Any conversation these days with a corporation usually begins with the question of how it is handling the current pandemic. Though the situation is bleak now, management at Samco Machinery can see a silver lining in all of this.
Samco Machinery, a North American organization, continues to be a leading manufacturer of roll forming and material handling solutions to multiple industries. Some of the industries it serves include automotive, metal building and construction, transportation, storage, energy, and consumer products. The company currently has clients in 35 countries around the globe.
The company has seen tough times, but has always pushed through adversity, resulting in a position better than before. Samco President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Repovs and Vice President of Engineering Gerry Birmingham are already talking about the eventual brighter future.
A changing environment
Like many companies, Samco introduced numerous internal changes in response to COVID-19. Staff had to get used to online meetings, remote working, and heightened safety precautions within plant operations. One clear drawback for international sales is that customers are no longer able to visit any time they want. Birmingham said while this is a relatively short-term drawback, many prospects and existing customers have responded by embracing online technologies, resulting in very effective presentations and productive discussions. The frequency of online interactions is at an all-time high, whereas these calls were somewhat of a novelty before.
“I think the industry will continue to innovate in the areas of engagement,” he said. “This will bring the reach and efficiency of world trade even closer. With improvement in communications and video streaming, Samco can be conducting business naturally, as though everyone is in the same boardroom. Companies want to get back to business, and we wouldn’t have had that degree of adoption were it not for everything changing as rapidly and as globally as it has.”
The roll forming lines Samco creates are so complex that they require training and support for start-up and traditionally, customers would be present during the validation process to make sure the machine and finished product will do everything it is supposed to do. Prior to shipping, there was a formal signoff with the customer. Presently, not even Samco’s USA-based customers can cross the border for that process.
The company responded to that, not by using COVID-19 as a crutch, said Birmingham, but by evaluating opportunities to work around the isolation and keep the business going. Now the signoff and support are performed remotely.
“With a lot more patience from the customer, we are able to get that process to work well for us,” said Birmingham. “We had challenges early into it, but have been able to develop ways to keep things moving forward and so far, it’s working.”
Breadth of services
The company provides an impressive list of rollforming services around the world. It offers solutions for metal framing, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), pre-engineered buildings, electrical distribution, and garage doors for the construction industry. It builds parts for racking and shelving, including four-sided shelves from blanks or coil. It supplies the solar energy industry with rollforming systems to produce ground posts and subassemblies. The automotive industry also sees the benefit of Samco systems, with solutions for simple or complex parts.
Samco’s services also include design, project management, logistics, and product development support. Working with customers is essential to its operations and has been since it was founded by Repovs’ father in 1972. As an ISO 9001 certified company, Samco Machinery has very defined steps to machine development. The team’s over-arching Project Management process has 13 distinct phases which not only ensures clear communication between internal teams but also with the customer, who can clearly understand the current status of their project at any stage of development.
Everyone at Samco takes customer input very seriously. “Working with the customer is huge; it’s helped us tremendously and it’s built into our process,” Repovs said. “We work very much face to face. We are very collaborative, and want the customer to be part of the solutions. It’s not just us taking an order and then seeing them six months later.”
Utilizing Industry 4.0 standards and, in particular, “smart” technology, will also help Samco go far toward achieving complete customer satisfaction, according to Birmingham. The company is focussed on making machines that can communicate their productivity and health status, giving customers more specialized information through internally developed software.
Birmingham gave the example of a customer who faced challenges with high levels of metal scrap. In the past, when a machine was producing out of spec product, it would have to be shut down and adjusted manually. Samco is working to create technology that allows the machine to adjust itself while working to change its measurements and monitoring the output.
In such cases, the machine can now determine when it is approaching control limits and automatically adjust accordingly. And while it is doing that, the machine can even determine whether there is an issue with the raw material it is using – whether it is too wide or narrow, thick or thin. Some customers even want this valuable information to track and pass along to their suppliers – for example, to manage the balance between conforming product and achieving maximum lineal footage rather than purchasing simply by weight
“If you’re wanting quality control information, then you’ll have the capabilities to collect this info on the fly and post it out,” said Birmingham. “We are finding more and more customers are homing in on unexpected failures or undesirable downtime that sets them back. They want to get back on track as quickly as possible.”
Like any new technology, this is not without its challenges, and in the beginning of its embrace of Industry 4.0, the company spent a great deal of capital in research with essentially no return. Two of the big challenges faced by roll forming manufacturers are:
1) From an engineering point of view, customers are asking for higher speeds and complexity in product design. The industry standard for speeds requirements are also increasing rapidly. Line speeds of some of the roll forming machines can reach 500 ft/min. These speed requirements can be very challenging for roll forming manufacturers, especially when the process requires high accuracy in rolling, punching and shearing.
2) As customers require their workforce to do fewer repetitive tasks and have more production uptime, automation capabilities need to be more stable and predictable. Roll forming manufacturers must build in or design around the unpredictable part of the automation process.
It’s all about the customer
According to Birmingham, customers are becoming more interested in knowing if the machines are running normally or trending toward possible failure. Samco has been consistently working with its customers over the past few years to better understand these needs and has started implementing engineering design changes to move customers toward the experience they seek. The Samco Machinery team was so motivated to fulfill this specific customer requirement they created a new department that is solely focused on controls development.
Historically, roll forming manufacturers had one electrical department but now manufacturers like Samco are breaking it down even further with special focus in three distinct areas – circuitry design, software development, and configuration and start-up. “At Samco, we have been consistently reorganizing our development areas in that direction,” said Birmingham.
The roll forming manufacturers must work even closer with their suppliers that are specialized in developing products with enabling technologies. “These suppliers could be developing very useful proprietary software to monitor their product’s performance, but the roll forming manufacturers must somehow merge all these different proprietary software applications into one cohesive roll forming application, which is what Samco is doing,” said Birmingham. “Our principal task was filtering out all the buzz in exchange for what is important to our customer. We have attended dozens of ‘lunch and learns’ and product presentations. It’s a lot of vetting and by constantly asking ourselves, “does this have any significance to our customer? It keeps us focussed.”
“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘How can we add value for our customer?’” agreed Repovs. The internet of things, for example, is not only becoming an essential part of machinery building but has grown to be enmeshed as a way of doing business – in this case around a pandemic – giving remote access and machine monitoring an even greater role.
“It’s controlled chaos sometimes, but everything is unique,” said Repovs. “We take a lot of risks, and over the years, we have put a lot of effort into operational processes and have tightened up our communications and process improvement in terms of how we grow a business. Our customers are always our partner and we work with the customer right from the initial discussion phase to understand their requirements and provide engineered-to-order solutions specific to their needs and budget.”