With his job shop Wilhelm Kuipers has to deliver quality — not just in terms of components, but also in the quality of the complex service work associated with warehousing and shipping.
Mr. Kuipers, yours might be a job shop, but the premises look more like those of a logistics services provider…
In recent years logistics have gained importance. We have ever more frequent requests as to how and when our customers would like things to be dispatched. Just-in-time deliveries are only the start. Some of our clients employ Kanban systems and do not call for materials until they are required on the production line. That lets our customers reduce stock levels by transferring the warehousing task to us. So we no longer function as a mere job shop, but provide a consignment warehouse, too. The upshot is that we always have to know which parts can be found, and where, at any particular time.
Does this mean you are shouldering additional and more comprehensive tasks?
That’s right. Take a look at this pallet reference list which we developed. It shows 42 different pallets and storage containers. This is similar to most of the warehousing documentation we use. Each customer has his own system, and we have to stock and manage in accordance with that system. Poor management of empty containers can lead to high costs over the course of a year. And each customer specifies exactly how things are to be packed. Some demand no more than 30 kilograms on a pallet while others insist there be no overhanging parts. Things are becoming increasingly complicated. You can’t cope with it unless you have high-performance software for the job.
On the other hand, what does this entail for your production?
Here again we are faced with increased customer demands in terms of properly functioning internal logistics — and efficient processes are also essential. On the one hand, we have to stock sufficient quantities of sheet metal to make sure we can manufacture customer orders. We took a great step forward by introducing our automated storage system, offering space for 4,500 tons of sheet metal. It enables us to quickly access many different sheet metal gauges and sizes and to react to ever shorter lead times. On the other hand, we are storing an increasing number of finished components for our customers. The amount of storage area we need for these products has ballooned. In 2005 we had 56 people working on 5,300 square meters of floor space. Today we employ 260 people while production and storage occupy 17,800 square meters.
So efficiency is a real issue?
Yes, absolutely. This is demonstrated by the fact that we now utilize two TRUMPF machines with solid state lasers. They let us cut thin metal sheets particularly efficiently, notably those made of aluminum or copper. To stay competitive, we must always look for ways to reduce waste and utilize reserves. These are the major benefits of automation, especially when high volumes are involved. Even though we are making steady progress in this respect, there is still plenty left to do in the future. It might involve upstream and downstream processes such as automated machine loading and unloading. I can also see further potential in the field of edge finishing. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find good people for this demanding work. In addition, I see a clear trend towards automatic welding. Laser welding in particular requires high-precision machinery in order to maintain tolerances for the space between the edges of the sheets to be welded. There is really no way we can avoid automation.
What else is important, apart from automated machines?
Actually, this boils down to just a few points that are really critical: high product quality, punctual delivery, friendly dealings with customers and employees, good service, experience and expertise, all in combination with advanced technology and the flexibility of one’s workforce. Ultimately you constantly have to keep an eye out for bottlenecks in work processes and figure out how to make sure the customer still gets deliveries on time. Nobody is interested in hearing excuses. We have developed various modules to increase flexibility and these have helped us to become more versatile than quite a few of our competitors on the market. This far exceeds the classical scope of a job shop’s work.
How has your workforce reacted to these new demands?
It is important to inform the workforce about why changes are necessary. It’s not a matter of higher output and heavier loads, but a question of the company’s sustainability in this rapidly changing world. The people in our area are open to innovation. The Emsland region would not otherwise have developed so successfully. Except for a short period during the financial crisis, we have continuously invested in machines. And we never let up on training the workforce and encouraging talented young people.
How would you summarize your success factors?
To begin with, you have to set a realistic yardstick for both yourself and your workforce when pursuing your goals. Then there is continuous training, which is naturally a must. What’s more, you need state-of-the-art machines with high-performance software compatible with your operating processes. But the most important aspect for a job shop is ongoing, close contact to the customer to make sure his wishes are clearly known. The very least you must do is to keep him satisfied over the long term, but it is even better to spark customer enthusiasm.
Contact us: MastersofSheetMetal@trumpf.com
This article was first published in spring 2012.