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Automated turning keeps business in Canada

by Ed Robertson

The Problem: Capturing significant manufacturing business migrating overseas.

The Solution: An in-house designed automated turning cell.

The scale and content of the cell is impressive. It consists of 10 Nakamura-Tome WT-150 multi-axis CNC turning centres, 10 LNS Sprint automatic bar feeders, one Mitutoyo Mach V CMM with automatic part fixturing and transfer, a fully integrated vision system, an integrated scrap-removal system, and integrated logic and control software.

Dubbed the GMI Shaft Flexible Manufacturing Cell, GMI (Glueckler Metal Inc.), Barrie, ON, and Elmvale, ON (where the turning cell is located) has grown to dominate high volume automated turning projects in North America by steadily evolving its use of production technology, not backing down from a challenge, and constantly pursuing solutions with out-of-the-box thinking.

Founded in 1987 by Anthony Glueckler and a partner, even GMI’s history is unorthodox. Glueckler, who graduated with a degree in kinesiology, the study of human movement, freely admits to being “a phys-ed grad who got off on the wrong highway exit” as to why he chose a manufacturing career. More accurately, Glueckler had some ideas about designing physical fitness equipment during his stint in Magna International’s Newmarket, ON,  plant, which eventually evolved into considering acquiring some production equipment and taking a shot at the parts-making business.

Realizing it took a fair amount of financial resources to start a manufacturing business, Glueckler found a partner, bought a few multi-spindle screw machines, and secured a few contracts and key individuals from his former employer. GMI was on its way.

The Barrie plant came to specialize in producing high volume brake components on largely manual equipment. Glueckler continued to build a team of specialists who maintained, repaired, and built tools for his machines, some of which dated back to the 1940s and impossible to service otherwise, he says. “We continue with that today, with 95 to 98 per cent of the Barrie plant booked on the brake components product line,” Glueckler says. “Since 1992, we’ve grown this facility to be the lead player in these high-volume components.”

Rising to the top didn’t leave room for growth, though, and while GMI enjoyed a sterling reputation among its OEM customers, Glueckler watched significant aftermarket business migrate overseas to low-cost producers. In Glueckler’s view, “We do well with OEMs who want to keep at least a portion of their manufacturing domestic. But when it comes to anything that you can put in a box and ship, we’re exposed.” This, among other issues, sparked much soul-searching among the company’s leadership team in the first years of the new century. For a self-described “computer illiterate,” Glueckler sought to lead his team’s journey to CNC expertise – not only acquiring CNC equipment, but coming up with a system that would “further our technological understanding and still fit within our culture.”

Progress towards this goal didn’t occur in a straight line, but rather in a series of steps, according to Glueckler. First was the acquisition route, involving GMI acquiring a Toronto-based supplier, Precision Machined Products, in 2002 and moving its business to the Barrie plant. Next step was study - investigating the best technology the world had to offer through trips to Europe and Asia. There were some false starts - expensive equipment acquisitions without the jobs or customers to support them, and investigation of establishing an Asian-based supply chain. Throughout all its planning though, GMI was determined to craft a solution that worked for its culture and not adapt its culture to the latest business fad. “We rejected building a supply chain in Asia because we didn’t want to give up our lifestyle and spend the majority of our time on planes checking quality and maintaining the business,” Glueckler says.

The years of building a team that could tool, repair, tear down, and rebuild GMI’s mechanical assets in Barrie came into play as it built its CNC operation in Elmvale. “We’ve learned not to trust industry in supplying a solution when it’s pretty clear industry can’t trust itself,” Glueckler says. “For us, flexibility and the ability to redeploy assets is key.”

And underlying all of GMI’s thought was people, not only finding and acquiring the right talent, but building a process so friendly that people with limited skill sets could jump in and start contributing. “We put together an automation plan that would accommodate a semi-skilled workforce and durable equipment that would operate 24/7/365,” Glueckler says. GMI’s degree of success is that they readily identify personnel with no previous CNC experience but who are able to follow procedures well. “People become our best assets when they function within a team collaborative atmosphere, where everyone contributes to create and agree upon a process,” he adds.

Volumes are everything in GMI’s world, Glueckler continues - service and quality are absolutes. Global competition is unrelenting, and the ability to service, repair, and maintain your own equipment can sometimes provide just enough necessary margin in a slim-margin game.

“There’s still plenty of bloodshed in the industry, and it’s up to us to maintain our equity and continue to secure a bigger piece of a shrinking pie,” he says. “Maintaining zero defects and flexible cell options means we can continue investigating opportunities linked to our core competencies. More and more of our customers are in the same game we are, so we’ll see where industry takes us.”

 GMI’s Alternator Shaft Flexible Manufacturing Cell

  • 10 Nakamura WT150 multi-axis CNC turning centers
  • 10 LNS Sprint automated bar feeders
  • 1 Mitutoyo Mach V shop-floor durable CMM with part fixturing and transfer
  • Complete automation system designed and supplied by NH Global Inc
  • Integrated logic and control software designed in conjunction with McMaster University and Nixon Systems
  • Fully Integrated Vision system supplied by Cana Vision
  • PATZ fully integrated scrap system designed and installed by GMI.
  • High-pressure coolant system designed and installed by GMI.
  • 20-micron filtration system designed and installed by GMI.
  • The entire system was developed in scope by GMI and erected by GMI in conjunction with the suppliers listed above.
  • Value when installed: $5 million (2006)
  • Value today: $6 million
  • GMI 2011 sales: $22 million
  • 2012 projection: $25 million
  • “Our high in 2005 was $35,000,000, so you can see the swing through the result of a global recession and the effect globalization has had on a firm like GMI. This is, I believe, very symbolic of the parts manufacturers in North America competing with the ‘Box’ (container-applicable traded products).” – Anthony Glueckler

Ed Robertson is a regular contributor and manufacturing journalist based in the Detroit, MI, area.

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