New Tricks For The Model B

There is, literally and figuratively, a new lease on life at Davenport Machine. For over a century, this venerable builder has manufactured its five-spindle automatic screw machines on Ames Street in Rochester, New York. But like too many domestic machine tool builders, Davenport fell victim to its own customer complacency, poor management, absentee ownership and stunted product development efforts—spiraling it toward bankruptcy.

There is, literally and figuratively, a new lease on life at Davenport Machine. For over a century, this venerable builder has manufactured its five-spindle automatic screw machines on Ames Street in Rochester, New York. But like too many domestic machine tool builders, Davenport fell victim to its own customer complacency, poor management, absentee ownership and stunted product development efforts—spiraling it toward bankruptcy. It’s an unfortunately familiar tale that has been repeated over and over in the machine tool industry.

Thanks to the efforts of new owner Bob Brinkman, however, Davenport is not lying down and waiting for the last shovel full of dirt to be thrown. In just over a year, a new Davenport has emerged, making impressive forward progress by rapidly doing many of the things that should have been done years before.

In many ways, the exercise of bringing this company back is an object lesson in how to rapidly—and decisively—prioritize and then execute a complex resurrection plan. A few weeks ago, we visited Rochester to see first hand what a determined and a well-led group can accomplish in a very short time.

Like its customers, Davenport is a manufacturer—it makes stuff. Making good parts require using good machines. Priority one for Mr. Brinkman’s team was to get the plant up and running. Neglect of maintenance, worn out machine tool inventory and, in some cases, even overt sabotage had brought the metalcutting capacity of this plant to a virtual standstill. Using a team approach composed of OEM service people, Brinkman employees and talent from the Rochester area, lost CNC programs were restored, repair parts were ordered and installed, and maintenance was performed on the plant’s entire inventory. It was a daunting task, to be sure.

In concert with getting the manufacturing plant running, the company had to focus on its parts inventory. The problem was that the inventory was too low and the parts in stock were of suspicious quality. The first thing Mr. Brinkman’s team did was to consolidate all parts inventory and manufacture back to Rochester. Then the inventory was inspected, and non-conforming parts were scrapped. New quality personnel and processes were implemented. These, coupled with the improved manufacturing efficiencies from the revitalized plant floor, caused quality to come up while costs came down. To date, more than 700 critical parts have been reviewed for manufacturability, fit and tolerance.

By lowering the prices on more than 3,000 parts, Davenport is restoring a competitive position in the market. Davenport owners and operators are a loyal bunch. The new management team hopes to reward that loyalty by doing business with the factory a much better experience than it has been in the past.

An additional incentive for Davenport’s customer base is the introduction of a new high-precision head. The net gain in accuracy is a spindle runout of less than 0.0005 inch and index repeatability within 0.0006 inch. Free turn tests on the new head produced results that are three to four times better than a good Davenport machine in the field today. Moreover, the head design—which will obviously be used on new machines—can be retrofitted on older Model Bs. The idea of this new head is to open up more jobs for Davenport shops to successfully bid on.

I think the lesson here for manufacturers is clear. We do not have to give into the idea of inevitability. The courage to do analysis of what a business does well and poorly, coupled with a vision to go forward, can deliver amazing results in a relatively short time. The market will ultimately determine Davenport’s fate, but the company is fighting the good fight, and that’s worth taking note.