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Cutting Tool Manufacturer Fills Machinist Skills Gap in its Community

Jim Lorincz
By Jim Lorincz Contributing Editor, SME Media

Rapid growth has spurred a cutting tool manufacturer to reach out to its community to grow the pool of young people available to join its workforce. You don’t have to look farther than the lobby of Midwest Industrial Grinding Inc. (MITGI) to find evidence of its commitment to workforce development for its own benefit as well as that of its Hutchinson, MN, manufacturing community.

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MITGI’s production shop.

The display case in MITGI’s lobby, which contains samples of its standard and custom micro cutting tools, is bookended with displays of awards the company has won. The most recent is the 2017 Workforce Development Award from Minnesota Business magazine, given to a Minnesota-based manufacturing company for innovation and excellence in talent recruitment, efforts to retain employees, and enhancing the image of the industry.

Over the last 25 years, MITGI has grown from a regional regrinding company with a lone #2 Cincinnati grinder into a national supplier of micro cutting tools for the medical device, automotive, aerospace, and rapid prototyping industries. The company has a full complement of Rollomatic CNC production grinders, including rougher grinders and flute grinders, among its advanced CNC machines and quality inspection machines.

“Over the past decade, MITGI has experienced extraordinary growth. Our business goals all face in the same direction–continuing to grow sales and market share, then ensuring we have the space, equipment and people to support it,” said Jennie Nelson, director of sales and marketing. “Achieving these goals will only be possible if we have talented employees ready and available, which makes workforce development some of the most important work we do.

According to General Manager Andrea Waller-Plath, “MITGI has tripled the size of our facility and workforce. This rapid expansion created a big problem; the demand for machinists was higher than the pool of available applicants.” And that was the motivation for MITGI to face this problem in a new way and begin a process of community engagement.

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Ross Peterson volunteers as a Hutchinson Tigerbots First Robotics Mentor.

Over the past several years, MITGI employees have worked with area businesses, regional resources, schools and legislative leaders to align resources and focus on common workforce development goals. “We’re seeing extraordinary results in our community: the development of a new high school structure and corresponding career path curriculum; increased enrollment in manufacturing-related classes; and the development of job shadowing and internships as a regional standard practice,” said Eric Lipke, MITGI president.

“There are many kinds of careers in manufacturing and they require a wide range of skills and talents to fill them. As a company, we believe it is essential to help students, parents, and potential employees learn about manufacturing to discover everything the industry has to offer,” Lipke said.

Young people who visit MITGI see a modern facility with the latest advanced manufacturing technology. If they came to work at MITGI, they would be joining a workforce of 70 full and part-time employees that make up what management calls its “Dream Team.”

MITGI currently offers more than 8700 standard tools available to ship in three days or less; most custom specials can be made within two weeks and as quickly as three days. “For many jobs, standard tools provide an immediate manufacturing solution and are the preferred option, especially when time is the top priority. MITGI standards are readily available in a wide array of sizes, depths, geometries and radii,” said Nelson. “MITGI specials are the choice when a standard tool won’t accomplish the task and turning to a custom form tool may be needed to consolidate tools in a tool station or a slight modification to a standard tool may be advantageous. Benefits of specials include efficiencies gained in saving machine time, reduction in scrap and labor, and greater design freedom for part design and manufacturing optimization,” said Nelson.

An extensive product offering and fast timelines are made possible by on-site manufacturing, including MITGI’s own in-house coating capability. The quality of its products is ensured by active employee participation at every step in the manufacturing process, including inspection. According to Nelson, the MITGI quality process begins using tool prints provided by customers or those designed in-house. Each tool print is reviewed for accuracy, tool performance optimization, and to establish tight tolerances. Every tool is inspected by the machine operator as it moves through production, reviewed by a quality technician and by the department supervisors.

After the initial order, specifications are kept in MITGI’s tool record system to ensure the same tool can be manufactured each time it is reordered. Detailed program notes, in-house tool prints, routers and inspection sheets provide the ability to track each job completely and to the source. Closely tracking each customer order means the company can manufacture the tool again to the same specifications.

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Using a red clipboard is an effective way of signaling a job is high priority.

“Our employees are dedicated to continuous improvement. We changed the color of a clipboard to red to signal that the job had high-priority status, and that resulted in manufacturing specials even faster—within a three-day turnaround,” said Nelson. Tool types include micro end mills, micro drills, micro reamers, mold tools, and step drills.

“The red clipboard seemed like a simple suggestion, but it’s one that caught on because it worked,” Nelson said. “It became an effective way to negotiate the internal processes to do jobs quickly, which is a requirement from our customers and drives new services like Quick Turn Specials. Everybody in the company knows that when they see the red clipboard that jobs gets priority,” Nelson said.

MITGI’s facility is divided into three areas. The production shop, with the Rollomatics, is used for longer run tools. Smaller and larger size tools for short runs and more complex tools are produced in the center shop, where machinists exhibit their expertise on individual specialized CNC machines. An in-house coating department was added in 2014 to assure MITGI of greater quality control and consistency of coatings in initial and follow-on orders.

The coating department runs AlTiN every day, as it is the most requested and versatile coating. Next in importance and frequency are TiN and TiCN coatings. There has been a big uptick in request for nACo, a nanocomposite coating, due to its performance. Coatings like Zrn (zirconium nitride), diamond coating, and diamond-like coatings are also available but may have to be outsourced. Ever careful about quality performance, MITGI tested its new coating capability for a year internally before introducing it to the market.

“Our greatest advantage is manufacturing the tools on site,” said Nelson. “When the customer needs standard tools, modifications to standard tools, complex tools, and specials, we have the ability to make them ourselves. We have ample carbide on hand and as a team we can turn tools around quickly,” said Nelson. “It fits right in with our customer-focused, employee-driven mindset,” said Nelson.

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