Be prepared for peak production

Be prepared for peak production

December 10, 2013 5:09:40 PM

It wasn’t too long ago that Brad Miller, Vice President of Operations at Miller Welding & Machine (MWM), was quite cautious about new large-equipment installation, and rightfully so. Such major investments aren’t to be taken lightly—you have to look before you leap. All told, MWM has experienced 49 years of incremental growth, so its discretion in investment is unimpeachable—by exercising caution, they’ve been doing something right. But within the last decade, the pace of change has increased as MWM’s operations and role as a leading metals contract manufacturer continue to see substantial growth. MWM has been up to the challenge.



From humble beginnings in 1963, the company now employs nearly 500 people and rests on a combined 500,000 square feet of shop space among three facilities—with an additional 55 acres of expansion capacity. The evolution from small reconditioning shop to fully integrated manufacturing unit has been punctuated over the years by measured advancement, adding operations piecemeal when necessary, and beginning to integrate into manufacturing in the early 1980s. 


As it stands today, MWM is churning out complete fabricated assemblies, covering a complete range of capabilities including laser cutting, metal forming, robotic welding, machining, powder coating and even mechanical assembly. The components coming out of MWM’s plants are finished and ready to incorporate into the final machine at the OEM’s production line—primarily heavy construction, mining, and material-handling companies. 



“Mitsubishi gets credit for inspiring us, I’ve been more eager to initiate new equipment growth thanks, in part, to how seamless the laser and cell/automation installations have been,” Miller says. “We have a major new machine-tool installation happening right now and are continuing to refine our balance of a skilled workforce and automated capabilities. We did our homework on it, of course, but our experience with our Mitsubishi lasers certainly affected my attitude toward automation, and made us all a little more receptive to the project.”


The company’s relationship with Mitsubishi Laser began in 2004, when MWM realized that it would need the accuracy of lasercut parts in order to grow its future robotic operations—without accurate components, you can’t get accurate welds, and robotics require precision. The first purchase was a Mitsubishi LVP 3718, with a 4000 watt resonator and a CO2 laser cutting system. As usual, MWM did due diligence on the investment, ultimately finding that Mitsubishi Laser offered a lower operating cost that would pay off over time. 

“Having the lasers has helped us eliminate additional operations throughout the manufacturing process. I can’t imagine being in our business without at least one laser, it would be such a disadvantage, you’d be left out,” Miller says. “We are able to control our own destiny with our inhouse machines, and react much more quickly to the changes in our customers’ demands. Being able to be more vertically integrated as a supplier has been a huge advantage.”

The company doubled down on Mitsubishi in 2010, this time adding a Mitsubishi 3015 LVP-45CF with a slightly more powerful R 4500-watt resonator. Both machines have 60-inch by 120-inch tables with the capacity to cut 1-inch-thick metal. But MWM didn’t stop there—after all, what good are a couple of super-fast lasers if you can’t keep up with their input and output capabilities? 

To maximize productivity between the two lasers and allow them to work in tandem, MWM also implemented the Auto-FlexMS HP system, based on the MSCIII (Multiple Shelf Changer). Individual shelves on this 12-shelf loading system can hold 6,000 lbs. of material each, so a total of 72,000 lbs. can be in the system at any given time. A full load/unload cycle time is barely more than a minute.

“The ‘pick-and-place’ tower and loading system is remarkable,” Miller says. “The machine transfers the material piece in, cuts it, transfers it out; it really enhances our ability to stay on-time dramatically. I thought it would help, but I didn’t realize how much.” 

Confronted with this happy problem of increased output, all MWM had to do now was prepare operators for a huge fluctuation in part production.

“Our beam-on time dramatically increased, putting us in the 90-percent range. Honestly, having a cell and two machines, with fewer operators, was like having three machines,” Miller says. “We ended up having to shift labor from operating the machine to handling all of the components and pieces that were coming off of it—we just didn’t expect the productivity and throughput to go up so much.”

Now with substantial automated manufacturing capabilities spanning plate processing, welding, machining and powder coating, MWM redefined the balance of manual labor and automation. This means increasing productivity without taking on extra labor costs. The lasers operate lights-out, optimizing production time with minimal need for supervision. Regular maintenance ensures productivity stays high and beam-on time is maximized—with high technology, it is not wise to wait until things break down to have machines serviced. All in all, this makes for a lot of component production. 

“We are growing, and we have to grow at the same pace as our customers. We are the sole provider of many of their components; we have to find ways to grow with them,” Miller says. “We don’t have the option to only do what we’re comfortable doing, which is actually a very good thing; keeps us pushing forward. You’re either growing or falling behind, and we’re growing.”

With the pressure to grow, the modular nature of Mitsubishi’s automation looms large, as it provides the versatility to expand as the business expands. Users can add shelves for additional storage, and additional load stations to run two different materials simultaneously on a two-laser cell. And that all-too-common limiting factor—space—isn’t much of a problem for MWM. 

“Ultimately, our customers expect three things from us. They expect the highest quality parts to be delivered on time to the day, and they want to pay a fair price for these components,” Miller says. “As we move forward investing in new equipment, we will develop partnerships that will help us address each of those three requirements—Mitsubishi has become a proven partner by helping maintain those standards with high quality, increased speeds and reduced labor.”


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