The Softer Side of Metalworking

Turning Point

Unlike most stories you’ll find in Production Machining, this month’s cover story is less about cutting metal and more about putting in ways and means within the shop to better get the metalcutting job done. The featured shop is Vanamatic in Delphos, Ohio, which we have covered from various angles through the years.

In response to a blog post I wrote about the shop’s 60th anniversary in business, plant manager and fourth generation owner, Adam Wiltsie, wrote an email to me describing some the latest activities the company has been up to. As he put it in his email, “Our lean eye is focused more peripherally these days.”

“Lean” casts a wide net from very simple 5S to finely tuned automation that balances throughput between various operations. Arranging the operations into cells and assigning teams to operate the cells has allowed the company to make those concrete production improvements for years and some have been covered by me in PM.

However, what Adam was presenting in his email is steps the company is continuing to take in realizing that its employees are not merely extensions of the machines they are assigned to. They are an asset that, properly informed, trained and motivated, can not only bridge any management/labor tension, but contribute significantly to the company’s long-term health.

This realization is being seen across the manufacturing spectrum as shops implement increasingly higher technologies to compensate for worker shortages and skills gaps. Training and cross training adds strength to a shop’s stable of capability, but what Vanamatic and others are finding is that it’s becoming more about empowering the people to make the right decisions at the right time for the company and the customer.

To that end, the company uses behavioral assessment tools to identify people’s strengths compared with job assignments. When forming teams that will act autonomously, scientifically putting personalities together that have a good chance getting along can be very important. 

Some might consider this view “enlightened,” but in my travels to other precision machined parts shops, it’s an attitude that is increasingly necessary. The question is how to accomplish the task within the individual business culture.

There are ways to customize communication channels based on the individual shop’s needs, but there are also common practices that can help accomplish this. A key is creating an overall flexible work environment that allows employees to be treated in a way one of my former bosses called “as adults.”

It takes trust on the part of management as well as remuneration for the employees. Vanamatic sets the goals needed based on workload and deliveries, then provides a sort of bonus system called Gain share, as these are met or exceeded. 

In the article, we describe an annual review process called start, stop, improve. Employees are invited to suggest things within the company to start doing, stop doing or improve upon. It’s frank and has been the source of some excellent ideas. And it serves as another channel of involvement between management and employees that illustrates “We’re all in this together.” 

The company is also open to outside influences for improvement ideas. It’s participation in PMPA has yielded many, both through presentations and networking with other similar businesses. Good ideas can come from anywhere.  

Adam writes in this email that the work that needs to get done each week is made crystal clear to the shop, and the progress made toward the set targets is communicated daily. Each workstation has computer access to all information in the ERP system with information updated every 30 minutes.

Manufacturing over time tends to track like a sine wave. There are few occasions where some dynamic is not influencing a business.

Often, these peaks and valleys have to do with technology and the people charged with making it work. What we see, in general, as manufacturing is in ascendency, technology and its implementation have led the way.

Moving forward, companies such as Vanamatic are realizing that there is a softer side to metalworking that includes providing its people the communication tools to be invested in the business as they grow with the business. In a way, I see this as where automation is leading us.