The company also provides soup-to-nuts tooling development—for inhouse production as well as for contract-tooling customers. Its designers and engineers use SolidWorks and ESI’s Pam-Stamp to develop, simulate and prove-out tooling concepts prior to moving the jobs to its fully equipped 20,000-sq.-ft. toolroom.
“Middleville, working with our partner in China, has the capacity to build 35 to 40 dies and fixtures annually for our stamping operations as well as our contract tool business,” Blanton says.
Our toolroom tour unveiled three high-speed machining centers, a wire-EDM machine, a waterjet-cutting machine, and laser scanning with cloud-point inspection for validation and reverse engineering.
Blanton adds: “Sixty percent of that machining capacity is used for die maintenance vs. build of new tools.”
Equipped for All Sorts of Robotic-Welding Processes
The company’s engineering department consists of 12 associates working in the quality, manufacturing and product-development teams. Among them: two degreed welding engineers.
“We’re also investing in value-added processes and technology to create opportunities to continue to add value to low-volume projects,” adds Crow. Among those processes spied on the shop floor: laser and plasma welding, along with automated and robotic gas-tungsten- and gas-metal-arc welding. “And, we’re looking at building specialty assembly equipment,” Crow shares, “for an upcoming project for the alternative-energy industry.”
“Welding really took off for us about 10 yr. ago,” explains Blanton, who notes that the production floor now counts 14 automated welding cells. “Welding is a core competency here, just like tool and die development and stamping. The only manual welding we do now is for repair welds, otherwise it’s all automated.”
Among the projects underway when we toured: robotic gas-metal-arc welding of exhaust inlet pipes, manufactured in three versions. That production cell is one of a handful that MES recently outfitted with a data-collection software package to track production “and keep operators aware of their real-time performance,” Blanton says.
The software, Mach2 from Plex, by Rockwell Automation (which acquired the software’s originator Kors Engineering in 2021), connects plant-floor machines to the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform.
“Mach2 gives our production-cell operators real-time hourly production rates,” Blanton shares, “to help ensure that we’re staying focused on overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and meeting production goals. The target is 80% OEE, and I’d say that since implementing Mach2 on five assembly/robotic-welding cells our overall OEE has increased by 5 to 10%.”
The newest production cell to hit the floor: a laser-welding cell for assembling automotive exhaust components. It matches a Magnum 100-ton hydraulic press with a 6-kW IPG welding system and an MES-engineered-and-built conveying system. In addition to parts stamped in the hydraulic press, the cell takes in and laser-welds parts from a nearby 660-ton transfer press.
Bread-and-Butter Automotive Work
When it comes to automotive work, among its bread-and-butter projects have included shifter tubes (for which MES converted a machined part into a stamped design), exhaust-hanger brackets (once a two-piece weldment that the firm converted into a one-piece stamping) and headrest tubes—traditionally manufactured by welding a tube to a fineblanked stamping and then requiring secondary operations. MES transformed the tubes into a one-piece design made from ultra-high-strength steel.
Most recently the company has taken on plenty of automotive seating projects, powertrain-agnostic and the type of complex design- and engineering-intensive work that fits its sweet spot. Expanding into this work doesn’t come without capital-equipment investment, however, as MES has added two laser-welding cells in the last few years, as well as four plasma-welding cells, to support its growing seating business, among other applications.
Emissions-control systems also are big runners here, in particular diesel exhaust fluid pipes. Traditionally either a hydroformed part or fabricated as a two-piece stamped clamshell weldment, MES’s product engineers redesigned the pipes as one-piece stampings. They’re made in a transfer tool on the 1100-ton press using its wrapped tubular stamping technology.
While Blanton and team have their sights set on diversification, as do many automotive-focused suppliers, into markets such as metal furniture, alternative energy and construction, make no mistake—they know that the automotive industry keeps its production lines running. Automotive represents some 80% of its current book of business. The challenge there: As the company sees order volumes shrinking for automotive parts and assemblies, job one becomes efficient management of its own supply network and manufacturing processes.
“We have to think differently as we see volumes now in the tens of thousands vs. hundreds of thousands,” says Mike Van Dorp, senior account manager. “We’re quoting more part varieties, and increasingly complex parts. As such, we challenge our product-development team to redesign and simplify components and assemblies, wherever possible. And, we leverage our suppliers—of fabricated parts, for example—to help manage the complexity.” MF
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