At every level, Acero reveals itself to be at odds with the public’s general perceptions of American manufacturing. The company’s facility is well lit and virtually spotless, resembling a laboratory more than a shop floor. In April 2011, the company acquired ISO 9001 and ISO 13485 certifications for continuous quality improvement. While attaining these distinctions proves an exceptional challenge for many, Acero already dedicated itself so fully to quality that the certification process required little effort compared to its existing operations. This dedication is apparent at all levels.
“Most people spend more waking hours in their workplace than they do in any other single location,” says Mr. Fitzgerald. “It should be a clean and welcoming place, not somewhere that has them counting down the minutes until they can leave.”
Within the span of a few months in early 2009, Acero Precision (Newtown Square, Pennsylvania) purchased nine Mazak INTEGREX and VARIAXIS machining centers. While a sizable investment for the company, many similar actions were taking place at shops across the country. Spurred by tax incentives, a substantial number of forward-looking manufacturers decided the time was ripe for upgrading technology. Acero’s case becomes more noteworthy when taking into account that the company was able to partially fund its investment by selling its older Mazak machines for approximately 40% of their original purchase price. The impressive degree to which the machines retained their value can be largely attributed to how Acero treats its equipment and the underlying philosophy that drives all of the company’s actions.
“We treat machines the way car lovers treat their cars,” says Michael Fitzgerald, president of Acero. “When we’re making a purchase, we have no problem paying for the options that we think improve not only the machine’s performance, but its appearance as well. For instance, we pay extra to have unpainted stainless steel used in the interior workspace. If a machine gets bumped and the paint chips, we’re out there touching it up as soon as we see it. Our dedication might strike some as unnecessary, but it fits with how we approach everything we do and it helps us get a much higher resale value when we’re ready to upgrade technology.”
Acero’s commitment goes well beyond appearances, though. The company believes success lies in becoming the path of least resistance for customers and prospects. Employees participate in the Acero Field Experience program to learn more about the end products that integrate the parts they manufacture. Here engineers work closely with customers throughout the entire design and development phases of projects. If a customer needs something, Acero finds a way to provide it. Serving the life sciences, medical, racing and general industrial segments, the company’s approach has been extremely successful. One of the most telling signs of the effectiveness of Acero’s approach is the fact that 25% of its sales are exports to Asia. The company claims much of its success comes from structuring its operations to exceed customer requirements.
“In general, there are two levels of quality when you’re making a product,” says Mr. Fitzgerald. “There’s matching the specs exactly or not. For Acero, the part always has to match the specs. Our biggest challenge is probably keeping our pricing competitive while meeting that high standard and going out of our way to accommodate customers’ needs.”
The 2009 machine investment has played a vital role in how Acero maintains that balance. Each of the Mazak machines was purchased with either an 80-tool or 160-tool magazine, which provides the company with the benefit of running a diverse array of work with minimal tooling setups.
Acero’s Mazak INTEGREX 200-IV Multi-Tasking machining centers also integrate an optional second spindle, allowing both the front and back of parts to be machined without operator intervention. Additionally, the INTEGREX milling spindle provides simultaneous 5-axis machining. This array of specifications enables Acero to achieve Done-in-One production, whereby highly complex parts are machined to completion in a single setup. This affords an incredible level of flexibility in the company’s operations.
Typically, Acero leaves multiple jobs set up on each machine. During the company’s day shift, the company concentrates on the challenging jobs that require the most time and labor, usually consisting of prototypes and unexpected orders requiring tight turnarounds. At the end of the shift, operators pull up production jobs that can run overnight with minimum operator intervention.
“A lot of people I’ve encountered only want to deal with work that has high margins,” says Mr. Fitzgerald. “We’re glad to have lower margin, long-term work that we can reliably run without consuming a lot of labor. Even with less profit, those jobs go a long way towards meeting our overhead and allowing us to remain competitive on the more challenging work that we do during our day shifts.”
This approach, coupled with the comprehensive abilities of the Mazak Multi-Tasking machines, allows Acero to tackle work that would otherwise be too costly and time consuming. For instance, the company recently took on a job producing a long, thin bone plate for a medical customer. Machined from 316 stainless steel, the component required milling, drilling, surfacing, turning, threading and cutting off. The customer only needed 10 pieces, a lot size that would be impossible to produce in a cost efficient manner in many manufacturing environments.
“If you’re doing a small lot of a prototype part and you have to run it across multiple machines, your costs are going to go through the roof,” says Dave Watson, operations manager at Acero. “With the INTEGREX machines, we can utilize the Multi-Tasking capabilities and the ability to pass the part between two spindles to machine all of the necessary features in a single set-up. It’s still costly to do such small lots of highly complicated components, but we’re able to bring it down to the point where it’s feasible.”
Acero also produces small lots of difficult, complex parts for the motorsports industry. Recently, the company received an order for a prototype of a complex shock absorber component for a high performance racecar. The customer wanted just six pieces, and the tin-coated titanium part required turning, milling, surfacing, undercutting, grooving and boring operations, with some tolerances as tight as 0.0004”. It proved to be another instance where the Mazak INTEGREX’s ability to produce the component in a single set-up allowed Acero to manufacture the job at a cost acceptable to the customer.
Managing the wide variety of jobs coming through its facility proves a constant challenge for Acero. To eliminate this obstacle, the company has invested heavily in developing its own proprietary production management software system, Sponge. Every workstation is connected to the system, with programmers and operators entering data at every significant point of production. The end result is complete transparency of process performance, machine utilization, operator effectiveness and a host of other metrics.
The Sponge system also serves to maximize quality control. In the event that one or more parts are found to not fully comply with the printed specifications, the software automatically generates information that is forwarded on to the necessary parties. This makes it easy to identify when and why a problem occurred and the system manages scheduling of training sessions to ensure that the relevant employees are trained or retrained on information that will help them to avoid the issue in the future. Under constant development and refinement for the past two decades, Sponge tracks every aspect of Acero’s operations and provides a wealth of data that provides immense value both to the company and its customers.
From extensive process management software to routinely investing in new technology to maintaining a spotless work environment, every action Acero takes is designed to minimize costs, maximize efficiency and strengthen internal and external relationships. The approach has paid off tremendously, with an average revenue growth rate of 11.5% over the past five years. In 2009, a year that many manufacturers consider the worst of their lifetime, Acero only suffered a 4% decrease in sales. For 2011, the company is already on track for 17% growth and is looking at purchasing a new facility by year’s end. By focusing on detail and striving for constant improvement, the company expects no end to its potential for success.