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Tuesday | 01 September, 2009 | 5:34 am

Strong roots

By Lisa Rummler

August 2009 - When Don and Art Tufts founded Tufts Grinding Inc., South Chicago Heights, Ill., in 1983, the company had three employees (two of whom were Don and Art), and it occupied a building that was about 2,000 square feet.

Today, Don’s children are in charge--Bryan Tufts is president, and Dan Tufts is vice president of operations. They lead a staff of 20, and the business operates out of two facilities, one 40,000 square feet and the other 12,000 square feet.

Tufts Grinding provides turned ground and polished, as well as turned and polished, steel bars. The company also offers chamfering in carbon, alloy and stainless. Capacities range from 0.5-inch diameter to 6-inch diameter and up to 40 feet long.

"It’s still family-owned, so it’s focused on the customer," says Bryan Tufts. "None of that has changed. Because we’re still a small, family-owned business, we’re nimble. We can react to customers’ needs, most often, much quicker than the larger companies and our competitors."

In July, Tufts Grinding was nominated for Loyola University’s Illinois Family Business of the Year award.

The company has also evolved over the years. In addition to increasing its size and staff, it now has turners and straighteners, whereas it used to have only grinders.

Additionally, Tufts Grinding is now nearly paperless, and it uses a highly automated enterprise resource planning system.

"Our inside salespeople can enter an order by our customers’ part numbers, and then the system takes over from there," says Tufts. "It determines how much and when to purchase material, and it then tells production when and where to run the material. The system collects all of the labor through bar scanning to give us accurate, real-time job costing."

But the single biggest change at Tufts Grinding occurred four years ago, when the company implemented lean manufacturing.

Charting a course
"We realized we were kind of stagnant, and we were no longer growing, and it took a little while to figure out what we needed to do and what changes needed to occur," says Tufts. "We talked to a number of consultants, then we talked to one who put us onto lean. That just made total sense for us--it was a perfect fit."

Tufts says lean manufacturing has been a boon in terms of streamlining processes and reducing costs. In regard to the latter, he says the system has helped cut down work-in-process inventory to a few hours.

The benefits of lean manufacturing have also trickled down to customers, according to Tufts. One example is that the company’s on-time performance is 98 percent. Another pertains to consistency.

"Before our lean initiative, the quality would vary based on the operator who was running the machine," says Tufts. "By improving our training and installing best-practice methods that were developed by the operators, we have removed that variation."

In addition, lean manufacturing has enabled Tufts Grinding to develop a one-of-a-kind process that has nearly eliminated work in process.

"You won’t see another place that operates the way we do," says Tufts. "We have, typically, about an hour’s worth of work in process that goes from machine to machine. There aren’t piles of steel anywhere. It just flows through. With traditional mass-manufacturing--the way we used to do things, and the way that most people do--you run one machine as fast as you can, as much as you can, and you make a big pile of steel until it goes to the next machine."

Now, though, Tufts Grinding has limits for each machine. If one gets ahead of another downstream, it shuts down.

"[Another] thing that makes us unique is that by having that kind of flow, we don’t run in a cycle," says Tufts. "We run strictly to customer demand, and we will change sizes as often as the customer needs."

Many companies run in a size cycle to reduce their setup time, but Tufts Grinding decided it no longer wanted to operate that way.

"We spent a lot of time and effort to reduce our setup times so that it doesn’t matter," says Tufts. "If you have to jump sizes around, and if it doesn’t take you long to do that, then why would you need to run in a cycle?"

Since Tufts Grinding began implementing lean manufacturing, it has more to offer customers than just a steel bar, says Cliff Chase, vice president of sales.

"The quality and consistency of our product, the on-time delivery and our flexibility allow us to respond to our customers’ requests," he says. "In a market like what we’re in today, our customers need a supplier that can react quickly."

Driving force
The main industries Tufts Grinding serves are distribution, fluid power, energy, agriculture and construction. End products include hydraulic cylinders, pump shafts and anything that needs a bearing to move up and down a bar.

Tufts Grinding has looked to its customers to determine different areas to explore, as well as new offerings to provide.

"Basically, where we’ve gone has been driven by customers," says Tufts. "They tell us what to do, what to get into. Over the years, they’ve brought us into bigger diameters, longer lengths and different products."

The most recent example is stainless steel--Tufts says customer demand is pushing the company in that direction, and he expects to see growth in that area.

One company that has played a role in the success of Tufts Grinding is Stelmi America Inc., Marshall Mich., whose focus is hydraulic piston rod stock. Stelmi was founded in 2001 and began making shipments in 2003. It has worked with Tufts Grinding ever since.

Steven Dodge, president of Stelmi America, has done business with Tufts Grinding for more than 20 years, both through Stelmi and while at other companies.

"The products I’ve always worked with Tufts on have all been chrome-plated or surface-treated products, and they require, essentially, a flawless steel bar," says Dodge. "When you’re plating a surface, any discontinuity on that surface is cause for rejection. And Tufts knows this. It’s probably the hardest application there is for a producer of T, G and P products. And they went right at this market, and the challenge of it just appears to have made them better."

Specifically, Stelmi buys full-length, 24-foot-long, turned ground and polished bars, according to its customers’ specifications.

"I’ve found Tufts to be very customer-aware--not just responsive but aware of what’s needed and what’s expected," says Dodge. "Lots of people are familiar with their customers, but to have an awareness takes you a step further. They’re a first-class supplier."

Dodge also says he looks forward to continuing to work with Tufts Grinding and that he thinks the company’s founders passed down several important traits to the new generation of leaders.

"They have the skills, they’re honest and they care," says Dodge. "The growth at Tufts Grinding has never surprised me because [with] talent, honesty and focus, you grow. And they have and will most likely continue to do so." MM

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