Process Insights

Commitment to Technology Key to Success at SRPM

Palletized horizontals and continuous improvement propel Ohio job shop

Thirty years ago, Craig and Mark Steinmeyer spent their childhood summers in their grandfather's basement in Cleveland, Ohio. Their father, Robert Steinmeyer, decided that he would invest in machine tool equipment to produce parts for local companies in need of accurate, machined parts.

"We learned the meaning of hard work in that basement," said Mark, remembering the summers doing work that required strength, a steady hand, and a skilled eye. "With belt-driven machines and hand-cranked tools, we could never have imagined the value of technologically advanced machinery."

Today, Craig and Mark stand among some of the most modern CNC equipment available at SRPM, the production shop borne from their father's work. To the right of Mark is their most recent purchase, a Makino a51 horizontal machining center with an eight-pallet magazine system and 219 tools.

"Now this is beautiful," adds Craig, looking at the a51 as it stops machining. The pallet flips around with a freshly machined part facing out and puts a raw part into the work envelope. The rotary pallet distributor in the center of the system grabs the pallet with the finished part on it, pulls it from the machine, and places it in an empty work-set station.

The device then grabs another raw part, putting it on deck to be the next to see time with the Makino's spindle. The whole process takes only a few seconds.

SRPM

A small production job shop, SRPM is located less than a half hour from Cleveland. With annual revenue about $6 million per year and growing, they are proud to say they have just as much invested in technology on their shop floor.

They primarily serve the electronics, semi-conductor, power sports, and communications industries. Eighty percent of SRPM's work is done in aluminum, mostly billet, and often involves large hog-out routines coupled with close-tolerance detailed work in the same part.

They specialize in new product development and production parts in aluminum, making speed and efficiency their primary concerns. Batch sizes range from 5 to 5,000 and often work has to be interrupted to allow priority jobs to be completed first.

"Flexibility is a big concern," said Mark. "We often have to stop a job mid-batch to put an urgent job ahead of it. With the eight-pallet magazine system and large tool capacity, our guys can set up a rush job and, upon completion, return to a scheduled job within minutes. We don't have to re-setup just to prioritize machine usage. That's a huge timesavings and helps us to meet deadlines others can't."

"We sell machine time here," adds Craig. "When someone needs a part fast, we have to be able to accommodate. It can take years to build a good relationship with a customer and only one botched or late job to ruin it."

When Technology Became Important

For the first 20 years of business, SRPM experienced steady growth in business and technology. In the mid-1990s, SRPM was contacted by a telecom equipment manufacturer to produce prototype parts and jumped on the opportunity. As requirements increased, the Steinmeyer brothers quickly realized that an investment in horizontal machining centers would provide the best setup for the large amount of aluminum hog-out work they had to accomplish and permit nearly unattended machining.

"The chips of aluminum fly everywhere when you're blazing at 18,000 rpm," said Craig. "A vertical machine can't handle the chips—you need to stop and clean everything out too often. The horizontal configuration allows gravity to assist the process, and speeds up the cutting dramatically."

High-speed machining requires a commitment of resources, which initially caused some difficulties at SRPM.

"We quickly realized that horizontals were much more expensive to purchase and maintain, and took up a lot more floor space," Craig continued. "While we knew we needed the abilities of the horizontals, some of the drawbacks were causing problems and costing us money.

"We made the leap to horizontals with another supplier we were comfortable with, since we owned several verticals and lathes from them. Although it appeared to be the right decision, it was a lesson that proved costly in time."

"Do you have any idea how much a way-cover costs?" Mark interjected. "Because of the large amounts of aluminum being hogged out, the previous horizontal machining centers were constantly experiencing problems with their way-covers, chip conveyors, and we were fighting compromises between high-spindle rpm for hogging out and accuracy for detail work." They've replaced way-covers several times on their previous horizontals, but never on the Makinos.

"There were definitely some growing pains as we moved into horizontals," continued Mark. "We now have seven in total and have learned what a valuable asset a well-built horizontal can be."

It's not rare for SRPM to take a 90-pound billet of aluminum and mill it down to 17 pounds. High-speed machining at a high rate of productivity generates incredibly large volumes of chips.

With a center trough design and base coolant wash, the Makino a51 does not get clogged with large volumes of aluminum chips created during hog-out procedures. In addition, because the X- and Z-axis covers are solid pieces, the design of the covers eliminates many potential failure points.

"We needed machines that were capable of high hog-out rates and detail work, while not breaking down all the time," said Mark. "Now we're realizing the true benefits of horizontal machining centers with the a51s."

"We live by our technology," said Craig. "Our customers want their parts quickly and done correctly the first time. Without the most modern equipment, we can't deliver that."

Not only does SRPM insist on having the best, most proven technology, but they also instill the idea into their employees.

"When I was hired, they wanted to know my philosophy on machining," said Gary Rivett, shop floor manager. "I told them that if I'm machining the same part six months from now the same way, I'm not doing enough to improve the process. They agreed entirely—you need to continuously strive to make your processes faster, more efficient, and more accurate. Otherwise, the guy down the street or on the other side of the world will eventually take the work away from you."

Reliability Is Essential

"If our machines aren't cutting, we aren't making money," said Rivett. "The biggest problem we've had in the past is that the previous manufacturer's machines tended to fail us when we needed them most." His complaint included a machine tool failure five years ago that caused the machine to shut down whenever the spindle reached half its speed capacity. It took over a year for the machine to be repaired, costing SRPM an estimated $120,000 in productivity.

"And that's a conservative estimate," added Craig. "We had to turn down several large jobs because we just didn't have the capacity without all of our equipment running at full potential."

Because of this failure, SRPM made a decision to use reliability as their number one criteria for choosing a machine tool, replace some troublesome existing equipment, and modernize their shop floor.

Beyond the obvious need for machine uptime, most of the jobs that SRPM is tasked to produced are top priority, short to medium run parts for demanding customers.

"When we started looking for new machinery, the reliability concern was always on our mind," said Craig. "We talked to friends in the industry and did a lot of research. One name kept popping up—Makino."

Makino designed their machines to be simple and reliable, yet capable of the highest performance. Single piece way covers, a simple tool magazine design, and dual supported tool changer arm with automatically lubricated grippers are just a few examples of components designed for exceptional reliability.

SRPM's first purchase was an a51 horizontal machining center. It provided the accuracy their jobs demanded, and had a reputation for excellent machine uptime.

Stretched Resources

Like most U.S. machine shops, one of the biggest challenges SRPM faces is having enough skilled labor to operate their machinery. SRPM's shop floor manager is especially stretched when it comes to keeping things on schedule.

"That ‘Help Wanted' sign has been out in front for a long time," said Mark. "Gary's time is very limited, so we need to make sure we have equipment in place that maximizes all of our skilled labor."

"The beauty of a reliable pallet magazine system is that we can set up most of the jobs on first shift, when our most experienced staff is on hand and management is around; then run a completely different job on second shift, which does not require as much supervision," continued Mark. "Also, unattended machining is important, since our staff is stretched." SRPM runs two shifts, staggering them to allow as much unattended machining as possible.

Management time must be utilized, and the palletized system from Makino helps them accomplish that. An excellent example happened in December 2005, when SRPM let its employees enjoy a holiday break. Because their customer still needed time-critical parts, Rivett set up the Makino a51 pallet system to machine completely unattended.

"I came in every six hours and replaced the finished parts with the raw ones, on all eight work-set stations," said Rivett. "The a51s machined continuously for an entire week with only minimal input from me. It was amazing."

Added to the ability for the palletized system to speed up their process, SRPM purchased a 219-tool magazine and a BTSOMA broken tool sensor.

"We've found that managing tools could be a full-time job when you're producing as many parts as we do," said Mark. "The auto-tool manager was an instant savings and provides for less human error." On top of this, the BTSOMA tool breakage sensor makes sure the a51s aren't running without a tool in place.

"I've seen machines waste a half day with a spindle running and without a tool in it," said Rivett. "We can't afford that kind of waste. And the BTSOMA system checks the tool before it inserts the tool into the spindle, so there's no cycle-time loss."

Inspection procedures have decreased, due to the automatic tool changer and ability to preset parts in the pallets, destined for either pallet system or the other freestanding horizontal Makinos.

"Access to the machine is much better than with our other horizontals," added Rivett. The Makino's chip conveyors move to the side of the machine, as opposed to directly out the back like their other machines. Because of this design, we also can situate the machines closer to one another. We don't need a great deal of extra space to pull out the chip bin."

Looking to the Future

"The easiest way to die in this business is to get stuck with antiquated equipment and outdated thinking," said Craig. "We need to always be moving forward, expanding, and looking at the horizon. We don't buy equipment for today. We buy it to improve our process for the next five years."

Looking toward the future not only means buying equipment that is technologically advanced, but also leaving room for expansion. The Makino horizontals SRPM has purchased take up half the floor space of their previous horizontals.

"We can get two a51s in the space of our old horizontal. That's huge when you're dealing with a finite amount of space, but always want room to grow.

"We're committed to always learning from how we cut parts and implement the newest technology to improve our processes," said Rivett.

Additional Savings

Two of the biggest savings SRPM has reaped from their new setup is in specialty tooling and in cycle times.

Until the Makinos were installed, the only way for SRPM to accurately circle-mill within tenths was by using precision-boring heads. These tools cost thousands of dollars each and had to be changed out manually. Because the Makinos are so precise, they can circle mill instead, eliminating the need to purchase high-precision boring tools and the time to change them out.

"I remember one of the first parts we ran on the Makino," said Rivett. "We were running for a long time on another horizontal, and it took 22 minutes to produce one part. Taking the same programming and tooling, it took only 12 minutes on the Makino. We were shocked. Beyond that, we could save even more time by using the pallet system to cut out the manual labor in between."

SRPM still uses standalone machines, mostly for higher volume jobs that require a lot of machining time. Their pallet system has changed how they look at efficiency and has made them embrace automation.

"We really want to keep pushing this thing further," said Craig. "Bigger auto tool changers, more machinery capable of being automated, and better technology. Our success has demonstrated that you can't hold onto old ways of doing things; a lot has changed over the years."

SRPM's goal is to continue the pursuit of excellence in machining technology and to provide customers with cost competitive machining services, fully aware that others are always bidding the jobs they run every day. Since they're a job shop, most of their customers don't have a manufacturing background. "They don't care how complicated their part is; they just want the part to spec, on time, and always at a lower cost," said Craig.

According to SRPM, their revenues have improved by 20 percent since implementing the new pallet-pool system, while uptime and capacity have increased and lead-times have decreased.

"We're making more money on smaller runs due to the pallet system, reducing our need for skilled labor while maximizing the amount of time our spindles are running," continued Craig.

What Tomorrow Holds

SRPM is realizing their technology investment is enabling them to expand beyond aluminum, in areas such as 5-axis milling, hardmilling, titanium, inconel, and other tough materials.

"Our newest machines are almost always our most profitable," said Mark. "Especially when they perform as promised, like the Makinos do." "We go where our customers take us," said Craig. "For that reason, we'll keep investing in new technology that will propel us forward and keep us successful for the next 30 years.

SRPM Incorporated Solon, Ohio
Phone: (440) 248-8440
E-mail: craig@srpm.com
Web: www.SRPM.com