From a simple locating pin to a complex fluid manifold, every manufactured part starts out as an idea. A Colorado shop brings its customers’ concepts to reality by blending advanced manufacturing technology and careful process and data management with a team-focused company culture and nearly 40 years of experience.
Machinist Steve Hirsh founded Hirsh Precision Products Inc. in Boulder, CO, in 1979. With a single Bridgeport mill, Hirsh machined small production runs and tooling and fixturing components for a variety of customers. His brother Mike joined the company, and the shop added an LC-10 Okuma lathe and a CNC Wells Index vertical mill with manual tool change.
As the business grew, the shop moved into the facility of one of its customers, an automotive specialty toolmaker that remains a customer after 38 years. In 1993, Hirsh Precision Products built its own 24,000-ft2 (2230-m2) building. Today the company has approximately 70 employees who work two shifts, five days a week. About two-thirds of the shop’s output is medical-industry related, most of it involving devices such as components for blood processing equipment.
Throughout its history, Hirsh Precision Products’ guiding maxim has been “Quality Work Delivered on Time.” Now director of engineering for the company, Steve Hirsh said, “High quality work is the result of conducting business with integrity and the foundation of our company’s culture.”
According to Hirsh, the company focuses on continuous improvement, learning, and trust among its employee team members. Hirsh Precision Products’ relationship with its team members could be called unique.
The company’s hiring philosophy aims to assure there is a good fit for both the company and the team member. The emphasis is on personality, integrity, and aptitude over initial skill level. “You can’t teach basic character or how to show up on time or own up to mistakes,” Hirsh said. If an employee is passionate, interested and curious, technical skills can be taught, he added.
Proof of the company’s positive culture is the number of families that have multiple members in the workplace. Hirsh said, “I count roughly 13 different families with more than one member working here. In some cases, there are three or four from the same family.” In fact, the team includes three members of the Hirsh family: Steve, CEO Mike, and CFO Kent.
The company’s emphasis on continuous learning has grown over time. In the early days, training consisted of real-time coaching at the machine. Documentation of process steps and setups were added to reduce setup times and ensure repeatability. Other training initiatives were undertaken over the years, including hiring a local machine trades instructor to train employees on site. In the past year, the company hired a training and development manager to formally document and track training.
All training efforts are now grouped under one umbrella called the Hirsh Training Academy. The program offers a standardized, scalable curriculum that employees can log on to at work or at home. Basic elements include orientation materials, safety, and measurement skills.
New courses are added continually and the system also helps track external training courses, such as those provided by the NTMA (National Tooling and Machining Association). Every team member is a member of the Hirsh Training Academy and can determine a learning direction aligned with his or her career path. Team members meet with supervisors annually to explore their own areas of interest, identify training topics, set goals, and review the prior year’s progress.
Since its founding, Hirsh Precision Products has continually invested in advanced manufacturing technology. “We try to understand what the return is on certain new functions or features and be sure to take advantage of those innovations in a smart way,” said COO Peter Doyle.
Today, the company has 22 CNC machine tools, distributed nearly evenly between mills and lathes. There are six production cells with three or four machines per cell. Five-axis machines are prominent, used for positioning that enables one-and-done machining.
Positioning accuracy is critical in medical manufacturing for maintaining part registration, tolerances, and interrelationships of features. The shop makes parts ranging in size from 1-mm turned components up to items as large as 3′, but “80% of our work will fit in the palm of your hand,” Hirsh said. Secondary operations, with the exception of plating, are performed in-house. Workpiece materials extend from medical grade plastics to heat-treatable stainless steels.
Production volumes generally are not large. “Annually, we might make 100 of something or up to 10,000 of something else. A typical lot size might be around 200 pieces,” Hirsh said.
Hirsh Precision Products has always sought ways to automate its processes. For example, even in its first five years, the company invested in pneumatic robots for loading chucker lathes. After the shop acquired its first pallet-chang-ing mill, management acknowledged the flexibility and productivity provided by switching out pallets and decided that every future mill would be equipped that way.
The shop’s first foray into FMS (flexible manufacturing systems) technology was with a four-axis, 12-pallet Tsugami FMA, and its first five-axis machine employing FMS concepts was a DMG Mori with a ten-station pallet changer.
Seeking to expand its FMS applications, the company investigated options available in multi-machine FMS systems. “We go to IMTS every two years as a team to stay abreast of technology relevant to our customers and their parts,” Hirsh said. After thorough pre-show research, at IMTS 2016 the company purchased an FMS system consisting of an Okuma MU-4000 trunnion-style five-axis CNC vertical machining center, featuring a 740 mm x 460 mm x 460 mm X-Y-Z work envelope, served by a model MDR-750 FMS ONE manufacturing system from FMS provider Fastems LLC.
The shop has since acquired and installed a second MU-4000 mill on the Fastems system, which has 36 400-mm diameter pallets, three levels of pallet storage and one LSC loading station. The system is expandable to handle five machine tools and 120 pallets within the current facility.
Fastems’ Manufacturing Management Software (MMS) is the operational foundation of the system. MMS makes production prioritization decisions based on the availability of personnel, tools, machine time and raw material. It devises a schedule, moves pallets to and from the pallet racks, and directs machining of parts autonomously.
“We communicate the due date and the quantity required,” Doyle said, “then MMS can ‘play chess,’ look at the work that’s scheduled and come up with a plan that will meet the delivery dates, take advantage of the resources available, and maximize spindle time. That has led to excellent spindle utilization.”
The shop inputs its personnel schedules and the system retrieves finished parts when team members are available to unload them. “Operating the Fastems system highlighted for our team the importance of keeping the spindles running. Our job is organizing any required prerequisites, such as fixturing,” Doyle said.
The multiple pallet system is a good match with the repetitive nature of most Hirsh parts. “Setups are one of the bigger variables for us,” Hirsh said. The shop can practically eliminate setup times by leaving fixturing intact on the pallets. “With 36 pallets, we can leave jobs set up. Changing pallets allows us to minimize lead times while maximizing utilization,” Hirsh said. In a study, the shop performed on three typical part-making processes, setup hours were reduced 72, 54, and 92% with an average reduction of 73%.
Hirsh stressed the importance of fully understanding the system’s capabilities. “Fastems told us the system is not simply a big, fancy pallet changer. They urged us to trust the system, input our jobs and let the system schedule the work and determine when parts are going to run.”
Said Doyle, “If we go to the effort to buy the technology, we want to get the most out of it!” Accordingly, Hirsh Precision Products organized a dedicated Fastems team and gave it the challenge to discover all that the FMS system can do.
Perhaps most importantly for the shop, the FMS system enables lights-out operation on nights, weekends and holidays. “The goal is running the spindles 24 hours a day,” Hirsh said.
Palletized work fixturing also permits increased part density. “That aids us in lights-out production,” Doyle said. “Working with a five-minute cycle, 36 pallets wouldn’t last very long. But if you have one-hour or two-hour cycles then you can make it through nights and weekends. The Fastems system allows full utilization of unattended time. Instead of having somebody there every 15 minutes, we can let the system go off and run overnight and we change the parts out the next day.”
He continued, “We can sequence production for many customers’ orders in parallel, rather than producing them in a serial fashion. For a part requiring 100 pieces delivered every month, we can run 25 a week, which works out to about five a day. We can have a job show up at the load station once a day, instead of running 100 pieces of only that item before moving to the next part.” Integration of pallet management across multiple machines also enables a part to run on more than one machine.
A part that required five-axis positioning to machine all its features was previously processed one-up on a Brother five-axis mill. The work envelope was only large enough to process one part at a time. “With the Fastems system, we machine the part on larger machine tools and we can have 18 of the parts on one pallet in process at the same time,” Hirsh said.
The part, about 60-mm square, is machined in three sequences, with six parts in each sequence on the same pallet. The first sequence involves machining a dovetail on a blank. Sequence two covers machining of five sides of the part. In sequence three, the dovetail is machined off and the part is finished. Each cycle results in six finished parts. Hirsh said, “Instead of batching the job, we are able to trickle the parts through as they meet our build schedule.”
Two major challenges in Hirsh Precision Products’ application of Fastems FMS technology involve tool management and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system compatibility.
The low-volume, high-mix, tight tolerance characteristics of the shop’s work requires utilization of a large variety of cutting tools. When Hirsh Precision Products initially installed the Fastems system with the two Okuma VMCs, it was not financially viable for the shop to include the system’s tool management feature. Presently each Okuma machine stores 166 tools and tool capacity is not a constraint yet.
However, because the shop intends to expand the system to include a total of five machining centers, it is developing its own system to move tools into and out of the machines when 166 tools is not enough for the mix of parts produced on each machine. “When the FMS has more jobs than can be accommodated by available tool pots, we’ll move tools in and out of the tool matrix in an automated fashion. Mistake-proofing that tool movement is on our horizon,” Doyle said.
Another issue is ERP integration. Hirsh manages all of its customer commitment information through its long-established ERP system, which was not designed to support multi-pallet scheduling. The reason is that the ERP system assesses the entire part route from raw material receipt through shipping, including outside operations such as plating or heat-treating. It is engineered to be able to identify bottlenecks not apparent to an FMS system that focuses on work cell activities. The ERP system prioritizes just-in-time manufacturing while an FMS prioritizes spindle utilization.
Consequently, Doyle said, “We’re coming up with a way to marry the requirements of both systems, for example, by releasing large part orders in segments and being more selective about the information we let the Fastems system see.”
It’s not an easy task. “ERP systems are like getting married,” Hirsh said, “There is a commitment and investment. You don’t want to change your ERP system if you don’t have to.”
Said Doyle, “What I like about Fastems’ FMS is that it enables our team to focus on solving problems that technology can’t solve, while it frees the team from tasks that the technology’s proving to be very good at. For example, the Fastems system is great at repetitive actions and its ability to prioritize work and keep the spindle running is fantastic. But it is not going to be able to tell us how to design a fixture, how to think about material properties or how best to design a production process. So it allows us to focus on the areas that are a sweet spot for our company.”
Hirsh wants every individual in the company to be aware of how he or she is helping the company carry out its guiding maxim of “Quality Work Delivered On Time.” However, Hirsh said, “We discovered that we weren’t able to monitor that each day. So we developed a scorecard, designed by machinists for machinists. It takes our priorities of safety, quality, and productivity and at any given minute during the day provides an update all around our company of how we’re doing in each of those priority areas.”
Each manufacturing cell has a computer screen with a custom scorecard developed with input from its team members. That enables quick diagnosis and response to production anomalies.
For example, a supervisor can check a cell’s scorecard and bring the right person in to help if setups are running long. The one-page snapshot reflects every customer commitment across the entire company and shows which team members are involved in fulfilling the commitment. To provide timely information, scorecards are updated every two minutes.
When researching different FMS systems, Hirsh looked for durability and reliable performance rather than leading edge, early-adopter technology. “We wanted to balance investment in the latest technology with wanting something that has been well-tested and not a liability,” Hirsh said. Fastems is the right choice for us. It’s a strategic investment for us that we expect to fit our business for many years to come.”
Hirsh Precision Products’ Peter Doyle admits, “I love data. We look at it every day. We have reports that look at every single aspect of our production process. Cycle times, part numbers, setup times, material costs, inspection data … all the data are available. My only hesitation regarding data-driven manufacturing is trying to make sure that we’re using it in the right way.
“The problem is that companies are often drowning in their data and they don’t know what to do with it,” Doyle continued. “The value of data is its ability to aid decision making. Isolating a problem and determining what information is most useful should be done before collecting it.”
Doyle said that this year, the company added analytics and information management as key components of achieving its strategy. “Analytics can help us discover what data are most meaningful to us. Information management allows us to communicate the right information to the right people at the right time.”
The shop is developing ways to systemize data to help make production decisions. For example, while CMM data are easy to capture electronically, the shop presently is implementing an electronic collection of tool and part inspection data that had previously been done and recorded by hand on the shop floor. As those and other initiatives advance, Doyle said, the shop is “figuring out ways to bring the proprietary process documentation software we’ve developed, our ERP, and the Fastems MMS together so that our data itself is an asset. We know we have an opportunity to improve our use of data, but we are still figuring out how.”
Another step is determining the quality of the underlying data. Higher quality data can help make better decisions more quickly. For example, instead of inspecting a feature on every fifth part and slowing production, the shop may determine statistically that it only needs to inspect one in 50 pieces, thereby increasing efficiency. Doyle also questions the true value of some data. Certain data is valuable without a doubt, such as machine utilization and OEE numbers, but some data sets aren’t as useful.
As an example, he questioned the value of detailed data on individual performance, such as national benchmarking studies of productivity per person. “There are aspects of how that data is collected that mean the benchmarks may not be comparable or relevant for a decision, and I don’t believe that’s the benefit of data-driven manufacturing. Hirsh Precision Products’ success and culture are based on our core values—we are honest and trustworthy, passionate about what we do, confident in our skills and abilities, loyal and committed. With those fundamentals in place, our aim is to use data to improve our operations and help others, not micromanage.”
Doyle sees the Fastems system as a practical, applied way to begin the journey into Industry 4.0 data-driven manufacturing. In the future, he said, “Artificial intelligence is going to be a game changer for manufacturing, probably more than anything else. It will change how we will structure and train our teams.”
Edited by Manufacturing Engineering Managing Editor Candace Roulo.
Connect With Us