. Moran, for example, started in packing and shipping in 1994, without any machining experience. While walking around the shop, he became impressed with the machines and even more impressed with the money the machinists make, often $60,000 or more. “I was like, wow, that’s pretty good money compared to what I’m making,” he said.
Being motivated, Moran started taking company-compensated CNC courses at Harper College, a nearby community college, and began training on the shop floor. The company then promoted him to the inspection department, where Moran learned to read blueprints and gained other fundamental skills. From there, he went to the secondary operations department and deburred and cleaned parts.
The next level was operating the machines. “I took books home and studied, became a machinist and kept on progressing,” Moran said.
That was the beginning of Swiss Automation’s apprenticeship program, which it offers to a lot of new hires. The program, however, is a two-way street. “We want them to progress and do well, but they have to make the effort,” Moran said.
With effective applicant screening in place, problem participants are few and far between. “The guys that we’ve gotten in here over the years are really energetic and want to learn,” Moran said. “If you have employees working with you and creating trust, they will stay. The longevity here is fantastic.” Some employees have been with the company 20 to 30 years.
Barb Jensen, production planner, pointed out that the apprentice program doesn’t have a timeframe for completion, but is significantly more formal than a training method where an operator is “thrown on the floor and whoever is the lead person trains him.”
She added that new employees start in QC to become familiar with how the company operates and receive fundamental skills training before running the machines.
“Then they can learn the mechanics of the machines, bar loaders and high-pressure coolant systems and take it to the next level,” Jensen said. “We have seen there’s a definite payback in taking the time upfront to make sure they have those fundamental skills.”Genesis and Growth
Swiss Automation started as a storefront shop in Chicago. After finishing college, Malo was prepared to teach industrial arts, but wasn’t delighted with that career path. “I couldn’t see myself fighting with a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds who want to cut their thumbs off on a bandsaw,” he said.
Instead, a friend helped him land a job at a machine shop in Chicago making parts for the railroad and mining industries—as well as Boeing. “My friend said, ‘If you’re lucky, they’ll put you on those little Swiss screw machines. They’re just like little watches. They tick away and make parts.’ Sure enough, they did,” Malo recalled. “I never thought I would stick with one trade for 45 years or so, but here I am. I look forward to the next 45 years.”
Malo moved on to start Swiss Automation in 1965, renting a storefront in Chicago for $65 a month and purchasing four used Tornos M7s that cost $350 each to make connectors for power-window switches. “The good old days,” Malo said. “There used to be a lot of screw machine shops in Chicago. Everybody could get a shop job.”
With the cam-operated machines being limited to producing a completed part in one rotation of the cam shaft, part complexity was also restricted. The company’s first foray into CNC equipment was in the mid-1980s when it purchased a 2-axis, 20-hp Mori Seiki machine with a 12-position turret, which led to the acquisition of CNC Swiss-style screw machines. Swiss Automation continued to expand and, in 1998, moved into its third successive Barrington facility since 1970.Off to the Races
Swiss Automation’s focus on using the latest technology to machine parts rapidly and accurately transfers to activities outside the shop. Instead of, say, heading out to the golf course for a leisurely round, Malo likes to take customers, bankers, suppliers, employees and other business associates to a racetrack where they drive Porsches. “We put them in a helmet and five-point harness and they feel like Mario Andretti. That’s our alternative to golfing. It’s precision driving with safety,” he said.
“It’s a unique form of entertainment,” Powell said. “These days, everybody works very hard, so you’ve got to have a little fun outside of work.”
Similar to knowing what machine tools are best for the shop floor, Malo understands the requirements for the machines he takes to the track. “Porsches are unique,” he said. That includes having four overhead cams, hemispherical combustion chambers, eight main bearings for the six-cylinder engine and a 13-quart oil capacity. “Every Porsche ever built is a racecar; I have a T-shirt that says that,” Malo added.
With a company culture where quality is first and foremost, Swiss Automation is well positioned to satisfy its customers’ most challenging specifications. “As far as the future,” Malo said, “we’ll just roll with whatever our customers come up with.” CTEAbout the Author: Alan Richter is editor of CTE, having joined the publication in 2000. Contact him at (847) 714-0175 or email@example.com.
For more information about Swiss Automation Inc., call (847) 381-4405 or visit www.swissautomation.com.
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