From Surviving to Thriving with Manufacturing Automation

November 11, 2015 | American Manufacturing

Marlin Steel invests in manufacturing automation to increase productivity. Marlin Steel is a company that heavily invests in manufacturing automation to increase productivity, reduce waste, and improve employee safety. A while back, Inc. Magazine ranked Marlin Steel among the top 200 fastest-growing private American manufacturers.

Much of Marlin’s recent success can be attributed to the integration of new employee training programs and the adoption of manufacturing automation. Recently, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) featured Marlin Steel on their website in an article titled “How SMEs in the Know Win with Automation.”

The article features not only Marlin’s current success, such as “seven-fold revenue growth since 1998,” it also highlights how Marlin moved from being a near-Dickensian factory that relied on hard, dirty, and dangerous manual labor to becoming a better, safer, and more productive company.

How did Marlin make the change from manual labor to automation, and why? Here’s the story.

The King of the Bagel Baskets

When the company first moved to Baltimore in 1998, Marlin Steel was known as the “King of the Bagel Baskets.” The company relied on manual laborers to make bends in pieces of steel wire to create cheap, commodity bagel baskets for bagel companies across the U.S.

As Drew Greenblatt, Marlin’s company President, states in his interview with the RIA, “we had eight guys whose sole job it was to hand-bend wire. They did about 300 bends an hour for 8 or 10 hours a day. These guys had big right arms from doing the same thing over and over again, sometimes for years. It was mind-numbing work.”

The work was dirty, dangerous, and exhausting. On the old factory floor, injuries were a common occurrence thanks to mishaps with sharp steel wire ends. Some workers were missing fingers, or even eyes because of factory floor accidents. But, production kept chugging along.

Soon enough, however, Marlin was forced to change, or else it would have to close its doors. The invasion of ultra-low-cost commodity bagel baskets from China that were cheaper than the cost of the steel needed to make them, combined with the near-overnight death of the bagel store industry thanks to low-carb diets, left Marlin bereft of customers to sell product to.

If Marlin Steel couldn’t find a new market to sell to, it would eventually become another extinct American manufacturer. Fortunately, inspiration for change was soon to come.

Ensuring Marlin’s Survival by Adopting Manufacturing Automation

While company management was trying to find a way to keep Marlin’s doors open and its workers employed, a fateful call came from a Boeing engineer who was looking for someone to make a load of parts washing baskets for aircraft parts on short notice. Unlike bagel baskets, these new baskets had to meet tight tolerances with consistency.

After some trial and error, the order was filled, and Marlin had found a new market segment that valued quality and speed of shipping more than price. However, meeting the demands of this market with consistency would require the company to change from what it once was.

As the challenges of the Boeing job proved, it would be almost impossible to consistently meet the millimeter tolerance requirements of precision industries with manual labor alone. No, Marlin needed the consistent precision that only advanced factory automation could bring.

Soon, Marlin Steel was adding wire bending robots and CNC punch machines to the factory floor. To get the best results from these machines, Marlin also began to invest 5% of its payroll budget into employee training so that workers would know how to use and maintain the machines at peak efficiency.

By doing this, Marlin was able to enter a whole new market, eventually growing sales to seven times what they were in the “King of the Bagel Baskets” era. Although the initial reason for the switch to automation was merely to survive, the change has proven enormously beneficial to the company.

As Greenblatt says in his interview with the RIA, “the alternative was extinction. There’s no future in hand-bending bagel baskets… Every other day, we get a flyer for an auction for a company that’s gone out of business. You either get the best state-of-the-art technology or, ultimately, your company will go away.”

Thanks to investing in state-of-the-art technology, and committing to the training needed to use it to maximum effect, Marlin Steel is a stronger, faster, leaner custom steel wire form manufacturer than ever before.

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