Over the past few years, “digital transformation” has been considered the golden ideal for progressive manufacturers. The idea is that, to position your company for long-term success, you must begin transitioning traditional processes, equipment and systems over to smart, data-driven technologies of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things.
For Polamer Precision Inc., however, this process is much more than an abstract goal or a matter of long-term positioning. In an industry short on skilled labor and thick with low-cost competitors, digital transformation is its core strategy to remain competitive (and in operation).
“Our competition is not that of your usual, everyday company,” explains Chris Galik, Polamer president and CEO. “We’re competing pretty much all over the world—South Korea, India, Poland, China. So the cost of our parts and being competitive is very important not just on a national level, but worldwide.”
This is a particular challenge here. The 23-year-old Connecticut-based machine shop produces high-precision parts and critical engine components for the aerospace industry. Which means the company faces stiff competition in the U.S. for machinists and operators with the skills necessary to produce these parts, plus the wildly fluctuating raw material costs required for them. Together, these factors could easily double the cost of production compared to low-cost counties.
This is where Polamer’s digital transformation strategy comes into play.
The company’s 152,000-square-foot facility in New Britain, Connecticut, has technological mastery fused to its very bones—from the solar farm on its roof designed to offset energy costs to the state-of-the-art machines across the floor to the cloud-based software driving efficiency throughout the entire operation.
“When we designed this facility about seven years ago, we tried to keep in mind what we represent as a company today and what the company is going to be 10 years from now,” Galik explained as we first walked out to the shop floor during my visit. “What you are going to see here is the transformation of our company.”
This, it turned out, was a literal statement. The massive manufacturing floor is laid out like a timeline of digital transformation. Upon entering you’re first met with the past—the company’s very first machine tools, as traditional as it gets and showing every sign of 23 years of work. But that past stretches quickly into the future, culminating in a block of immaculate Mazak cutting tools and automated cells, all of them boasting the latest, smartest and most intuitive of today’s technologies.
And laced throughout this visual journey is evidence of the real digital power driving the company. Every machine, new or old, is equipped with a touchscreen monitor displaying a detailed dashboard of real time information about everything from machine status, tool wear, part quality and process efficiency, plus blueprints, gauges and every possible asset an operator could ever need to produce top quality parts.
This is perhaps the most important element of progress in this plant. Over the last few years, Polamer has implemented Plex’s cloud-based ERP system and threaded it through the entire operation, providing exactly the kind of full transparency and process visibility most companies are still only dreaming of.
The payoff for this advanced system came fast, Galik recalls.
From a continuous improvement perspective, he says, there seemed little room for growth before this system was in place.
“We knew how long it took to complete a job, so if the operator finished in that time, from our perspective, there was nothing wrong with the process,” he explains. “But now we can measure performance and measure utilization. When we started looking at that data, we realized that the spindle was only on 50% of the time and 50% of the cycle time was going to changeover or measuring the part.”
To Galik and his team, this signaled that there was ample room for improvement. With the technology they now had at their disposal, explains Kyle Herold, vice president of finance at Polamer, “you don’t need that expert operator to stand there and open the door and remeasure and make adjustments anymore.”
Rather, by automating these processes, Polamer was able to streamline operations to cut out this significant downtime through cycles, allowing operators to be redeployed to pursue more essential, value-add work.
The result, Herold reported, was stunning, reducing 10-hour operations consistently down to just five—essentially doubling capacity in the facility.
Under most circumstances, any program that yields such dramatic uptime or capacity increases as this would put the company in the running for an IW Best Plants award. But for Polamer, this was just one step toward a larger process.
The automation potential of these systems and machines significantly changes the need for human intervention in the process. Whereas the old tools often required individual workers and a lot of expertise at every machine, Galik explains, now a single operator can manage operations across 10 machines, which take on all the high skill processes themselves.
This fact has fundamentally changed Polamer’s approach to talent and, in the process, provided it with a key strategy to overcome the skills gap.
“There are now two different skill sets that we require,” Galik explains. First, he needs “the best of the best machine operators” to define the machining processes and develop standards and operations for each job. But, for actual machine tending and tool changes, these rare skills are no longer required at Polamer.
To that end, the company is dividing its workforce, moving those high-skilled individuals into a “full blown research and development facility” set up in the company’s previous headquarters, and filling the production facility with a fresh workforce that does not yet possess the high-demand skills most machine shops still require.
“Where your average company out there is looking for five-axis machine tool operators with at least five years’ experience, we picked up a couple of guys from McDonald’s,” Galik says. “I’m not exaggerating—they were literally flipping burgers and they became the most productive operators on these machines.”
This strategy has resulted in two essential assets for the company, each carrying its own profound ramifications. First, it allows the company to develop a core group of engineers and quality control personnel who can control machining operations and standards, which allows Polamer to create some of the best quality and most complex projects this industry demands. Then, by staffing its production facility with unskilled labor, Polamer is open to a much wider talent pool than any of its competitors, allowing it to grow as rapidly as the market demands, which has led to a 130% increase in production staff over the past three years alone. Better still, this provides Polamer with its own pipeline to train up tomorrow’s skilled machinists right from its own plant floor.
This also lays out a model lesson in digital transformation. The result at this point isn’t driven by technology alone—Polamer is using state-of-the-art digital technology to amplify and extend the experience and expertise of its high-skilled workforce across the entire company, fueling operators of every skillset and every background.
“Anybody anywhere in the world can buy the same machines and the same equipment that we have, but they will never get to that next level,” Galik explains. “You have to be surrounded with people that are capable, people who are going to be there for you. The core of people we have here are exactly that.”
Photo caption: Automation is key to Polamer Precision's talent strategy. Here, a Palletech system runs parts through everything from machining to QA without human interaction, allowing just four operators to tend 11 different machines simultaneously.