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Grinder builder rolls in Clover.

The distaff side of the Doaks family needs to be dissuaded from the delusion that American machine-tool builders stopped innovating at the same time the Japanese started mass producing CNC lathes. At a recent meeting of the Doaks board of directors, Aunt Abby said she heard from a lady at the builders' meeting that real estate is a better investment than being in the machine-tool business...unless you happen to be a distributor for an Oriental machine builder.

In this day and age, analysts and writers seem to lump whole sections of life into broad categories. Then they pronounce them either good or bad. This creates a dangerous situation for board members who are out of their specialty. They could conclude that everyone in a given category has the same shortcomings. Certainly not everyone who puts money in real estate gets rich. Nor does everyone trying to build a better machine tool lose money.

To support my argument that not all machine-tool builders are going downhill, I dug out my notes and pictures from a visit earlier this year to Clover, SC. If the editor of this learned journal will publish them, I'll use that to persuade Aunt Abby that this is still a viable industry.

Long, long trail a winding

In 1978 I reported in this column that Regal Beloit was installing in their Mitchell, IN, plant a battery of Huffman grinders. These machines have eight axes under CNC to finish grind end mills in one setup. Mitchell is not exactly the crossroads of commerce and industry, but it was there that I met Stan Huffman whose company had developed this new system. He extended a cordial invitation to visit his factory in Clover, SC, where he puts it all together. Unk Herb suggested that the visit would be interesting if we only found out what attracted Stan to Clover. He quipped that bards and bees are renown for their interest in fields of clover, but it sounded a bit off-beat for a machine-tool builder.

In seven subsequent years we met at machine-tool builders' meetings and SME meetings as speakers on programs, but I never went to Clover. Yet on each occasion I learned that this guy in Clover was always in an upcycle while the prevailing trend of the industry was down. He was adding capacity. Huffman didn't fit the downhill category in many ways.

Well when I called him to check on something else, he reminded me that I promised to come and visit. It is just 30 minutes from the Charlotte, NC, International Airport.

There is no place like home

Why Clover? His Dad was on a troop train that stopped here in WWI, and he met the girl of his dreams and came back after the war to marry her. They moved north (Stan met his wife at Ohio State), but Stan always liked coming here to Grandma's. He's been to some big towns and heard some big talk, even worked for some big companies, but when it came to starting his own in 1961 this seemed like the right place.

The S E Huffman Corp's first building was a trailer. Call that Building A and the latest building is Building Q. They have buildings on both sides of the main street. The street has railroad tracks down the middle. The research department is in a building that used to be a gas station. This is not your run-of-the-mill machine-tool builder's factory.

A couple pictures on my tour will be of historical significance. One shows the old assembly floor with the work-in-process going on elbow to elbow behind a broom. Unk Herb made all the classic wisecracks about that, including the fact that the low ceilings meant low overhead. Another shows the first machine being built on the new assembly building floor. You can't see the overhead crane, but you can see more open floor space than will ever be seen again. The perimeter of the new building is equipped with coolant and electrical services handy to each machine to be laid down and built up. There is a customer inspectors' lounge for those who come in to watch their machine being run off. There are second-floor offices for Huffman software people who numbered eight at the time of my visit.

This added capacity is necessary to accommodate steady growth in the market for their state-of-the-art machines with software to match. By growth we are talking 17 machines in 1980, 53 in 1984, with 73 planned for 1985 and over 100 for 1986.

Family-oriented organization

Stan's son, Greg Huffman, is the president of this company. But the family orientation doesn't stop there. Many of the hundred employees are related to each other. There are even five families of Laotian origin that came through connections with a local church. Huffman provides a vacation trailer at Myrtle Beach for employee families to enjoy. With the number of employees passing the 100 mark in 1984, those facilities must grow too. You get a clear reading that employee loyalty is a family matter.

It is no surprise in touring the facilities that Stan knows everyone by name, except a couple of new hires that started the week before when he was out of town. They're greeted with a welcoming hand and an exchange of friendly smiles that indicate they have met his reputation before they met Stan.

Man does not live by salary alone, so bonus and pension plans are an important part of a philosophy that rewards performance rather than extracting duty by overbearing surveillance. People who know what they are supposed to do don't have to be prodded to do it when they can see they are playing on a winning team.

Though Stan credits Greg with much of the sustained growth, it is clear that he relies heavily on Ernst Borchert, vice president, operations, to keep the place organized and running in a manner consistent with the commitments they make.

These commitments include a modest admission that they are the world's leading manufacturer of CNC grinders and will continue to set the standards of the industry. Software is the critical factor in this claim. You have to be awed at any machine that has eight axes simultaneously under computer control. You will certainly think it gutsy to reach beyond their standard software packages and consider each sale an obligation to satisfy the software requirements unique to each customer's particular installation. This is an "Our family cares about your family" theme that goes beyond the popular image of the classic American machine-tool builder.

Hands-on approach

Another aspect of the Clover tour that impressed me was the user orientation that was evidenced in many ways.

(1) The cabinet that surrounds the work zone of their machines was originally designed with vertical access doors. The new design has an inverted L shape so the ceiling of the cabinet is open when you roll open the doors. Now there is no coolant dripping on the operator when he loads and unloads workpieces.

(2) Programmers at some machine-tool companies are not given the opportunity to actually operate the machines they program. At Huffman, they benefit from that experience. This makes it easier to be what the computer people call user friendly.

(3) Though this is a relatively small builder company, the research-lab people have a Huffman grinder to study probes, servos, feedback, abrasive jet dressing, filter systems, and whatever auxiliary systems represent challenges to the success of a real live installation.

(4) These machines are filled and painted to gleam like a fine motor car. The idea is that the people who operate these machines will have as much pride in this package as the people who built it. Users report that their people wipe them down and keep them shining.

An important benefit from this hands-on experience is that the company can sell more than a pile of iron that the user must figure out for himself. He also gets software, training, and service.

Hall of Fame

While this fledgling builder first made fame with an eight-axis CNC machine, an accomplishment that you would expect only from a giant in the industry; they also make seven-, five-, and four-axis grinders, and software packages for end mills, reamers, step tools, milling cutters, form tools, pencil mills, and other special tools. They have also adapted their five-axis machine into a CNC laser driller/cutter (Currently 40 percent of their business). Aerospace materials resistant to conventional machining methods need CNC precision when being processed by laser beams.

The real message for Aunt Abby is that the American machine-tool builders are not stupid. The folks in Clover have customers in England, France, Germany, Japan, Israel, and Brazil, who are grinding all sorts of rotary cutting tools on machines made in the US. Now at Huffman's they take a Polaroid picture of all their visiting dignitaries, date it and hang it in one of the many halls that connect the people in their many buildings. Circle 674.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:S E Huffman Corp.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Oct 1, 1985
Words:1502
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