Manufacturer Has Added Value, Technical Capability for 75 Years by David Gaines, A Design-2-Part magazine - April 2014
A spring and wire form manufacturer in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania works at the leading edge of technology while staying involved with its community and offering customers a technical library, engineering assistance, and the services of skilled craftsmen.
A spring and wire forming company operating near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania offers quite a few value-added services for its varied customer base, one being an extensive library of manufacturing specifications and technical information that it makes available for free to its customers to help them select the right products for any given application. Ace Wire Spring & Form Co., Inc. (www.acewirespring.com) has manufactured custom springs and wire forms for diverse applications for 75 years. The family-owned company was founded in 1939 by Linda Froehlich’s father, and then taken over by her and her husband, Richard Froehlich, in 1976.
Ace Wire’s technical library provides a wealth of information on the chemical and physical characteristics of springs and wire forms including spring design, material selection, spring heat treating, and hardness requirements. Documents and drawings also provide data on how to select particular spring configurations, and there is even a Power Point presentation called Spring Design 101. In addition, there is a handy glossary of terminology related to spring design and manufacturing. A sample of the information is available on the company’s website.
“We have compiled books over the years in our office with a lot of design information,” said Bob Powner, the company’s design engineer. “I don’t think very many companies have technical libraries like ours. Our library has brought us a lot of additional work because we can assist our existing customers and prospective customers. We’ve been very diligent in maintaining this library with old and new knowledge. And the information keeps us from repeating mistakes. So this is something we do very well—answer technical questions and solve technical problems. Because these are all custom parts, our customers have specific needs and requirements. So when a customer comes to us with questions about their designs and concepts, we can share this information with them. For example, if someone has a high-temperature application, we can show them what the load loss will be when the temperature goes up. And we can send them information so they have an understanding of what could happen to their product under high heat conditions.”
Ace Wire Spring is located in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh. The ISO 9001 certified and ITAR registered company designs and manufactures a wide variety of compression springs, extension springs, torsion springs, conical springs, and wire forms. The spring company specializes in small to medium parts that it runs in medium to small volume production runs. It also creates prototypes and provides design assistance to its customers. The company’s main clients are in five primary markets: defense, aerospace, agriculture, medical equipment, and railroad transportation.
Advocating for Education in Manufacturing
A major concern of many manufacturing firms these days is the dwindling supply of skilled employees with the mechanical and computer skills necessary to work in a high-tech, digital manufacturing environment. Ace Wire Spring assists with several educational programs in its community to promote manufacturing training and education. The programs include the BotsIQ project, the Parkway West Technical School program, internships at local colleges, and working with grad students at University of Pittsburgh.
One project has the company teaching students how to read drawings and make tooling, the elements of creativity, and understanding the computers on CNC production machines. “I think our schools have failed some of these kids because there is a lot of talent out there,” remarked Linda Froehlich, the company’s co-president. “These kids have what it takes; it just hasn’t been recognized. One of the things we’re doing right now is working more closely with our local school districts and trade schools to train young people,” Froehlich added.
Ace Wire Spring is making an effort to get young people past the preconceived notions concerning manufacturing in general, and to let them know that there are many appealing opportunities in manufacturing. “With the experiences we’ve had with BotsIQ and Parkway West, we’ve been able to interact with the kids when they come to visit our plant,” John Higgins, the company’s marketing manager, remarked. “They can view the craftsmen interacting with our machinery, see the end products that are made, and how we interact with our customers. It also gives them an outlet to expand their imaginations. The last time the BotsIQ team came down here, they were bouncing ideas off of us about their robots. The kids wanted to know about the best way to design them, and how to power them. We want to give these kids the overall picture of what manufacturing is all about right now. We also get to bounce our ideas off of them.”
Back in the 1970s, Bob Powner knew he could get a job in manufacturing if he wanted one. “Nowadays, the schools stress that the kids should go to college,” said Powner. “It’s a good idea to go to college, but there are skilled jobs available in manufacturing right now. We want to show these kids that there are opportunities in the manufacturing sector. The kids have to know that today’s manufacturing plants are different from the dirty, noisy plants of the old days. The level of technology is very high these days, especially with the digital technology that’s available in a modern plant.”
Exporting Parts and Products Overseas
The company is totally tuned in to turning out custom work on a daily basis for many applications. Many of these custom products are exported overseas for a variety of different marketplaces. “Some of the countries we export to are France, Germany, Canada, Mexico, China, and countries in the Middle East,” said Powner. “We’ve been doing this exporting for quite a few years. There are companies here in the United States that build units for the overseas markets. They can be American OEMs that are doing business overseas, and there are also foreign companies that need parts. Some of the work comes from the internet, and some of it comes from companies we serve in this country.”
The challenges of exporting products overseas are many; however, Ace Wire Spring has been in the export arena for so long that its export efforts are efficient and routine. “I would say it’s mainly the paperwork, which has to be converted to metric,” Powner said, summing up the main obstacle. “We have NAFTA and ITAR parts that we have to deal with, and we have to deal with overseas brokers. However, the paperwork is pretty much cut-and-dry for dealing with the customs departments. I haven’t encountered any language problems. We’ve been doing this for a long time, so we’re pretty familiar with how to deal with this segment of the business.”
Ace Wire Spring is involved with several technical associations that enable the company to stay on the lead edge of technology and business practices in its field. These associations include Women in Manufacturing (WIM), Spring Manufacturer’s Institute (SMI), and Precision Metalforming Association (PMA).
“I’ve been involved in the SMI for a long time,” said Powner. “They help us stay on the cutting edge of technology. I can’t praise them enough for what they bring to the table for spring manufacturers. They have the latest OSHA requirements for safe shop practices, and they visit all of the spring manufacturers in the Pittsburgh area a couple of times a year to consult with us.”
Company co-president Linda Froelich works closely with the Women in Manufacturing organization, while she and John Higgins have involvements in the SMI and PMA. “From a marketing standpoint, the technical associations offer us opportunities for contacts and communication with many different people in our industry,” Higgins maintains. “Knowing what’s going on in the industry and hearing the thoughts of others in the group is beneficial. We can find out what the hot things are in the spring industry. On my end, a lot of the interactions are about information sharing.”
Journeymen Machinists Add Extra Value to Firm’s Technical Staff
Ace Wire Spring & Form enlists the efforts and skills of several of its highly trained craftsmen that are journeymen machinists. Besides setting up programs on the CNC machines, these craftsmen make tooling with conventional and CNC machinery. The younger machine operators really understand the computers, so the company tries to bring them up to speed on the materials and processes used for the springs. In this way, the younger employees can work toward becoming skilled craftsmen.
“We have highly skilled machinists that make our tooling, jigs, and fixtures for the coiling machines,” said Bob Jessep, quality assurance manager for the company. “These are mandrels, spreaders, and cutting tools that are needed for each machine. They can make dedicated tooling for any particular job in the shop. They also handle tooling in the bench department for secondary operations. In the bench department, we do looping for an extension spring, and also for making wire forms. Many of the wire forms are not made on machines, but by hand, by our craftsmen, which takes a lot of skill. We also do a little bit of fourslide work, but not as much as we used to do.”
Ace Wire Spring has been ISO certified since 1998, and achieved ISO 9001 certification in 2009. The ISO certifications have helped bring about greater quality levels and better business practices by way of extensive tracking and checking. “The ISO procedures state that from order entry to production to shipping, there are inspection requirements that have to be completed every time a job is in the shop,” said Jessep. “We always check the customer’s drawings to make sure we can fulfill their requirements. We do checks and balances to make sure that what the customer has ordered is on the shop order. Our inspections are carried out throughout each processing step, up until final inspection. And we have to make sure that our raw materials are certified. Also, any time we send a job to the outside to be worked on, like plating or non-destructive testing, we will get certifications on the work that was performed. We have to keep track of everything that happens to a part, and more. We have a lot of validations that go along with our ISO certification.”
Design Group Analyzes Projects from Onset of Production
When the company gets a new request in from an existing or new customer, it first creates a design group to analyze the design and manufacturing requirements. “The design group could be a couple of foremen, an engineer, and machine operators, so we can put together a game plan to achieve the product that the customer wants based on our manufacturing standards, Powner explained. “I’ve been in the business since 1976. In the old days, we just got together a quote, and then got the job running on the floor as soon as possible to keep the business,” he remembered. “But nowadays, because of the ISO requirements, we have business practices that dictate how the parts or products can be built efficiently and cost effectively for the customer. Therefore, quality issues nowadays are addressed upfront.”
As a design engineer, Bob Powner is all too aware of the need for upfront brainstorming before a project is initiated. With engineers on staff, Ace Wire Spring has no difficulty achieving high quality, efficiency, and cost effectiveness for its customers. “We can design a customer’s parts from scratch in-house, and, we also handle our own tooling design,” said Powner. “We feel that this is an added value to our customers. When the process starts, we go back into the design package and check into our tolerances, what we can hold, and what we can’t hold. We can work with the customer to meet his needs, but also to meet the requirements of our manufacturing practices. We want to catch the problems before manufacturing starts, and we do this by getting as much information as we can from the customer, and making sure the design package will work. If it doesn’t, we need to go back to them to see if we can modify or redesign it.”
Among the many industries for which Ace Wire Spring manufactures parts are agriculture, aerospace, military, medical, and railroad transportation.
“When you’re dealing with aerospace, the military, and medical industries, their requirements are very stringent and it requires a lot of communication,” said Jessep. “They often have tough requirements and close tolerances on their drawings. So this can create added paperwork, since they require a lot of extra certifications, and we also have to build in more processing steps, like increasing inspections, because their tolerances are tighter than industry standards. So all of this requires more time on our part. For some customers, we run orders two to three months in advance to make sure we meet their delivery dates because of all the testing and outside inspections that are necessary. Some of testing we do in house and some of it we have to send out. The in-house testing is usually load testing. We compress the spring down to a certain height and then measure the load, which is the force required to push it to a specific height. Sometimes, a customer will want real tight tolerances, so we will have to make sure all of their springs meet a specific load requirement. Repeatability is very important for this type of critical work. It has to be 100 percent correct.”
The spring and wire form company has several major quality control systems and safeguards in place to ensure quality on a repeatable basis for a mix of different parts.
“From order entry to shipping, we have standard production procedures that we’ve developed so everyone knows what to do on any particular job,” Jessep affirmed. “As far as the safeguards, on an annual basis, we initiate a third party ISO audit by a registrar. He comes in and takes a day to go through our procedures to make sure we are doing what we say we are doing. And I perform internal audits on our quality management system every year for all of our procedures. These are the overall safeguards for our quality control system. We have a whole book full of QC procedures in the office, as well as on the shop floor, and each workstation has their own job procedures. We don’t have QC inspectors floating around the shop. We want to make the machine operators responsible for their jobs while they are running them. We do, however, have an inspector who does the final inspections on each part that goes out the door.”
75 Years in Business
Ace Wire Spring is celebrating its 75th anniversary in business this year. We asked Powner what it takes for a company with so much longevity to stay in business and remain successful for so many years.
“Our customers expect great continuity from Ace Wire because we’ve been around for so long,” Powner said. “We have people that call us and say, ‘I used to bring work to you 30 years ago, and you’re still here.’ We’re still offering the same high level of service that we offered 39 years ago. We’ve seen many changes in the last several years, especially in the reduction in labor because of technology. This is a cost savings for our customers, so it’s a tradeoff. We keep on offering our customers better service and better quality. Years ago, we had machines that took 13 setups to make a particular part. Now we have CNC machines that can make a complete part with one setup. I’ve seen a lot of big changes in the last 20 to 25 years, after computers came into the shop.”
John Higgins has also seen, during the past couple of decades, many changes in how springs and wire forms are manufactured. “We’re able now to quickly respond and communicate with our customers with phones, email, fax, the internet, and social media compared to how it was many years ago,” said Higgins. “The company has been family-owned for several generations, so it’s taught us how to solve a customer’s problems quickly. We have a lot more communication and customer service flexibility than we had in the past. I’ve been here about two-and-a-half years, and what I’m seeing and hearing from people that have been here for a long time is that we now have a lot of tools and digital technology, so we can stay at the forefront of our business. We’re now able to make high quality products even better than before.”