All the pieces

“This Norton cutter-grinder which had been specially adapted to grind cams on the motor shaft for the electric dry shaver which this New England plant normally produces, has now been converted to grind permanent magnet rotors for machine tool motors. The conversion was accomplished with new jigs and fixtures and slight changes in the head. This is a tricky job well suited to the skill of this plant’s workers. The metal is alnico and the octagonal shape consists of surfaces which are arcs drawn from the center of the piece.
Schick Inc., Stamford, Connecticut” 1942
Source: Library of Congress.

One of my favorite online magazines, Modern Machine Shop, published its third article since 1990 on the tool and die making company C&A Tool Engineering Inc.

What’s new?

Actually, there is nothing new. The technology is well established. The management principles are not revolutionary. The worker training is standard.

What does it mean?

A tool and die maker makes the tools, dies, fixtures, jigs, molds, and other physical objects that are needed to produce the physical objects sold to customers. For example, plastic buttons are made either by injecting plastic into a mold in the shape of the desired button or by cutting a sheet of plastic into the desired shape which is then polished. In the first case, the process starts by making a mold, into which the plastic will be injected; in the second case, the process starts by making a die, which is the tool used to cut the plastic sheet. A fixture holds an object in place during the manufacturing process. A jig guides an object while it is moved in the manufacturing process.

The objects made by a tool and die maker are thus custom made for the particular production process.  The object may be a variation of previously made object, but its making requires knowledge and skill often built up by years of apprenticeship and experience. Also these objects often must be made to meet exacting specifications.

Tool and die work is highly skilled and such makers require respect and independence in order to do their work. A tool and die maker uses computer controlled machines, but the work cannot be automated because each item is custom made. A tool and die shop is a highly sophisticated job shop, but it is still a job shop, not a mass manufacturing process.

Unusually, C&A is a tool and die company, but also does production work, that is, it also makes products for customers, not just the tools that make the products. Usually companies focus either on tool and die work or on production work.

Over years of growth, C&A has designed its plants and processes well, considering carefully the layout of the buildings, for example, to promote flow of product (as much as possible in a job shop), to promote the useful interaction of people, and to support future expansion.  Machines are selected carefully and upgraded to keep up with developments in the industry; the company C&A has, for example, has moved into additive manufacturing. C&A has also watched its business side carefully, and has moved from producing automotive parts and surgical instruments into producing medical devices and aerospace parts. C&A training is done with the local vocational training school and on-the-job apprenticeship; cross-training is emphasized.

But what really strikes me about this company is its ability to combine principles of efficiency, profit, and decency, as seen in this excerpt from the MMS article, explaining why C&A mixes tool and die work with production work.

“The mix was good for the people in the shop, and what is good for the people in the shop is good for business. Tool and die work builds skills; production jobs build proficiency. Tool and die work can be challenging and a change of pace; production jobs provide continuity and just enough routine.”

One of the earlier MMS articles has this quote from Dick Conrow, the company founder: “If people know their jobs and have the right tools for the job, then all I have to do is get out the way. I don’t have to run the place.”

And a 2012 article in Northeast Manufacturing News outlined the C&A philosophy on upgrading equipment: “C&A’s general philosophy is to purchase equipment before there is necessarily a specific need for it,” enabling the company to learn and be prepared for jobs it otherwise could not take on.

What does it mean for you?

This company doesn’t do anything that any other company can’t do, but C&A puts all the pieces together and has done so successfully for 51 years. In the three MMS articles, author Mark Albert (Editor Emeritus, Modern Machine Shop) attributes C&A’s success to its adherence to principles, such as treating workers with respect rather than trying to control them, organizing the work to support teams,  and using production work to continue to learn about tool and die work.

The founder, Mr Conrow, retired in 2018, but the new manager is continuing to use those principles as the company moves further into “digitalization, globalization and integration.” The leadership vision for C&A involves knowing how to establish and hold onto important principles, while adapting those principles to new realities. Whatever the mission of your organization, the important role of leadership is to identify and follow guiding principles, while knowing when and how to adapt and change.

Some caveats are necessary. I yield to no one in skepticism, so it may be that the workers at C&A would have a different tale to tell about the company’s workplace environment, but I also yield to no one in my optimism that such work places can and do exist. C&A was sold in 2018 to a Japanese company, MinebeaMitsumi Group. Will C&A be able to hold to the principles established by Mr. Conrow?

Where can you learn more?

The three MMS articles about C&A are here:

The company’s web page also has more information.

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