Biz Talk | by Tim Heston, Senior Editor 16
Prototype fabricator looks beyond automotive
Detroit sheet metal prototype shop plans for change
their father, Patrick, took over the busi
“Good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.” That was Kevin Woody, vice president of engineering for Auto
Metal Craft, a prototype shop nestled
on a side street in Oak Park, Mich., a
short drive from the massive assembly
plants of the Detroit Three. Woody runs
the business with his two brothers. Kent
is vice president of quality, and his
brother Kim is vice president of sales.
The trio has seen much change since
ness in the 1970s, but that “pick two” business maxim hasn’t changed. It’s a prototype journeyman’s way of saying you can’t
have your cake and eat it too.
There’s something timeless about the prototype business. So much of metal
abrication today hinges on automation. A nest is generated automatically, a laser
cutting center retrieves a sheet from a storage tower, and away we go. Outside certain welding and bending cells, there’s little hands-on work left on the floor. Because repetitive manufacturing has become so automated, many sometimes can
truthfully say to their customers, “Good, fast, cheap—you can have all three.”
Prototyping is and, according to the brothers, always will be different. Ironi-ally, it is partly because of automation on the production side that prototyping has
thrived the way it has. Finite element analysis and similar software have shortened
product development time dramatically, but automation needs real parts for testing and tryout, so the need for prototypes won’t disappear in the foreseeable future. And it will require that same creative thinking that Patrick Woody learned
while attending the Henry Ford Trade School. “Our dad was involved in the early
days of prototyping,” Kevin recalled, “in the late 1940s—its infant stage.”
The shop employs no “one-trick ponies,” as Kevin put it. Everyone is cross-rained and highly skilled, and their wages reflect it. The most junior employee
has worked at Auto Metal Craft for a dozen years. If a prototype needs to be
hand-hammered to form it exactly to spec, everyone has the know-how to get the
Five-axis laser cutting systems, NC machining, automated control of resist-nce spot welding parameters, and other advances have made the environment
a bit different from Patrick’s day. But at its foundation, prototyping still requires
skilled people to work with their hands and figure out how to make the part to
print, starting from scratch. CAD’s a big part of it (Auto Metal Craft is a CATIA®
shop), but the meat of the operation requires workers to get their hands into the
product and make it work.
And as the brothers explained, the business also requires honesty. Sometimes
t’s not just about making a part to print. A product may be able to be hand-hammered into the proper shape, but to reliably manufacture it may be easier said
than done. If the part has serious manufacturability issues, Auto Metal managers
let customers know upfront. Sure, they may lose some money on the immediate
job, but they’ll likely gain a long-term customer.
What will change is Auto Metal Craft’s customer mix, away from automotive.
t has to. The shop, like many in Michigan, has watched its fortunes fall with the
car business. It employs 28, down from a high of 50. Kevin pointed to a stack of
parts sitting near a workcell. “There’s a tragedy,” he said. “That was a competitor’s
job, and he just went out of business. He just gave up and threw in the towel.”
The brothers are making progress toward diversification. Although the most
onsistent revenue still comes from the automotive OEMs and tier suppliers, during my visit I saw several prototypes for the appliance and cookware markets,
and all required hands-on expertise. Employees working on a dishwasher, for instance, were starting hem flanges by hand before the metal was pressed by a tool
Tim Heston, senior editor of The FABRICATOR,
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The FABRICATOR® | An FMA Publication
www.thefabricator.com | July 2009
C Employees working on a dishwasher prototype start hem flanges by hand before the metal is
pressed with a tool.
In four or five years the brothers hope to double shop capacity, and filling it will
be work Auto Metal already does somewhat regularly: low-volume production.
The company has produced volumes in the range of 15,000 to meet demand for
limited-run products or to serve as a stopgap, providing parts for a product launch
before the customer’s production line is ready. The short-run work has ramped up
in recent years, and managers expect that business to grow over the long haul.
The brothers conceded that breaking into the low-volume business has been
n uphill battle. One challenge is plant layout. The shop’s currently split between two buildings a block apart. Kevin said he’d like nothing more than to get
all the shop’s technology—its five-axis laser cutting systems, hydraulic presses
(ranging from 400 to 2,000 tons), spot and arc welding, CMMs, and other equipment—under one roof for more efficient part flow. “But these buildings are paid
for,” he said. “And these days, that’s a good thing.”
The less-than-perfect layout doesn’t prevent the shop from taking low-volume
obs, and to prove it the company invites potential customers to take a tour. “If
they’re here, they can see our quality, and they can see we have the [low-vol-ume] capability,” Kent said.
As the company’s quality guru, he should know. Kent takes an old-school approach. He doesn’t use the quality buzz words. Instead, he goes by two things:
data and the scrap bins. “Any good quality guy looks at the scrap bins” next to
the workcells, Kent said. “That’s where you can tell what’s really going on.” Did
the spot weld pass the pull test? Was that hole in spec? The scrap pile tells Kent
the story. And then, of course, there’s the data, which drives everything at the
ISO-certified shop. If a customer requests CMM data, Kent is sure to get specific—exactly what data, and at what frequency?
After a look, Kevin chuckled. “And I just want to get the thing shipped. I
know I drive him crazy about it, but thanks to him, our rejects are way, way down.
We’ve built that reputation.”
Kevin and Kent are proof that opposites make a good management team.
Kevin drives for operational efficiency, while his brother ensures everything going
out the door meets or exceeds quality standards. The brothers also could be a
harbinger of a bright future. The U.S. car industry will never be the same, but
stateside manufacturers have a drive for efficiency and quality unmatched by
many in the developing world, and they happen to be located in the middle of
the world’s largest market. The product may cost more (again, “pick two”), but
overall project costs are less, because the project is right the first time.
“One of our customers was doing a lot of production in Mexico and China,
but now they won’t buy another thing [from those countries],” Kevin recalled.
“They found much better quality here.”
Here’s the funny part: That company’s headquarters is in Mexico. ■
Auto Metal Craft Inc., 12741 Capital Ave., Oak Park, MI 48237, 248-398 2240, www.auto