One of the highlights of my visit to Detroit was the trip to Shelby Township and the MFC Netform factory. MFC Netform is primarily a maker of powertrain parts for the automotive industry using flowforming processes. MFC survived and thrived in the post recession wipeout that brought large parts of the US automotive industry close to the edge of destruction. General manager Tim Cripsey gave us a potted history of what the company does and how it survived. I was impressed, in large part because of one thing: the business model.
Automotive parts making is incredibly competitive with offshore providers in places like Korea and China grinding down (sic) prices to a point that makes it very difficult for US manufacturers to compete. MFC has found a way of overcoming this by creating a development co-creation model.
Instead of simply taking a specification and then pricing according to demand, MFC works with its customers to find ways of improving design, material usage and the logistics surrounding parts making so that buyers get the best value at the best price while MFC protects its margins. This approach takes MFC out of price driven 'race to the bottom' scenarios into a 'make and service' model that helps it build long run relationships with customers. It also means that sometimes the company says no to a potential deal.
This is fundamentally different to what I know about build to order parts making where the whole of the effort is usually upon manufacturing efficiency. That doesn't go away for MFC. In fact most of what we saw on the plant floor suggests the opposite. Nevertheless, the partnership ethos is one that makes a lot of sense when you think about tooling for production runs that are anticipated to run into years and where it's essential to get a return on capital investments that often run millions of dollars.
Making this model work is not easy and Cripsey says it would not be possible without the investments it has made in Plex. What I did not anticipate however was the degree to which Plex has been integrated into what is one of the cleanest plant floors I've ever seen. It was that clean you could almost eat your dinner off the floor!
During the visit I shot a number of Facebook Live videos on my iPhone and while the sound is terrible, largely because the shop floor is very noisy, you get a sense of where Plex fits in. In the video at the end for example, the bench is set up for QA parts testing and you can see how an operator has easy to follow instructions that are virtually hands free at the compute level and which clearly guide him/her through the process.
The degree of automation was truly impressive for what is a small cold/flow forming operations facility with virtually every work station fitted out with a Plex system handling different parts of the process while robots and automated machining lines do much of the 'work.'
The people running the pick and pack operations talked enthusiastically about how Plex helps ensure that the right parts go to the right place and accounted for in the system using a ruggedized barcode reader based system. They talked about replacing these somewhat cumbersome devices by iPads. That raised a few eyebrows because of the perceived fragility of the iPad but then the relative cost of replacing an iPad is a fraction of the cost of ruggedized devices that have been accepted as the standard in many plant operations.
But it was when they talked about melding Plex with Slack so as to consolidate their voice, text and email communications that I got excited. Who would ever think that Slack might have a sensible use case in that environment? Slack is built for mobile communications and what MFC needs is a more effective way of pinging around notifications. That's a great use case but more to the point, it emphasizes the spirit in which MFC is approaching the use of modern technologies.
I came away truly impressed, especially given the irony of the fact MFC exports to the very countries that are the company's biggest competitors. The whole workforce we met are enthusiastic about what they do and keen to show off their accomplishments. That's always good to see.
In closing, I am wondering how Plex will top this factory visit next year.