Picking Up Speed

Getting there fast is often a sign of success. For this ski and boat enthusiast, it isn’t just the speed of the boat, but the growth of his shop that has heads, and parts, turning.

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As a mechanical engineer working in product development, Jim Schultz was around machine tools all the time. Although he was never a machinist and didn’t have a solid understanding of how the machines worked, he became quite intrigued by them. Most people might write it off as a passing fancy. Some might “scratch the itch” by taking some classes and considering a career shift. Jim dove in head first without looking back.

He incorporated his company, Gere Marie (Lake Zurich, Illinois), in 1996, brokering the work to other shops as he continued in his full-time position. One day in 1998, he took a lunch hour and headed over to the local Haas factory outlet, Arthur Machinery, to look at a Haas VF-4. He had seen the vertical machining center in a shop where his company was getting components and thought it might be a good piece of equipment for starting a business. Just like that—without a real business plan, without a place to put the machine and without any real knowledge about how to operate it—he bought the machine. The details could be handled later.

Jim found a home for the machine at a friend’s sheet metal shop. “They liked the idea of having an additional machine in the shop to strengthen their offerings, and they charged me for the space only while I was there running the machine,” Jim says. He continued in his full-time job, and his employer agreed to let him build some components for the company, kind of as a hobby. “It worked out well until I realized I wasn’t really a machinist and I didn’t know how to make parts,” he adds.

He took a Haas training class and a G-code programming class, thinking that would be all it would take to figure it out. He was wrong. With the help of an agency, he landed some sub-contract machining work and the pressure to perform started to build. The next 18 months proved to be a bit of a struggle, but with the help of the right people, he was able to turn a small profit. “The Haas people did everything they could to help me out in learning the machine,” Jim explains. “I already knew CAD well from previous experience, but the Virtual Gibbs software support team was there also to help me apply the knowledge to the operations.”

By 2000, the work had become steady enough for Jim to leave his job and run the machine shop full time. Along with that move, he purchased another Haas vertical machining center and soon after, a Haas SL-20 CNC lathe. It was time for the business to kick into high gear.

0 To 140

With the new machines came additional space constraints. In April of 2000, Gere Marie purchased a building to expand its operations. Although regular jobbing work was coming in to keep the company afloat, Jim knew he had to find a niche to fill. He had been a water skier his whole life, and he had been giving thought to products he could produce for boat owners. A MasterCraft boat owner himself, he knew that company’s product offerings pretty well. He contacted his MasterCraft dealer and asked if he had a particular product that he felt was too expensive or could be improved. The product of choice was a board rack.

Once Jim had done the innovation and the part was ready to be produced, he brought the prototype to the dealer with the intention of selling it in competition with MasterCraft. The dealer, instead, took the part directly to MasterCraft, who liked the improved board rack. Jim was surprised to find out that MasterCraft commonly works with smaller shops and was willing to consider his company as a supplier. He had asked the right question at the right time, and the answer came with a tidal wave of success.

Taking on the production of the board rack was a foot in the door. Gere Marie quickly grew, and today is MasterCraft’s second largest supplier. The company now produces 140,000 components a week, processing 100,000 to 120,000 lbs of aluminum (6061, 2024 and 7075). It is currently in its third location, and Jim is looking to add 120,000 square feet to the current 50,000. Jim says, “I’m just looking for ways to get the capacity to build up the inventory enough to be able to shut the place down long enough to make the move.” It’s a tough predicament, but he certainly can use the space. He now has managed to squeeze more than 140 machines into his shop, with about 210 employees.

Riding The Wave

Business has grown quickly for Gere Marie with the Haas lineup of machines as the staple. In fact, with the exception of a few lasers, high-definition plasma cutting machines and pipe bending machines, all of the machines are from Haas. According to Jim, “There’s nothing better than Haas when it comes to high production in aluminum. There’s not another machine out there for the price that can compete.” He feels that with the number of machines the company has brought in over the years, the budgetary benefits they’ve realized with these machines have made continuous growth possible. “The high-end machines might provide a little better quality or rigidity, but they won’t produce the parts much faster,” he adds. “The savings in price on the Haas machines far outweighs the production times of the high-end machines.” To counter some manufacturers’ claims that “high-end” machines will last twice as long, Jim states, “So far, I still have the first Haas machine that I put on the floor in 1998. It’s nowhere near the speeds of the newer models, but it still has its place. If my Haas machines last six or seven years, the technology will have advanced so far, I’ll want new machines anyway.”

Beyond his respect for the equipment, Jim feels the team approach has been a key to making things work. “No matter what the problem is, no matter what the need,” Jim says, “if Arthur Machinery doesn’t already have the solution, it will come from the Haas factory the next day. Often, I’ll wake up in the morning not knowing I’m buying a new machine, but by 10 a.m. I might make a decision to purchase. If they’re in stock, they’ll be on the floor that afternoon or the next day. The relationship Haas forms with its customers is invaluable. They’ll fly people in from California if necessary to resolve a situation.” Gere Marie also has an in-house Haas-certified technician to handle service issues.

By utilizing strictly Haas machines, the company has the advantage of vertical integration. The same controller is used throughout the shop floor. If an operator can run one machine, he or she can run any of them. The operators are very happy with the Haas controllers. Jim adds, “The newer models are getting even better. The graphics and user interface are amazing.”

Feeding Frenzy

Of course, in the mix of machine tools on the shop floor is an assortment of turning equipment. The 30 to 40 lathes on the floor include mostly Haas SL-30 turning centers, but there are some SL-10s and SL-20s as well. The SL series offers a range of capacities, and the space-saving Big Bore option increases capacity further while retaining the original footprint. The turning centers also feature massive headstock castings with symmetric ribs for rigidity and thermal stability, on-the-fly wye-delta switching for peak performance throughout the rpm range and embedded chip trays and high-volume coolant systems for efficient chip removal.

Nine of the lathes are outfitted with Haas Servo Bar 300 automatic bar feeders. Although these servo-driven bar feeders feature a compact design with a footprint of 4.5’ × 8’ (bar capacity of as much as 3.125”), Gere Marie currently cannot fit as many as Jim would like on the floor. “If we had the space available,” he says, “every one of the lathes would have a bar feeder on it, regardless of if it was needed at the time. We would use it as a backstop to set stuff on a second operation. Anything we could bar feed, we’d bar feed, just for efficiency.”

Handling bar stock as large as 60”, the bar feeders help to streamline turning operations. During high-production jobs where a lot of material is dropped, operators at Gere Marie often load the excess onto a chucking machine to create the same part. Almost as often, there are chucked jobs where excess material is cut down and used for something else. Jim says, “The spoilage can be controlled if you have the right product lines. There are a lot of times when we’ll chuck a job only because we don’t have a bar feeder open. It might be more efficient on a bar feeder, but we have limited space on the shop floor. If we could fit more bar feeders back there, there would be more back there.”

Besides eliminating the manual interface and freeing the operator to do other tasks, Jim also finds the integration of the bar feeder and the lathe creates a strong advantage. Because they are designed to work side-by-side, programming is made easy. The Servo Bar 300 runs directly from the Haas control. Other features are included in the design to simplify setup and operation, such as a large access door for spindle liner change-out and a single adjustment for setting the bar diameter. All bar feed parameters are set at the lathe control.

In dollar volume, Jim estimates about a 40-percent increase in efficiency by using a bar feeder, versus a chucker. “By chucking the work, you’re relying on the operator to open the door, blow it off, put the part in, close the door, hit the cycle button and go,” he explains. “When the bar feeder is going, it’s all about efficiency at that point.”

One advantage that bar feeders often bring—untended machining—Gere Marie has not been able to capitalize on. The chip removal issues brought on by working with aluminum have prevented the company from fully integrating to the extent where the operators can walk away from the machine for truly untended work. “Regardless of the efforts of trying to sweep the chips down into the augers, there are just so many chips with aluminum, we need to stop the operation occasionally, blow it off and clean the chips out,” Jim says. But he feels the efficiencies and material savings make bar feeders indispensable.

Anchored In

While the boat business continues to thrive, Jim feels he has secured a strong business. His company engineers, designs and develops every single component and every innovation at the shop, with little direction from MasterCraft. He feels both companies are dependent on each other, so it’s a win-win situation. But that doesn’t rule out other business
considerations.

The company has started to branch off into other industries with a subsidiary named Factory Billet. This portion of the business is developing a complete line of truck and car accessories. But with the overcrowding issues the company is facing, Jim explains that the additional work must be handled slowly and in a controlled manner. “We’re so busy with what we’re trying to accomplish already. With the new innovations and developments, once the markets see them, we’d better be prepared to produce them.”

It’s a problem most of us would like to face. Considering the way the company has handled high speeds already, the future seems to be moving full speed ahead.

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