Metalforming Electronics


 

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David & Goliath

By: George Keremedjiev

Monday, June 01, 2009
 
As I write this, Chrysler has entered bankruptcy with a strong possibility that GM may follow. The media are in a tizzy with some predicting a smooth transition for both into leaner manufacturing organizations, while others expect a dramatic bloodbath. Here and there the Tier One suppliers to these two storied American automotive companies are mentioned in passing. Almost no attention is given to the tiers below the first. This is a shame because the issues affecting the small-to-mid-sized supplier companies go far beyond the financial repercussions that they most assuredly will feel. I am extremely concerned with the passing away of our metalforming-automation sensor and controller skill sets as the under-Tier One suppliers fall in the proverbial domino pattern.

Nearly everyone I meet from the nonmanufacturing sectors of our economy have little, if any, clue that the backbone of design, production and mistake proofing with advanced technologies lies with the small-to-mid-sized component suppliers—a manufacturing class rarely covered by the media. They assume that the know-how and control of technical manufacturing innovation lies with the end customer, perhaps down in the Tier One supplier base. Yet a metalforming shop with 75 employees may have the only available sensor expertise to properly manufacture a critical component that goes into a variety of automotive brands.

This scenario not only is seen in shared vehicle platforms but often across brands of automobiles spanning American, European and Asian brands. If that Tier Two or Three supplier, with its unique technological skill set, goes under, then it would be an earthshaking experience for its Tier One customer, not to mention the end user. “Oh, but surely it would take little time for a surviving Tier Two or Three supplier to pick up the necessary automation and mistake-proofing techniques to step in and produce the same component.”

Not so, for the automotive sector, in its never-ending quest for low cost, on-time deliveries and high-quality standards, has managed to evolve its component supplier base into hundreds of small-to-mid-sized component contractors. Many are sole-source suppliers who, over decades of manufacturing experience, developed the world’s most sophisticated applications for digital and analog sensors. There simply is no way that years of leading-edge sensor applications for complex parts manufacturing can be learned and implemented quickly enough by a novice component-supplier company in time to take the reins.

“Oh rubbish, surely there is no magic in being state-of-the-art in metalforming. What’s the big deal? After all, it’s only the banging of metal with large dies and presses,” I can hear the non-manufacturing sector say to the above paragraph. And so it goes in the media. They only seem to be aware of the body count in terms of how many jobs are being lost. Company X closes and 3000 lose their jobs. The press covers it in a feeding frenzy with lots of human-interest stories including the poor corner diner that will have to close as its clientele evaporates. But what about the scores of relatively small supplier companies that actually made the complicated components that Company X assembled into doors or seats or exhaust systems or safety devices or, or, or…? Our mass media, for the most part, is phenomenally illiterate when it comes to science and technology. Out goes a reporter to visit a small component supplier company to assess the impact of Company X closing. He or she arrives with maybe a cursory exposure to manufacturing. The owner takes the reporter on a tour and explains the complex technology that his company developed over many years to maintain a tight radius here, a bend angle there, a flatness, a thickness, a form height…only to see the eyes of the reporter glaze over. “Yes, this is impressive, but how many individuals and families will be affected if you close your doors?”

They just don’t get it, they in the media, they in the government, they in the financial sector, that a small company, say in a small town in Ohio, that supplies a common component made with extraordinary technology can bring down a giant of a customer. For more than 25 years I have seen first-hand numerous metalforming companies develop unique high-tech applications for sensors and controllers.

Over many years of refinements these companies created such critical implementations that their customers gave them more and more work due to their ability to deliver quality product at low cost and on time. I am dismayed, angry and frustrated at the inability of the nonmanufacturing sector to understand this.

“Oh, let them go bankrupt. Someone else will quickly rise to the occasion.” No, no one will rise to the occasion for a long time. There simply is no quick way to learn decades’ worth of specialized applications of sensors and controllers. The truly critical manufacturing core competencies lie with the existing small-to-mid-sized manufacturing companies. They are the Davids that can bring down the Goliaths. MF

 


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