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Shop Solutions: Shop Thrives on Supplier's Tooling Expertise

Mena, AR, (pop. 6000) is 135 miles west of Little Rock and 90 miles from the nearest interstate highway and home to Sterling Machinery Co., a job shop with 90 employees and about 65 CNC machines. The busy shop serves a varied list of customers including oil & gas companies, commercial laundry equipment and hydraulic component manufacturers, and other OEMs with its variety of machining and turning processes, including secondary processes like CNC ID and OD grinding, honing and broaching.

Sterling has been able to survive and thrive in spite of economic downturns, tough competition, and its remote location through a combination of carefully chosen suppliers and equipment, customer diversification, and strong reciprocal loyalty between management and employees. According to Scott Vacca, vice president-sales, Sterling’s focus on customer service, self-sufficiency and hard work has enabled the company to grow and prosper “on our own little manufacturing island.”

Retired machine tool salesman Rex Martin founded Sterling Machinery in his garage in 1972, employing himself; his wife, Marion; and son, Bob, who later reacquired the company after a brief hiatus and restored it to family ownership. Bob’s wife, Wendy, is chief financial officer. Daughter Ashley Vacca (Scott’s wife) is vice president of finance. Bob and Wendy’s oldest son, Erick Martin, moved his family from Little Rock so he could become Sterling’s vice president of manufacturing. “Having family members in key positions to ensure Sterling’s future for our employees, our town and our children’s children became our goal,” said Wendy Martin.

Family that owns and operates Sterling Machinery (from left to right): Scott Vacca, Ashley Vacca, Bob Martin, Wendy Martin and Erick Martin.

To differentiate Sterling from other job shops, said Bob Martin, “We realized we had to go into the more difficult type of machined parts. To effectively compete in that arena, we saw we had to do everything the right way, all the way from manufacturing planning to carbide usage.”

Streamlining acquisition of supplies was an important step. Sterling purchases all of its MRO items through Arkansas Mill Supply, headquartered in Pine Bluff. An Arkansas Mill employee works full-time in the shop. “Bringing them in has been a huge advantage,” Vacca said. “We tell them what we want and they purchase it.” Establishing a tool crib boosted responsiveness. According to Bob Martin, “Years ago we had our tools scattered all over the shop, and by the time everybody gathered what they needed for a job we lost a lot of time.” Prior to establishing the tool crib, Sterling received 52 tooling invoices per week. Now it handles one. The crib is managed with software from CribMaster, with 99% of the items in the crib bar-coded for scanning.

To further enhance its competitiveness, Sterling sought to fine-tune its selection process for carbide suppliers. The company drew up a comprehensive testing program and brought five carbide suppliers into the shop for one week each, running the same parts on the same machines. Among the suppliers, Vacca said, “Seco Tools was outstanding. What impressed us about Seco was their ability to bring us knowledge that we might not have, instead of just bringing in an insert and saying this is the best insert and here are 300 of them. Seco would come in and say, ‘This is an insert, we will show you the best way to run it, and we have other suggestions that might help you with your manufacturing process.’”

Typical setup trays at Sterling Machinery are well organized through a tool crib with 99% of the items bar-coded for scanning managed by CribMaster software. “Years ago we had our tools scattered all over the shop, and by the time everybody gathered what they needed for a job it was a lot of lost time,” said Bob Martin. Prior to establishing the tool crib, Sterling received 52 tooling invoices per week; now it handles one.

Michael Alkire, manufacturers’ representative for Seco, visits the shop at least weekly. Vacca said the ongoing contact makes testing new tools easy. “Instead of us working our manhours trying to prove something out,” he said, “Mike brings new ideas to the table and is able to test them right there as they are being applied.”

Alkire described a typical new product application test: “We were doing grooves with a Seco X4 tangential tool. Beforehand, Sterling had to spend extra money on a special 0.031" [0.8-mm]-wide grooving tool. We had a standard X4 tool in that size with four edges on it, while the special had only two edges. They were getting 24 grooves per edge on the prior tool and we got somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 with the X4. The beauty of that particular tool is that one holder accepts different-size blade widths. When Sterling used the other tools, they had to change the toolholders to change widths.”

New tools and ideas have prompted Sterling to adopt new more aggressive strategies. “We are getting more comfortable with running at speeds that push the limit,” Vacca said. “That might mean we have to change an insert every four or five parts as opposed to six parts. But at the same time we are running everything a lot faster, so it makes up for it. It’s a new mentality for us, but what it has done for our productivity has been phenomenal.”

Sterling and Seco recently formalized a partnership that benefits both parties. Assuming Seco carries the desired products, Seco is Sterling’s first choice for tooling. In return, Sterling gets support, training, and early access and testing for new products. “We already had a partnership; the only thing we were missing was a formalization of it,” Alkire said. “The agreement means we are committed to them as they are to us.”
'What impressed us about Seco...'
One of the key services Seco provided initially to Sterling was tool consolidation. The goal was to run 80% of the shop’s parts with 20% of the possible tooling choices. “They had 160 line items that were nothing but turning tool inserts,” Alkire said. “With the 80/20 rule, we streamlined that down to about 25 or 30.”

In the job-shop environment, Alkire said, use of special tools is rare. Fabricators will make special tools and Seco can modify its own blanks if necessary, but it takes time. “I try to steer away from specials. Usually if we had time to wait for a special, the job would be over.” Innovative uses of standard tools usually gets the job done. In one case, Seco was able to reduce an almost three-hour cycle time machining valve bodies down to 49 minutes. Alkire said, “The goal was to get 10 out a day. We were getting three. Getting creative with circular interpolation with our Turbo mills and 780 boring heads, we were able to cut the cycle time down significantly.”

For a job shop, rapid response and flexibility are crucial qualities. “Our reputation is for quick turnaround and quality,” Vacca said. “Customers call us and our goal is to quote a new part for them within 24–48 hours. Then, for the most part, turnaround is six to eight weeks. That’s what sets us apart.” The shop also provides some customers with Kanban-level service. “Every Thursday we drive a truck to Benton, AR,” Vacca said. “Our customers will tell us the day before what they need.” The service minimizes the amount of inventory the customer needs to carry.

Servicing the niche of higher-value, more-difficult part production can be a challenge. “Five or six years ago we were running a lot of higher volume parts. For the most part now we are running smaller batches, lower quantities, more complicated parts,” Vacca said. “A lot of that for us now is oil & gas industry work.” He pointed out that there have traditionally been tough traceability standards for oil & gas components, but the standards have become more stringent since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sterling handles parts that its customers find they can’t do on their own. Bob Martin described such a situation: “We did a job for a large OEM company, a valve that goes to Saudi Arabia. The material was an Inconel inlay. It was very difficult to machine. The Inconel was welded into the part and then they had to do a lot of machining. They tried it at their division for several months, and could not be productive with it. So they gave us the project, and it was a tough job. It took us forever to get it going. We mastered it and it was very noteworthy for us.”

Bob Martin recalled the longtime manufacturing maxim, “If the spindles are not turning, you’re not making money. We have covered a lot of different areas at Sterling to be able to allow the spindles to continue to turn.” A major contributor to consistency is a strong relationship between Sterling’s family management and its workforce. Vacca said, “We make sure we treat our employees like an extension of our family. A majority of our employees have been with us for 10 years or more and there are fathers and sons, brothers and uncles all working together.” ME

For more information from Seco Tools, go to, or phone 248-528-5200.


This article was first published in the January 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 1/1/2014

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