Excellence in efficiency
- Created: 2017-09-04
After nearly losing everything in the Great Recession, a Minnesota manufacturer turned lemons into lemonade
by Kip Hanson, senior editor
For most people, the 2007-2009 recession was a life-altering event. Many lost their homes, jobs, life savings and, for some, all three. Even for those who emerged unscathed, precious time was lost as the economy limped along for years afterward.
Even now, there are signs showing that something in our industrial landscape has irrevocably changed. For Robert Du Fresne, president and owner of Du Fresne Mfg. Co., that something is the way he looks at his employees.
“We lost half of our business and 60 percent of our employees,” he says. “At one point, the executive management team and I were on the plant production assembly floor helping to get parts out the door. We didn't care about what would happen six months down the road, we were only concerned about which of our friends and neighbors would get laid off next and what we were going to work on the next day.”
After marrying its Amada LC 2515 C1 AJ punch/laser to a pair of HG 1003 ATC press brakes, Du Fresne Mfg. can decide which parts go where and when, providing the company far greater flexibility.
Du Fresne Mfg. opened in 1991. The company serves a range of industries from medical and computer parts to agricultural, communications and defense. Its downsizing back then wasn’t the result of any technological shortcomings – Du Fresne Mfg.’s path has always been a lean one. Its equipment list includes Amada press brakes, turret punches and lasers as well as Salvagnini panel benders, the majority of which are automated.
Downstream sits a Timesavers rotary brush machine, robotic welders, and a variety of assembly and finishing options. Sitting over everything is an ISO 9001-2015 quality system, backed by well-organized process planning and value engineering. To say that Du Fresne Mfg. has always set a high bar is an understatement.
Still, few companies can argue with a dismal economy. One challenging side effect of the downsizing was that those who remained had to wear more hats, often times ones they weren’t necessarily comfortable with. People not only had to learn new jobs – and quickly – but had to perform them efficiently. Du Fresne quickly recognized that communication was a big piece of the solution and that he needed to get everyone involved if his company was to survive.
“We had to consistently let people know what they’d be working on next,” he says. “That didn’t mean four days from now, but rather four hours. We didn’t have a system in place for that, but we worked together as a team to develop one. What we found while doing so was that when everyone gets involved, when they know exactly what’s going on and feeling like they are part of it, their commitment level changes drastically.”
Since installing an automated punch/laser combo machine and two HG 1003 ATC auto tool load press brakes from Amada, Du Fresne Mfg. has achieved greater manufacturing efficiency.
Victory through vision
It didn’t happen overnight. But as the recession ground other companies to chaff, Du Fresne Mfg.’s management practiced transparency in its decision-making processes. Shifting people around to wherever they were needed helped the company develop better training processes and helped its employees grow professionally.
As a result, there were no worries about looking for a new job. Everyone felt safe, in spite of the scary times. And people learned new skills, from purchasing and engineering to press brake forming and spot welding. Du Fresne Mfg. once again began to prosper.
“We look back at the commitment that was generated during that time and feel fortunate,” Du Fresne says. “The excitement that people found in learning something new, putting more tools in their toolbox and working together as a team helped us develop an entirely new culture, a culture that develops more than 4,000 improvement ideas per year. We’ve since rebuilt our workforce to pre-recession levels and our employee turnover is virtually zero. There’s simply no reason for anyone to leave.”
Another outcome of Du Fresne Mfg.’s transition – and at least some of the driving force behind the journey – is its Minnesota Performance Excellence Award based on the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award, which it received in 2015. Administered through the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program assesses an organization’s core values and management concepts, its ethics and transparency, the way in which it values people and the vision of its leadership.
Du Fresne Mfg. employees and management devoted themselves to meeting the program’s framework of stringent requirements. After two and a half years, they were honored to be the first sheet metal company in Minnesota ever to receive the prestigious award.
“As a business owner, I wanted to find a new way of managing the company,” Du Fresne says. “I ran my father's business for many years and started my own when I was 37 years old, and I didn't want to do things like everyone else. I had to find ways to make the competition irrelevant. Lo and behold, it was the Baldridge criteria that made the biggest difference. To us, it was a rite of passage, signifying our commitment to human development and not sheet metal.”
Looking down the line
People are important, but no sheet metal house prospers without equally capable equipment. Now that the bad times are behind them, Du Fresne and his team are looking to the future. One example of that is the recent addition of an Amada LC 2515 C1 AJ punch/laser combo and a pair of HG 1003 ATC auto tool load press brakes.
Du Fresne Mfg. has had turret punches and lasers since the doors opened, but combining the two in a single machine was a first for the company. The combo machine has since filled an important role. Despite its success at keeping its employees, the company suffers the same problem as other shops: finding them. It works closely with area schools, training students and exposing them to manufacturing, but still struggles to fill open positions. That’s one reason why the shop’s turret punches and lasers have always had automation, but as Du Fresne points out, that doesn’t help reduce work in process or setup time. That would all begin to change with the punch/laser combo.
“We knew that combining the processes would be a big improvement,” he says. “Manufacturing efficiency largely comes down to how far the parts have to travel during processing – the further the distance, the greater the variability, lead time and labor cost. It’s also much easier to schedule a part that only has to move 20 or 30 ft. instead of 300 ft., with fewer people counting and handling parts between operations. That’s why we basically married the punch/laser combo with the two auto-load press brakes.”
Working closely with Amada, Du Fresne Mfg. requested a custom modification to the punch/laser. By installing an additional exit on the sheet loader side of the machine, parts could be transferred beyond the normal destination – the storage shelf – and stacked on a nearby conveyor. When one of the press brakes signals it needs more parts, the conveyor automatically starts up and delivers them. The result? Raw material can often be converted into a formed part within just a few minutes.
“It goes really quickly when everything is hooked up like this,” Du Fresne explains. “We have a large station turret punch and a standalone fiber laser – both automated – and we have actually transferred 38 percent of the work from those two machines to the punch/laser combo. Parts can now be cut, punched, formed, tapped and bent within about a 20-ft. distance and then they’re ready for finishing.”
And because the entire system is programmable, the operator can pick and choose what goes where.
“We ran a nest with 15 parts last night,” he says. “We sent three of them for one customer to the conveyor and the rest stayed on the shelf until morning. Based on lead time and forming requirements, we determine where the parts go and when. The punch/laser combo is not going to replace our lasers anytime soon, but if you don't want to spend time knocking parts out of a nest or worry about deburring them, it’s a great way to go. They're already tapped and the embossing is done, so we can just hand them off to one of the ATC press brakes for bending. The combo’s not made for everything, but the jobs that are processed on it are very competitive.”