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Anton Hirsch of Cobra Metal Works: providing innovative approaches to machining airbag components.

More Than Machining Millions of Parts Per Year: How Cobra is Competitive

Here's a look at how imagination, teamwork, and machining skills are making this second-tier supplier a successful competitor in contract manufacturing.

Although it seems as though success in the automotive supply community is to be found through pure business plays, such as acquisitions and partnerships, there is still much to be said for straight-forward specialization, or the ability to do an outstanding job at one's intended task. One example of successful specialization is Cobra Metal Works (Bensenville and Franklin Park, IL), which was established by Anton J. Hirsch nearly three years ago. ("Cobra?" Hirsch says his wife came up with the name; they like the way it sounds.)

Hirsch had spent more than 20 years in the contract machining business. He'd been with a firm that specialized in aerospace parts that switched to automotive. Recognizing that there were plenty of opportunities for someone who had an understanding of tooling, setups, and machining, Hirsch decided to start his own company, specializing in producing turned components for auto airbag igniters. Cobra supplies part to the leading airbag suppliers in the industry (e.g., Autoliv, Takata, and AlliedSignal).

On the Team

In a comparatively short period of time Cobra has grown to having approximately 100 employees and 60 CNC machine tools. One of the fundamentals of what has becoming an increasingly successful operation is that the people within Cobra work as members of teams. These teams are formed at all levels of the organization.

For example, although Hirsch is involved in setting up each of the jobs that Cobra has, he isn't alone in this effort; he is joined by the quality manager, the production manager, and the purchasing manager, all of whom work as a team.

There are teams on the factory floor who run the jobs, following the procedures that are clearly documented. However, the shop floor teams are encouraged to find better ways of processing parts. Whenever one of the teams believes that it has identified an improvement, it is presented to a team consisting of both management and shop floor personnel who make a determination of whether the process should be modified.

Flex & High Volumes

Generally, Cobra is producing parts that have an annual volume in the one million to 1.5-million range. Although they are running what are truly high production volumes, Hirsch insists that it is better to use CNC turning equipment rather than dedicated automation, such as a rotary transfer machine. He explains this position by saying that in one instance, they were running a part with a production volume of 30,000 pieces per week. They ran the job for eight weeks. And then there was an engineering design change to the part. "We changed the CNC program and a couple of tools, and we were back up," Hirsch says, adding, "We couldn't change over a rotary machine fast enough."

Another advantage he notes is the ability to buy more of the standard machines for the price of a single rotary machine (he says the ratio is about 4 to 1). "If we should lose one of the machines," he says of the CNC turning machines they use, "we won't shut the customer down."

Still, the machinery that's used at Cobra isn't of the deep-discount variety. Hirsch says they don't subscribe to the concept found at some shops that the "best deal" is the best way to go. The initial purchase price may be good, but they are looking for equipment that can reliably do the job for the long run.

One of the types of machines that is a mainstay at Cobra is the BNE series from Miyano Machinery (Wood Dale, IL). It features two spindles and two turrets (one with 12 tool stations and the other 10) and is capable of performing five-axis machining. The BNE 51S model has a 2-in. bar capacity on the left spindle and 1.65 in. on the right. There is a 15-kW motor on the left and a 5.5-kW motor on the right; the spindle speed is 133 to 4,000 rpm.

One of the benefits Hirsch cites is that the tooling configuration allows attacking the parts from a variety of angles. What's more, he points out that the software permits overlapping moves to occur, thereby saving seconds during the machining cycle. Every job performed is done in a single setup, which may involve milling (via live tools) as well as turning.

The Importance of Procedures

They're generally running hard and heavy at Cobra: 24 hours per day, six days per week. To help minimize the possibility of losing a machine through unanticipated downtime, they have an aggressive preventive maintenance schedule for all of the equipment in the plant: daily, weekly, monthly, biannually.

An interesting point about Cobra: the company became QS9000 certified after its first year in business. "I wanted to get it right away," Hirsch says, explaining that he felt that it was important to grow the company with procedures in place rather than adding them later. These procedures help assure consistency, which is certainly important in running airbag components.

For example, as previously mentioned, changes to process sheets can't be made without approval from a team. "There may be eight machines running one part; the parts have to be produced identically," Hirsch says. He notes that if one person thought that he had a better way of doing something and simply made a change to the process, there would be no assured way of capturing this change. Consequently, there would be inconsistency—something that they can't afford at Cobra.

To help assure that the people at Cobra understand the importance of making good parts all the time, the message is made quite simple: "We tell them if they don't make bad parts, the company makes more money"; if the quality requirements are met (they chart and post internal and customer rejects so that everyone knows what's what in comparative real time), then all of the employees receive quarterly bonuses. Good parts mean more money for one and all.

Developing People

When asked about the type of people that they look for to become part of the Cobra team, Hirsch's answer is somewhat surprising: they aren't looking for experienced machinists but, rather, people who may have been working at McDonald's. The new hire undergoes a two-week training program (gaging, reading prints, learning machine operations, etc.), and works closely with other Cobra team personnel to learn the requisite skills.

A benefit of hiring inexperienced people is that because they don't think that they know everything about machining when they come in the door, they are more likely to ask the types of questions about why things are done the way they are that can lead to improvements.

The experience is a good one for all involved: employee turnover is minimal.

One of the things that Hirsch has been able to leverage is his expertise in the form of not only know-how—he has honed his skills in setting up jobs to optimize throughput time (which is one reason why he likes twin-turret machines)—but also in terms of "know-what" and "know-who": he knows what companies are out there looking for supplier sources. For example, he'd heard that one part supplier had dropped the ball on a program. Hirsch knew that the buyer for that program was going to be visiting Cobra, so because he knows what the part was, he setup a machine to produce it. During the tour of the Cobra plant, when they were at the machine he'd prepared for the part, Hirsch had the buyer press the "Start" button. The part was produced. In two weeks' time, Cobra was ready to run production.

It's that kind of innovative thinking and quick response that make Cobra a keen competitor.