Alfmeier Friedrichs & Rath LLC

The year 2009 was a do-or-die period for many companies. In the manufacturing world, where a company’s strength is largely dependent upon the health of other industries, an economic downturn could have devastating effects. But as Alfmeier Friedrichs & Rath LLC (AF&R) proves, bad storms can be weathered if the proper strategy is in place.

Eric Sheriff, the production manager and process development manager at AF&R, says that 2009 was
an unfriendly year for the company and the manufacturing industry as a whole. However, through some aggressive pushback in 2010, the company has made moves to ensure growth into the future.

“It has caused us to rethink how we function as a team locally and globally,” Sheriff says. “[We] need to ensure our customer and product base is diversified [and] reevaluate what we need to do in order to be as cost efficient and productive as possible to outperform our competition.”

Aggressive Plans

In North America, AF&R operates three manufacturing facilities. The 40,000-square-foot Greenville headquarters established in 1994 houses corporate functions and R&D. It’s also a manufacturing powerhouse with 20 assembly lines, 18 injection molding machines, on-site mold maintenance, and on-site air, test fluid and fuel testing services. This facility is also ISO 14001 certified and has 100 percent functional testing capabilities of all its products that are manufactured.

The Anderson, S.C., facility opened in 1997 under Friedrichs & Rath (F&R) and is comprised of 90 employees managing a TS 16949-certified operation. It mainly produces technical components for AF&R with its 37 injection molding machines, four machines with two-shot capability and a clamp force reaching 20 to 500 tons capacity.

In 2002, Alfmeier acquired American Components Inc., establishing its presence in Mexico. The company says the facility in Monterrey supports its “aggressive growth and globalization strategy.” The plant manufactures services for all of AF&R’s client sectors.

“We are a very close partner with our Anderson and Mexico facilities,” Sheriff says. “During most weeks someone from Greenville is at one or both of these locations supporting in various roles.”

In addition to its manufacturing locations, the company has a sales and marketing team that is based out of an office in Troy, Mich.

Between its three manufacturing locations, AF&R offers the following core products for customers in the automotive, biotechnology, irrigation, electronic and sensor markets:

  • High precision molds;
  • Precision plastic components;
  • Valves, pumps, actuators;
  • Printed circuit boards; and
  • Industrial services such as engineering, assy and machinery testing.

“We manufacture upon request, holding some safety stock in case of order fluctuations or unforeseen emergencies,” Sheriff says. The company also serves as an OEM in addition to its series products.

“Typically, our product line is in series production five to seven years before phasing out,” he continues. “Through dedicated program management, we review end of production periodically to ensure we have new products to backfill platforms that are phasing out.”

New Bonds

Arguably, the biggest change the company has faced in efforts to stay competitive was the partnership formed between Alfmeier and Friedrichs & Rath (F&R) in 2010 to form the AF&R that exists today. The joint venture is a mutually beneficial endeavor to “cross-pollinate” capabilities and create one strengthened North American-based company, as Sheriff explains.

“Alfmeier is a lean organization with developed processes and mature systems,” Sheriff says. “[For instance] Toyota Production System is embedded into all areas of our organization [as well as] an eye to recognize and eliminate waste or muda. F&R has almost zero assembly and has had to turn business away because of this deficiency.” However, Sheriff notes that F&R is “highly automated with its molding operation. They are years ahead of [Alfmeier’s in Greenville, S.C.] technology-wise.”

Through the partnership, AF&R hopes to achieve four major goals:

  • Increase sales and leverage synergies;
  • Increase assembly presence;
  • Improve molding capabilities; and
  • Begin or improve implementation of a lean culture at all facilities.

In the future, AF&R seeks to leverage its skills and resources into manufacturing for the industrial and medical sectors. Two years ago, Alfmeier added the agriculture equipment maker John Deere to its client list. Today, AF&R continues to supply several products for the brand’s lawn tractor equipment, and though Sheriff says the volumes are low, it’s a start to future growth. Also, the company is filtering through medical manufacturing opportunities to determine which applications would best fit its portfolio and capabilities.

Two for One

Complete integration of two separate entities is always a complicated undertaking, but it helps that the newly formed AF&R is comprised of two companies that speak the same language. Both Alfmeier and F&R derive from German-based parent companies with international presence in Europe, North America and Asia. The two have heavy specialties in manufacturing for the automotive industry.

Helping to alleviate the strain of merging, AF&R maintains nine primary measurable processes that it tracks and reviews to ensure it is focused on reducing or eliminating downtime and improving internal and external quality. One measurable is its safety record. The company documents all lost-time accidents, but hasn’t needed to log any for the past four years – it boasts more than 1 million man-hours without a lost-time accident.

Other measurable processes in­clude monitoring waste or muda from molding and assembly, and tracking inventory accuracy, inventory turnover and freight premiums, which are all associated to cost. Others are related to delivery and include downtime during molding and assembly, achieving production schedule and maintaining an on-time shipping performance.

A crucial measurable is quality, which is maintained through working with suppliers who share the same manufacturing philosophies as much as possible and applying lean automated processes such as the TPS system. “As a TPS company one of our tools is our jidoka system,” Sheriff says. “This quality system empowers our associates to raise the flag when they encounter non-standard pro­cesses or material. Their findings are recognized and rewarded during our monthly plant-wide team meetings.”

The people behind these processes are absolutely the largest component in delivering quality. AF&R relies on hands-on, one-on-one training for new associates who are promptly partnered with veterans in the company. Because of the company’s standardization in equipment, processes and instruction, training can occur at an accelerated speed. “Our people are loyal, mature, professional and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done at all levels of our company,” Sheriff says. “This was proven again during 2009 through the tough decisions and sacrifices that were made by all in order for us to survive the poor economy.”