Smith & Wesson's Springfield, Mass. factory is a plant in transition.
After housing production for the past 63 of the company's 160 years in Springfield, the factory floor has collected a mix of technologies spanning the centuries working side-by-side to produce the company's iconic firearms.
"Some areas look like a factory that just opened yesterday and some areas look like a factory that we opened in 1949," said Mark Smith, vice president, Manufacturing & Supply Chain Management at Smith & Wesson. "It's an interesting contrast."
For those attending the Excellence in Action Tour of the 575,000 square foot facility on July 24, this will provide a rare glimpse at some of the machines and practices that have made the company great -- including at least one machine with a Pratt and Whitney asset tag from 1906.
"We're standardizing what equipment we buy, which makes maintenance a heck of a lot easier, which makes spare part storage easier and spare part planning easier."
- Mark Smith, vice president, Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management,
Smith & Wesson
The opportunity for this glimpse will soon pass, however, due to a company-wide initiative to update production to modern standards and to create the flexibility it needs to compete in today's ever-shifting market.
"The firearms environment is volatile, as is any retail environment," said Smith. "So we're subject to all the whims of the market."
For that reason, Smith & Wesson began an aggressive modernization process in 2010 to pick up production and provide the tools it needs to cope with those whims.
"A lot of the activity we've been focused on in the factory in the manufacturing environment these last two years has been around flexibility, both in terms of mix -- making our machines and our processes more capable of shifting between product lines depending on market demands -- and flexibility in throughput -- being able to react to the peaks without going bankrupt in the valleys."
To satisfy the first step of this has meant upgrading those old machines to multi-function, standard equipment capable of flexing to fit demand shifts.
This initiative doesn't end with machines, though. Smith & Wesson has committed itself to bringing the whole of its operations up-to-date to provide utmost flexibility. This includes taking out another vestige of past production: the gunsmiths.
Smith & Wesson is one of America's most recognized brands. In its 160 years, it has become synonymous with quality and precision in firearm manufacturing. Though its product line has since grown to include pistols and Thompson Center Arms, the mystique around the company is centered around one classic product: the revolver.
In this sense, it's satisfying to learn that until recently the quality of these revolvers were determined by the precise hand-crafting of expert fitters.
"Until about two years ago," said Smith, "we had all of our revolvers hand fit by essentially gunsmiths. They would hand fit every single revolver made in the factory to the exact standards, literally with files and mallets."
This was skilled labor in the extreme, he explained -- a product of an 18 month apprenticeship program that trained fitters to finish each piece by touch and feel.
This is, of course, a rather dramatic throwback to a time when machining capabilities and tolerances weren't what they are today, requiring the company to purposefully enlarge the specifications for some of the component tooling to allow the fitter room to file it down and hand fit it.
While this anachronistic system did much to preserve the company's historic mystique -- and offer a neat piece of trivia -- it did so at the cost of the flexibility Smith & Wesson is trying to achieve.
A MODERN SYSTEM
"There has been a big initiative around getting away from hand fitting and going into an assembly line type process," Smith said. "After two years, we have transitioned almost 100% away from fitting."
This required the company to standardize the process -- turning what was considered gunsmith expertise into high-speed, low-skill work.
"We basically got a couple of fitters in a room and observed them. We watched what they were doing and it turns out a lot of this was standard process, it just had never been documented anywhere."
So, he said, they standardized the process and documented it and incorporated those practices into a new, modern system.
"Instead of having a bin full of parts in front of them and expecting them to know what pin goes on which yoke, for example, we separated them all, labeled them."
Now, he said, when a frame comes down, a scan tells them what SKU it is, which automatically illuminates lights under each part they're supposed to pick. This turns the extremely high-skilled, labor-intensive operation into an assembly job that any new employee could be trained to complete in under two weeks.
"It has been an unbelievable transition," he said. "Not only has it saved the company a ton of money in labor, it has removed our dependence upon a small number of employees."
MAINTAINING THE MYSTIQUE
This process has required the company to perform a rather delicate balancing act.
"One of the major concerns and barriers of going from fitters to assembly was the question of if we are going to lose our mystique. Are we going to lose that quality the brand is based on? We wanted to make sure that we didn't lose any of that when we went over to the new process."
As they worked through the process, he said, they tracked quality metrics "religiously" to make sure that any issues that popped up were resolved to the root cause.
The result of that effort can been traced in the warranty returns, he said. Smith & Wesson, of course, offers a lifetime warranty that allows customers to return arms if they encounter any issues.
"I'm happy to say that we've seen a vast decrease on our warranty return rates since we've done this," he said. "It's been completely and utterly transparent to the end."