The Ideal Merger
Michelle Segrest | July 13, 2016
In a massive expansion project, Ideal Industries Inc., consolidates three Midwestern facilities into one operation.
Upgrading means advancement and improvement, but it also means change, and for Ideal Industries Inc., it means consolidating operations from three facilities into one new state-of-the art, 220,000-sq.-ft. facility in Sycamore, IL.
Celebrating its 100th year in business, the family-owned company is undergoing a complete migration of the people, equipment, operations, and maintenance processes of three of its Midwestern facilities.
“This is a very unique opportunity,” said facilities manager Steve Challgren. “It’s not very often that you get to build a new manufacturing facility, lay it out exactly the way you want it from the start, and get an opportunity to fully overhaul all of the equipment before you move it in. Combine this with purchasing some new equipment, and then you have a chance to carefully cross train your entire internal maintenance staff as you do it. It’s pretty exciting for all of us.”
For commercial, residential, and OEM applications, Ideal manufactures a wide variety of products for the installation of electrical wiring and conduit, and components for wire termination, testing, metering, and data communications. With facilities worldwide and several divisions, the three facilities in Sycamore and neighboring DeKalb primarily manufacture more than a billion wire connectors annually, along with push-in connectors for wire termination. It also manufactures tools for electrical installations such as conduit benders, fish tape, wire-pulling lubricant, wire strippers, screwdrivers, and pliers.
“Simply put, our products are found anywhere you are running power,” Challgren said. “We cover anything from the installation of the electrical in your house, to installation of the electrical in our factory.”
Ideal has made its mark by developing the iconic products and practical technology demanded by critical industries such as data communications, aerospace, electrical, wire processing, automotive, and construction. Best known for wire connectors, which have become the go-to standard for electrical connections around the world, Ideal wire strippers are used to build nearly every commercial jet flying today and were part of the critical equipment used for NASA missions to the moon.
Most important, Ideal’s Western Forge and SK brand hand tools touch the daily lives of skilled tradesmen around the globe.
Merging three facilities
Ideal plans to complete the gigantic project of combining equipment, operations, and staff from three of the current facilities into a newly constructed one within a one-year time period. The project presents challenges, benefits, and opportunities.
“Our maintenance staff from both facilities will become one team, which gives us unique opportunities for cross training and upgrading,” Challgren stated. “Over time, we are moving all of the equipment to the new facility and taking it all through a quality prove-out process. We have the opportunity to do a complete overhaul before we move it. In addition, we are investing in new equipment.”
From a maintenance standpoint, the biggest challenge becomes how to keep operations running in the three other facilities while everything is being migrated to the new one in Sycamore.
Thanks to an established best practice of lean manufacturing, “operations keep going,” Challgren added. “We take everything through a thorough quality process of inspections. All of our production operates on a Kanban reorder system. Prior to the move, we will determine how long everything will take and adjust our Kanbans accordingly. We will move the equipment, get it installed, and repeat the quality prove-out process to make sure nothing has changed. Then we release it for production and resume production in the new location.”
This year-long process began March 1, 2016. At least 300 pieces of equipment, including molding machines, assembly machines built in-house by the automation group, punch-press stamping, creep-feed grinding, zinc die-casting, large-scale packing machines, black-oxide coating processes, and wire-pulling lubricants, must be migrated.
The maintenance group currently includes 12 people (electricians, mechanics, and the tool coordinator). That team also works closely with the tool room personnel, which includes five professionals. The team is dispersed among three shifts, so there is mechanical and electrical coverage on every shift.
“Prior to the move, this comprised two separate groups,” explained maintenance lead Don Hardt. “The Sycamore facilities had their own maintenance teams, and DeKalb had theirs. We have already begun the process of merging into one group.”
Maintaining different types of machinery is perhaps the biggest challenge, but also an opportunity.
“The personnel from the different plants are working together to learn about the different types of equipment,” Hardt said. “The whole transition is being used as a training tool.”
A key benefit of the consolidation is the opportunity to combine the safety programs, Hardt continued. “The infrastructure in the new facility is tailored toward easily identifying energy sources. So whether it’s shutting down compressed air or shutting the power off on a machine, we are able to work together and standardize it all.”
Maintenance strategy, best practices
Hardt stated that the overall maintenance strategy at Ideal is simple. “Be proactive in identifying and preventing breakdowns before they occur. We have a preventive-maintenance system in place that is based on time intervals. Some of the things we concentrate on, for example, are going above and beyond when we do have a failure so that the root cause of that failure can be quickly identified. We have a proactive maintenance strategy designed to catch those breakdowns and prevent them.”
A focus on predictive rather than reactive maintenance is nothing new in manufacturing, Hardt said, but the focus must remain at the forefront.
“By identifying key areas, especially on this custom machinery and on some of our aging machines, it allows us to keep our machines running, and it helps to extend the useful life of the equipment,” Hardt continued. “We have a stored-parts inventory, and this investment from Ideal allows us to identify and quickly replace the parts that are required.”
In some cases, it can take several weeks to several months for parts to be delivered. Thanks to its custom tool-making capabilities, Ideal can often work with original drawings, reverse engineer the parts, and build them in house within hours, explained Hardt.
“For us, to have a machine down more than a day is a really long time,” he said. “Our capacity to manufacture our own parts gives us an efficient operational advantage.”
Ideal’s tool-room staff performs all of the maintenance for its stamping dies and presses and serves as an extension of the maintenance team. This team also supports maintenance by making improvements to the equipment that runs in the stamping department. The in-house tool-and-die staff can mill replacement parts to keep operations running.
All companies within the company group benefit from these specific core competencies, said tool-room lead Steve Matuszewski.
“We are constantly looking for ways to improve the production of our facilities from the manufacturing floor,” Matuszewski said. “We get involved in Kaizen events in which we will take a process from a machine, rebuild it, tailor it, and, along with maintenance, upgrade the guarding and the safety mechanisms. The tooling will be rebuilt and made to be more robust. We may choose different tool steels, coatings, and update the electronics and the pneumatics. As a group we sometimes take machines out of service to upgrade them. For example, for one of our subsidiary companies, Pratt-Read Tools, we were able to improve screwdriver production by building new machinery and updating what we have. We not only do maintenance, but we actually go out and look for ways to improve the overall performance of our production floor.”
Preventive and predictive maintenance best practices include an electronic work-order system that is closely monitored by department heads, maintenance, and tool-room personnel. Monthly and quarterly checks are made on the equipment to prevent machine downtime. About 80% of the maintenance is performed in-house, particularly with regard to the custom machines.
Infrared technology is used to test electrical panels and the temperature of electrical connections. A separate automation group supports the other departments, including maintenance and the tool room.
The company uses the philosophy that the operators are the customers of the maintenance team, facilities manager Challgren added. “There is a tremendous amount of interaction between operations and maintenance. The maintenance team and the tool-room team work closely together, as well as with the engineering groups. It’s a collaborative effort of one big team to get the job done.”
Ideal is constantly searching for ways to improve production, said Matuszewski.
One example that made a difference was an adjustment to a stamping die that improved production from 180 strokes/min. to 450 strokes/min.
“It was a situation where we had some capacity concerns,” he explained. “The Bruderer-type punch presses operate at very high speeds, and running them is not cheap. We looked to improve the current process up to a maximum capacity rate. We had some tools that we thought could run faster, but the feeding equipment was problematic for the maintenance team because the feeder was a constraint. We decided to buy a new feeder, and this increased our productivity by more than 50%. It was installed a year ago and we have not had a single issue. Not only did we improve our process, our quality, and our uptime, but maintenance is not necessary anymore because it is a quality feeder.”
Matuszewski’s team continuously analyzes the dies to find improvements that can be made in the strip layout and perhaps find tools better suited for the application. The maintenance and tool-room teams collaborate to find small adjustments that make a big difference.
Improvements are important, but safety is the number one focus, Challgren said.
“Anytime that you are in a factory environment there are hazards, but we encourage all of our employees to participate in at least one of our safety teams,” he said. “Probably 30% to 40% of our workforce is on a safety team. We have safety teams for material handling, ergonomics, emergency response, and equipment machine guarding. Safety comes before production. It’s just more important that everybody is safe than if we make 100 more wire connectors a day.”
Preparing for consolidation
During the next several months, the company will continue to move equipment into the new facility one department at a time, Challgren said, but innovative ideas and consistent production will remain intact.
The existing facilities in DeKalb will continue to be owned by Ideal. An internship program with the local university has been established there to help develop potential new-product ideas for the company. This could potentially lead to future employment in marketing, engineering, and technology for the interns.
“This will be sort of an incubator for potential new salable products for the company,” Challgren said.
The existing Sycamore facility will be renovated and used to launch new products. “We expect to continue to increase the amount of internal manufacturing,” he continued.
One new product is the Audacy advanced wireless lighting-control system, currently installed at sports stadiums, including Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field, and airports, college campuses, and in the company’s new manufacturing facility in Sycamore. The system has proven to reduce energy costs as much as 60% and is perfectly suited for new construction, retrofit projects, large buildings, campuses, or across national and global operating facilities.
“This system uses a low-voltage DC flex grid, but could also be used with conventional AC power as well,” Challgren explained. “The power supply powers the ceiling grid. The fixtures clip onto the grid so one power supply will run about eight light fixtures. This means that instead of using a conduit wire to connect each of eight fixtures, it is all run through one power supply. There are switches in the wall, but no wire or conduit behind the wall. There are room occupancy sensors that detect when someone is in the room and automatically turn on the lights. The system features daylight harvesting, so if there is enough light coming in from exterior windows, the fixtures automatically dim. For energy conservation, they are only on as much as they need to be when the space is occupied, and they can be controlled wirelessly from a smartphone or tablet from anywhere around the world.”
From a maintenance standpoint, production continues with new potential for innovative growth. According to Hardt, “We now have this opportunity to refurbish old equipment, install it where we want it, and standardize all the infrastructure for increased efficiency and productivity.”