Quality and Precision

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-By John Boley

Mett Pty Ltd is engaged in the manufacture of automotive components and is a leader in aluminium high pressure and gravity die casting in Australia.

The company was established in 1983 with the goal of building and maintaining a state of the art manufacturing facility; today it employs more than 220 people at its Noble Park base in Victoria and generates a current turnover of $71 million. The company’s plant maintains its primary diecasting manufacturing capabilities whilst undertaking precision high speed CNC machining and complex automated product assemblies.

Mett is “100 per cent automotive industry,” says Markus Schoelderle, Technical Sales Manager, and strives to support customers within that demanding industry through the provision of high quality tested products at competitive pricing and a commitment to continuous improvement with a strong focus on customer service.

Victoria remains the national centre for the automotive industry, Markus agrees, although Holden retains its presence in Adelaide. “I would say that Victoria or more specifically Melbourne is certainly the hub for the automotive business,” with Ford and Toyota in addition to Holden’s engine plant in Port Melbourne. The state’s government has done a sterling job over many years to promote this specialised expertise to the rest of the world and Markus says this continues through issues such as the impending carbon tax.

But Mett is not too dependent on local production anyway. Around 80 per cent of its business is export, much of that to General Motors plants around the world – from North America to China, Thailand, Austria, Sweden, Korea and South America. If you are not familiar with the automotive industry you may not be aware just how many manufacturing and assembly locations a giant such as GM has, with the same engine or vehicle (sometimes with many different badges for different markets) being made in multiple locations.

Just one example: for Holden at Port Melbourne as well as for one of the plants in Canada (St Catharine’s, Ontario, a powertrain plant which from 2012 is also scheduled to make a new extra fuel-efficient six-speed transmission as well as the Gen III V8 series engines and the 3.6L and 2.8L HFV6 engines that are shared with Holden), Mett makes the V6 front cover assembly containing the front cover casting itself which is fully machined, containing water pump, tensioner, and cam position sensor in a sealed package and various bolts. GM staff basically just take that front cover and apply a sealant, then place it straight onto the front of the engine and torque it down with the supplied bolts. “There is no further assembly that they have to do.”

The company’s operations are supported by its sister company Hilton Tooling, which is internationally known for its technology and capabilities in the design and manufacture of precision tooling. Through this connection, Mett is able to further service customer projects from tool design, 3D-modelling, prototyping and solidification simulation through to CAD/CAM based die manufacturing.

Mett presently has 14 closed loop Buhler high pressure diecast machines ranging from 400 to 1,400 tonnes. All machines are closed cells including dosing furnace, NC die spray, ABB robot for product removal, quench tank and trim press. Supporting the foundries, Mett has three melting furnaces with an hourly output of 9,000 kg per hour. The gravity plant features five Laempe core making machines utilising the relatively environmentally friendly and energy efficient inorganic binder process, Hall stand-alone tilt casting machines and two eight-station carousels. All have a robot for product removal and support equipment such as shakeout, shot peening, robotic cut off and impregnation equipment.

Mett currently has a total of 40 horizontal machining centres, including one fully automated machining line with robotic loading and washing facilities. Other individual cells are supported by robots or operators depending on the product and volume requirements. There is also a dedicated high pressure de-burring machine for machined valve bodies.

Mett sometimes deals direct with a GM subsidiary with engineering headquarters in Detroit on design and development. But once it comes to quality and start of production, everything is channeled through what is known in the industry as Advanced Product Quality Panning (APQP), a structured approach to the design and development of new products and manufacturing processes, designed to ensure that suppliers understand the requirements of their commercial clients, end users and consumers, the proposed product or process design satisfies those requirements, and the supplier has the ability to consistently meet the clients requirements for quality, cost and delivery.

The APQP process was developed by a consortium of automotive companies, first published by the Automotive Industry Action Group in 1994, and has since been adopted by many companies involved in the design and production of vehicles and component systems. APQP is now recognised in quality standards as a probable customer requirement, and when specified becomes mandatory for all component suppliers.

The automotive industry places extreme stress on its suppliers in terms of consistency and quality. Markus says that level of quality could only be achieved by Mett “through years and years of refining our processes as well as implementing automation wherever possible. It also goes back to the links between Mett and Hilton, especially in the fact that we design our equipment in-house.” That means everything is under one roof and can be quality-controlled to the appropriate high degree. Customers come to Mett with the design for their product; Mett then inputs the design and development of tools and dies to make it. In addition, says Markus, “we have the capabilities to do prototyping. We can machine prototype parts, though it depends to what level companies are looking. We have also got other companies that do sandcasting and prototyping. We can support either method from here.”

The industry demands fast response. Carmakers work on a ‘just-in-time’ basis and usually do not want to see components enter their assembly plant until a few minutes before they are required on line, something that puts extra loads on the whole supply chain. Similarly, carmakers want new products, components and subassemblies developed fast. “You have to be able to respond very quickly to customers,” Markus says. “Give them what they want, exactly when they want it.” Mett’s own suppliers get used to the same demands as they are communicated all the way down the supply chain. “That is the nature of the business; the automakers have got to be quick to launch their products and obviously that gets pushed down the line to suppliers.”

Mett will choose local suppliers wherever it makes sense but sometimes a product or component is already in production elsewhere, in which case it is not commercially viable for the company to set up local manufacture of an item. “But wherever possible we try and get local suppliers on board, providing they can not only be cost competitive but also support us in terms of quality and lead times.” So in the case of the V6 engine front cover detailed above, Mett makes and machines the cover casting itself but not bolts or cam sensors, or the water pump or tensioner, each of which come from its suppliers for assembly by Mett before shipment to either Port Melbourne or St Catharine’s.

Markus understandably avoids comment on the recent debate over Holden’s future in Australia (as a manufacturing presence), which crops up on a cyclical basis. The company is in any case geared to supply worldwide, in a wide range of volumes. Minimum annual volume for a particular item might be as low as 8-10,000, but generally Mett prefers longer runs. “We are geared to high volume, now more so with the export side of the business and the size of the business as it is.” Markus says the business logic for a set volume can be computed on the price a customer is willing to pay (and in the car business, the auto companies have developed such thorough purchasing practices that they pretty much know what things cost before they ask) and the complexity of the part in question, as well as factors such as: can the item be manufactured in a single run, or will numerous short runs be required? More runs means more set-up costs, which affects the price. It’s a complex calculation.

Certainly the auto industry, using its enormous size and global purchasing muscle, is notorious for trying to get the cheapest components. Markus points out that this is an indicator of Mett’s abilities to produce the product at the price and still make a living. Quality? Mett has won Supplier of the Year titles from GM. “It means a great deal,” says Markus with pride, “being recognised as one of the best 150 or so suppliers globally not just in our commodity. It also covers the logistics, machine tool building, direct and indirect suppliers to GM. So out of their entire supplier base and companies that they purchase services and products from, to be one of those top 150 shows that we are on the right track, being globally recognised for that in all areas of business. And to receive it numerous times is certainly a tremendous achievement and is a tribute to the people working for us.”

Mett will retain its roots here (despite some fashionable talk about this country being finished as a manufacturing location). “We look on the positive side of things. Everybody is in control of their own destiny. We have a good manufacturing base; we need to make sure that we retain it and if anything expand it, rather than seeing it going overseas,” says Markus.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 3:53 PM AEDT