SI takes a look at: RCBS.
As did so many of his contemporaries in the fledging days of reloading, Fred Huntington made products because he couldn't find what he wanted on the commercial market. From there one thing sort of led to another. Since the company began before World War II it has grown to cover almost every base of reloading but his first product, the Rock Chuck Bullet Swage, gave the company it's name. Today, RCBS is the biggest maker of reloading equipment in the country.
RCBS grew and prospered under Fred's leadership for thirty three years until it was purchased in 1976 by Omark Industries. Omark was building a small dynasty on the shooting business with their acquisitions and the purchase of RCBS complimented their ownership of Speer Bullets and Cascade Cartridge Co. (CCI). Later Omark would acquire Outers Laboratories for their gun cleaning and care products and Weaver for their scopes. As is so often the case these days, Omark's success made them a takeover target as well and, in 1986, they were acquired by Blount Industries, an Alabama conglomerate.
One of the major reasons that Blount was interested in Omark was their success in applying management and manufacturing principles imported from Japan. In fact, when Blount Industries decided to diversify into manufacturing they inquired in Japan and Omark was identified as one of the best managed American companies. The system, known by the acronym ZIP, for Zero Inventory Production, has made Omark and RCBS much more efficient and has had a dramatic affect on the reloading market as we see it. The best evidence is found in the price of a set of carbide reloading dies. When, in December, 1987, RCBS cut the price of their dies by 30%, it created something of a storm in the industry. Other companies had accomplished significant price cuts by changes in the design of their dies, but RCBS did it by improving the efficiency of their manufacturing methods. One often hear comment was that, if RCBS could afford to cut the price by 30%, they must have been making obscene profits before, but this was not the case according to ArtPeters, RCBS Product Manager. He reports that the economies offered by ZIP and a complete overhaul of their production system is responsible.
I had the opportunity to visit their Oroville, California home recently and was truly impressed by the efficiency of their manufacturing operations. ZIP is really much more than just not maintaining inventory, it goes all the way through the manufacturing process with practices that seem to depart radically from conventional manufacturing theory. The factory is laid out with a series of small production lines that are usually dedicated to a single product (or convertible form one to another) that carries it all the way from raw material to packaged goods in a surprisingly small amount of space. The Uniflow powder measure is a great example for I watched powder measures made by one man. Raw castings, from a vendor, come in the back door and are delivered to the line that has equipment needed for the milling and grinding operations needed to finish them. From there the parts move a few feet to a bench with a series of bins that contain the other parts. The same operator assembles, inspects and packages right there.
Everyone knows that maintaining substantial inventories of work in progress or finished goods is costly and the entire ZIP system depends upon keeping inventory to a minimum. At the RCBS plant about the only place you see inventory is in the shipping department and even there, there isn't a great deal. Each item has a predetermined inventory level and, when it is depleted to that point, an order goes to the manufacturing floor to make some more. Using their experience in selling reloading equipment, RCBS is able to predict with accuracy the quantities of a particular product they will need and gear production to those demands. Since almost all their products are made in relatively to increase production of any flexibility to increase production of any product if sales require it.
One of the keys to the success of the ZIP program is having dependable vendors. RCBS orders steel on a daily or weekly basis and chooses their sources with care. They work closely with suppliers to predict their needs., The same is true for the raw castings that form the basis of the presses and some of the other tools. The casting house works closely with the RCBS staff to be sure that needed material arrives in a timely manner. In their choice of vendors RCBS is obviously concerned with the price, but this is not their sole consideration and they often chose vendors whose price might be slightly higher if they can provide better quality or have a proven ability to meet the stringent delivery requirements imposed by the ZIP system. A vendor who can't meet those schedules is not going to have RCBS's business very long.
The suppliers with whom they do business can count on regular orders but RCBS doesn't have to pay for material until they need it. In effect RCBS is letting someone else carry their inventory. This saves money too.
RCBS sells more dies than anyone so the production line is quite a bit larger and uses a few more people, but it operates on the same principles. One operator tends several machines that do the drilling and reaming necessary, but RCBS has integrated an interesting quality control practice into manufacturing. There is a part counter on each machine and although it can run unattended, it stops after twenty dies are made and the operator is required to gauge the last part. If it is in spec, and it usually is, he restarts the machine and goes about his business. If it isn't he makes the necessary tool changes or adjustments and inspects the rest of the parts. That way scrap is significantly reduced, for if a cutter breaks or something else goes wrong the worst result will be nineteen pieces of scrap.
In fact, since production lots are small there has been an overall increase in quality. Manufacturing processes are carefully designed so that the fixtures and operations will not accept parts that are out of tolerance. This is in keeping with another of the Japanese philosophies where, "one operation drives the next." This requirement sets the tone for all operations and demands that each be performed correctly. Another of the imported plans, "Just In Time" schedules production runs so that parts arrive at the next operation just as the equipment is ready to work on them. This means that there isn't inventory of work in progress sitting all over the floor. No matter how you look at it, that saves money.
There's another significant benefit to the programs. From a human standpoint it promotes a feeling of craftsmanship because it is not uncommon for only a few employees to take a product all the way through production to finished goods. So, instead of being responsible for only one small operation, the worker has a real sense of accomplishment. Art Peters drew the parallel between the worker on an assembly line whose sole responsibility it is to tighten one bolt as something goes by on an assembly line. "It's very hard for that individual to have a sense of pride in his work," he said.
I'm sure that most of you are familiar with the RCBS line and don't think we need to spend a lot of time talking about the basic products, but there are several new items, and ideas, that are worth looking at. By now most of you have seen or heard about the RCBS Piggyback conversion that turns their Rockchucker or Reloader Special 3 presses into a progressive loader. This is one of the cleverest products I've seen in some time and it also represents a real economy for a customer who wants to be able to load larger quantities of ammunition without having to invest in a separate press. For dealers there's a really handy freestanding display that is available with a variety of products that puts things out where the customers can see them instead of in a drawer behind the counter. The display uses blister packaging for smaller items and contains the other popular products in a setting most conducive to impulse purchase.
Art Peters explained their active dealer support program. RCBS can provide dealers with information that will help them sell reloading products. In conjunction with their distributors they also offer marketing programs that have some extra discounts or other savings, (such as drop shipments) that will save the dealer a little money. RCBS can supply point of sale literature or dealer fact sheets and their sales representatives are available to assist dealers in setting up, or improving, their marketing of reloading products.
There have been some complaints directed at RCBS by small dealers who complain that mail order houses and discounters often sell RCBS products to the public for less than they can buy them from distributors. Catch 22. As we talked about this Peters referred to a pile of catalogs and price lists from distributors and one of the major mail order dealers. He picked one RCBS product and, sure enough, the mail order catalog offered it at a price below normal dealer. But then he picked up a distributor catalog that was offering a special on the same item considerably below the mail order price. While there is no easy answer Peters has a couple of suggestions that will help. "Buy smart," he said, "and carry in inventory the most popular items (RCBS can tell you what those are). Remind the customer who mentions the mail order houses that he will have to pay shipping charges and wait. Customers are famous for wanting something immediately and you can't sell it to them if you don't have it. With aggressive buying you can often come close to, or beat, the discounter's price."
Located in a back corner of one of the buildings is the RCBS Custom Die Department. Bill Keyes is in charge of the nine man department and is regarded throughout the industry as one of the most knowledgeable men when it comes to making dies for exotic, obsolete or wildcat cartridges. And he has the collection to prove it. One wall of his area is lined with small parts drawers that contain over 3100 different cartridges. If Keyes has a cartridge he can make a set of dies for it and the chances are good that no matter how unusual the request they have either already done it or can, by using combinations from their 700+ reamer inventory, make it. And, since RCBS has their own facilities for making reamers they can usually do it in a timely manner. Custom dies can be delivered in 6-8 weeks if they have the reamer in stock but if a special reamer is required delivery can be 3-4 months. Even so it's a good deal for the customer who wants to make his own wildcat and RCBS freely admits that the custom shop is a customer service. The customer only pays half the cost of a special reamer and custom dies cost between $60 and $200 depending upon their complexity.
RCBS also has an active R&D program that is dedicated to solving problems for reloaders through new or innovative products. For obvious reasons they don't want to talk about what they're doing but I think it's safe to say we will see some neat things in the future. They also have a corporate goal to continue to improve quality and reduce cost. They've demonstrated a commitment to pass these savings along to the customer whenever possible.
Another factor that can not go unnoticed is the availability of a toll free phone number (1-800-533-5000) for either consumers or dealers who have questions or problems. They may talk to Jay Postman, who has probably forgotten more about reloading than most of us will ever know. You may have seen his picture in some of the RCBS ads; he's the guy who looks like Santa Claus, but he has over thirty years experience in the business and is available to help consumers with problems concerning either equipment or use.
You may also have noticed that the advertising from the various reloading manufacturers has heated up a bit in the popular gun magazines. This is a good sign, for your customers will notice and that may prompt some sales... or at least talk. RCBS has been running some well done three page ads lately that begin with the words, "Once and for all, we'd like to separate RCBS from all the B.S." That got some attention. Of course there were a few who were offended by the abbreviated profanity but Art Peters commented, "aggressive advertising is good for the industry." I think so too, although I was surprised to see one of their competitors state in an ad, "RCBS doesn't give a damn about their customers." It's one thing to tell the customer your product is better (especially if you can back it up) but it's a horse of another color to throw stones. I think that was carrying aggressive advertising too far. I'm sure RCBS has some disgruntled customers, but it would surprise me no end to poll customers who have had problems with RCBS products and find many with legitimate complaints that weren't handled to their satisfaction. After all, RCBS didn't get to be the biggest by ignoring good business practices.
I was impressed during my visit to Oroville by the quantity of merchandise produced by a relatively small number of employees. Lean and efficient are the adjectives I'd use to describe the operation, but there was much more to it. Many of the employees are shooters and reloaders who share our interests. The company encourages innovation and I'm looking forward to more, and better, news from Oroville in the years to come.
PHOTO : The die line machinery.
PHOTO : RCBS's Rock Chucker press line.
PHOTO : The Uniflow Powder Measure line.
PHOTO : The carbide die line.
PHOTO : The tool and cutter grinding station.
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|Title Annotation:||Rock Chuck Bullet Swage, ammunition reloading firm|
|Author:||Petty, Charles E.|
|Article Type:||company profile|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1989|
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