If you are involved in any way with part design, you should check out Gerald Davis' column in The FABRICATOR. He spent 2010 talking about 3-D CAD tips and tricks while creating the plans for a barbecue grill. This year he's exploring the role 3-D design can play in a fabricator's business success, and with his February 2011 "Precision Matters" column, he has begun the discussion of designing better in-house tools during those times when new orders have slowed a bit. In particular, he's talking about designing shop carts.
Shop carts don't sound like an exciting end product, but they are in pretty much every shop I've ever set foot in. As a pitchman used to say about his tires in a television commercial that aired in my youth, "They don't smell good. They ain't pretty. But everyone needs 'em."
In his column, Davis explained that early in his metal fabricating career carts often were thrown together with whatever scrap was lying around. Size of the cart depended on what metal remnant was available for the tabletop.
As he pointed out, times have changed. The amount of scrap metal is minimal, so a lot of random projects simply don't happen when downtime and the availability of ample material occur. In today's manufacturing world, everything is measured and accounted for.
But shops still need carts, and that got me to thinking: In a way, shop carts reveal a lot about a metal fabricating business.
For instance, shops that fabricate their own carts probably are businesses run by those that love making all kinds of stuff out of metal, rather than shops run by business types, who find that managing the financial side of the business is more thrilling than building complex metal parts. After all, if a metal fabricator can't build a cart in a quality manner, can it build someone else's project?
On the other hand, other shops purchase their carts. That suggests to me that perhaps the shop is perhaps too busy to worry about fabricating non-revenue-producing jobs or that it believes those that specialize in cart design should be left to produce the best carts possible. In a day when shop floors are a key element in marketing to new and existing customers, professionally made carts also can be a nice addition to a clean and modern-looking manufacturing environment.
What about those shops that fall somewhere in between? I visited GenMet, a Mequon, Wis.-based metal fabricator and winner of The FABRICATOR's 2010 Industry Award, in late 2009. That shop used old grocery carts that it picked up for a few dollars to move WIP around the shop floor. It was inexpensive and fit in perfectly with the company's lean manufacturing environment, where common sense was the weapon used to eliminate waste from the shop floor.
In reality, most shops probably fall into more than one category. After all, metal fabricators need to be many things to many customers in many different industries. It's going to be difficult to pin them down.
However, I love the idea of asking a metal fabricator this kind of Barbara Walters-type question: "So, if you could be a shop cart, what kind of shop cart would you be?"