Many of the same trends that are impacting American industry--including faster cycle times, greater levels of customization, and the creation of more value-added services--are beginning to impact the enclosure business. Hoffman's Del Nickel talks about some of the strategies and technologies his company has implemented to meet the growing needs of customers.
Design News: Customers today think of themselves as a market of one rather than as a market of many. How is Hoffman and the enclosure industry in general responding to this new mindset?
Nickel: Hoffman's new enclosure manufacturing facility in Sterling, KY, is a good example of how we are organizing ourselves to meet the changing demands of customers. At this facility, we can build and ship a standard enclosure with custom modifications in less than two days. That cycle time is all the more impressive when you consider that, historically, the industry required 6 to 8 weeks to ship an order.
The time savings is critical because one of our challenges has always been that enclosures don't get "fitted up" until the end of the electrical design, which means that the design engineer doesn't know the exact sizing and requirements for the enclosure until he knows the final requirements of the design. Then, the traditional scenario has been hurry up and wait, especially for any custom work.
We've been able to slash time out of our process by taking a standard product and offering our customers a defined set of modifications, such as different holes, cutoffs, flanges, and bottoms. We then feed that information directly into the front end of our manufacturing process. In essence, we've created a build-to-order, rather than the more traditional build-to-stock operation.
Q: What physical changes have you made in the manufacturing process?
A: The biggest difference you will notice is that we have a lot less inventory on the line, and we've been able to eliminate it by moving toward a pull-type system and incorporating the concept of manufacturing cells. Now, for example, instead of storing different lengths of material on the line, we have a cut-to-length cell. To improve the flow, we've also added automation to some parts of the process. For example, by putting laser cutters at the front end of most of our major lines, we've eliminated long setup times. New automated welding and grinding technology also allows us to build enclosures with a better form, fit, and function than manually fitted-up enclosures.
Q: In addition to time savings, what are some other advantages of going to a flow-through process?
A: In a word--choices. We're able to offer our customers a wide variety of paint selections, hole configurations, and other modifications. And, we are able to provide these options at a consistently higher quality than the customer would get if these were after-market modifications.
Q: As cycle times shrink, information flow becomes a critical part of the process. How is customer order information handled?
A: We've just launched our new, CD-based electronic product selector, but soon we will be importing that information to the web. Ultimately, what we're working toward is a whole slate of web-based configuration services. A customer would simply dial up the connection on our web site, pull down CAD drawings for a particular catalog number, select the important variables--such as size and material--and make special modifications to the drawing through a reconfiguration menu, and at the push of a button transmit that information directly to our manufacturing operations.
Q: How did you determine what modifications customers want and need?
A: Given its long history, Hoffman has a huge database of customer information. We've also done a substantial study of our principal markets in automotive, petrochemical, food processing, and the textile industry to understand what customers want and need. One thing we learned was that customers wanted more rapid delivery of enclosures, and we gave them that. We also know that customers in different markets have different needs, and this information is helping us tailor our product offerings to meet their exact needs. It's no longer a "one-size-fits-all" market.
'It's no longer a "one-size-fits-all" market.' Del Nickel has been president of Hoffman Engineering since 1996. A graduate of North Dakota State University, where he earned a B.S. in electrical and electronic engineering, Nickel has been a driving force in reducing cycle times, increasing the customization of standard product platforms, and adding a variety of services to the company's electrical and electronic enclosures business. Prior to becoming president of Hoffman, Nickel held the position of vice president of sales and marketing. He previously held sales and marketing positions at Allen-Bradley.