Founded in 1946, Steel Craft Industries is the United States’ largest manufacturer of unwired and fluorescent lighting fixtures. The company currently employs more than 70 people and supplies original equipment manufacturers with fixtures, parts and subassemblies. This Newark, New Jersey company has renovated 15,000 square feet of its 100,000 square foot facility, primarily to accommodate the automated flexible manufacturing system and the 90-ton CNC hydraulic brake.
One of only six Strippit/LVD systems in the United States, the FMS fabricates parts from sheet metal up to 60” x 160” in size. According to Steel Craft Director of Operations Fidel Oliva, “This is an absolute state-of-the-art production capability. It allows online transfer of design parameters, directly linking engineering with production to improve both speed and accuracy.” The system is used to quickly develop product prototypes, produce relatively small quantities of products with a minimum changeover time, and accurately manufacture complex parts. In one continuous automated operation, it loads raw material on a production conveyor, punches and cuts the sheet metal according to computerized design information, then off-loads and stacks the completed parts.
In a region that has seen the erosion of its manufacturing base, Steel Craft is an exception to the rule. Occupying a city block in the historic Ironbound District of Newark’s East Ward, Steel Craft is a vital manufacturing operation that is investing in both the latest technologies and the skills of its employees. Twenty-five Steel Craft employees live in Newark. Barry Meister said, “Once we decided to invest in the computer-controlled flexible manufacturing system we had to ask ourselves who would run it? Who could handle this complicated piece of equipment? As it turns out, each of the three principal operators has nearly 20 years experience with Steel Craft.” Meister says that in addition to employee considerations, several factors contributed to the decision to keep Steel Craft in Newark, including his confidence in Mayor Sharp James’ administration, the availability of capital, and access to state resources that offer programs and assistance to manufacturers.
The renovations were funded by a loan arranged through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority from First Union Bank. The design of manufacturing upgrades, including the floor plan and workflow layouts, were developed using the resources of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, Inc. (NJMEP) and the Center for Manufacturing Systems (CMS). The New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) operates CMS. In addition, two interns in NJIT’s Kauffman Entrepreneur Internship Program are employed at Steel Craft and are directly involved in implementing the new capabilities and manufacturing improvements.
After assessing Steel Craft’s needs, NJMEP implemented its recommendations through CMS. According to CMS Director, Wayne Chaneski those included reducing setup time on equipment during product changeover, planning for the installation and use of the flexible manufacturing system, and documenting procedures for various Steel Craft manufacturing operations. Setup times have been reduced by an average of 30%. (Real time savings per setup are 2.5 hours, shop rate = $55 per hour, and there are ten setups per week.) This translates into a labor savings of $71,500 per year. Chaneski said, “It’s extremely encouraging to see a New Jersey manufacturer invest in their operations and competitiveness rather than simply outsourcing work to low-cost overseas operations. I give Steel Craft a lot of credit for having the vision to stay and use state resources to make a successful transition to new technologies.”
In addition, the plant layout project supported improved material throughput. There is a $150,000 reduction in WIP, a $30,000 reduction in finished goods and a reduction of $25,000 in raw materials. Company president Barry Meister says the renovations; new manufacturing procedures and equipment are a response to low-cost overseas competition. He predicted, “The changes and improvements we are making will enable Steel Craft to compete nationally as well as internationally.” The experts agree. Dr. Sanjoy Das, an NJIT Professor of Industrial Engineering, designed the plant layouts to accommodate the flexible manufacturing system. Dr. Das said, “The new machine changes a lot of things. It will allow Steel Craft to respond quickly to customer orders and it will result in higher quality and lower costs. It’s a big step in the transition of the company.”