Weak economies hit the manufacturing industry hard, especially in Michigan, but machine shops with the flexibility to accommodate change, diversify their customer bases and run lean, efficient operations are well-positioned to survive.
Merrill Tool, a 40-year-old grinding, milling, and turning shop in Merrill, Mich., followed a strategy of diversification and lean operations even before the economy began to decline. The shop boasts of flexibility to handle parts some for wind turbines, parts that weigh from an ounce to more than 50 tons, and from an inch to more than 40 ft. As part of the 400-employee Merrill Technologies Group, the company is sister to Merrill Fabricators, Merrill Engineering & Integration, and Merrill Aviation.
Merrill Tool President Bob Yackel has steered a course to diversify his customer base so that no industry segment constitutes more than 20% of the company’s sales, focusing on aerospace/defense, machinery-build, automotive, heavy equipment, and oil field as key markets, while rapidly expanding Merrill’s work in emerging wind and solar energy.
As a two-shift contract shop with a high proportion of large-part work, Merrill constantly fine tunes its machining strategies and capabilities to make margins on part lots as small as one. Tuning up its capacity for an increase in oil-field work, Merrill purchased a MAG RT 1600 boring mill off the floor at IMTS 2006. This increase continued with a second similar boring mill, two vertical turning centers with 2 m tables and, most recently, a horizontal machining center with twin 1250 mm pallets – all acquired from MAG between late ’06 and early ’09 at a total investment of about $7 million.
The first rotary-table horizontal boring mill immediately replaced three retrofitted boring mills, and in doing so increased part processing capacity and reduced machining time by as much as 34%. “We purchased our first MAG boring mill to handle new work involving some large valves,” said Merille Tool Presient Bob Yackel.
Merrill added a second RT 1600 contouring rotary table for a new wind energy customer, a goring part of Merrill’s industry mix. Manufacturing of wind energy parts is about 10% of the shop’s business, where it was zero percent just five years ago. “We’d like to see wind energy grow to be about 20% of our overall business which is our maximum target for any industry we serve,” said Yackel. “Just like in the stock market, we consider diversification a key strategy to long-term health of the company.”
As work in wind energy continued to increase, Merrill added a MAG HMC 1250 horizontal machining center with a 110-mm live spindle that was immediately put to work on large turbine component parts. The HMC 1250 Series is engineered for high-precision, high-productivity, large-part machining with 1,250 x 1,600-mm pallets and a maximum 3,000 mm (118 in) work zone swing range, 2,050 mm (81 in) work height capacity and 7000 kg (15,400 lb) work load. A standard 360,000 position contouring table enables precision 4-axis machining of a variety of part geometries.
Merrill Tool & Machine