Strong maintenance skills can be a real competitive advantage

March 11, 2005
American plants are increasingly experiencing competition from abroad and are in need of any advantage they can find. Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker says strong maintenance skill sets can be a real competitive advantage.

There’s nothing more manly than a fine roller chain. Simple and rugged, it works hard indoors or out in all kinds of weather, sometimes swathed in grease and grit, often neglected and abused. Like most of us, it works best with just the right amount of slack.

As kids, we got familiar with roller chains by putting them back on bicycles at about the same time we were playing with wagons. In May 2004, I described how Radio Flyer’s management outsourced its core product, the little red wagon, to China because, they said, it cost too much to maintain their Chicago plant.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Indianapolis facility of Plant Services Readers’ Choice Award-winning Diamond Chain Co. Larry Edwards, manager, manufacturing support services, took more than a few minutes out of his very busy day to give me the cook’s tour.

Diamond competes with Chinese manufacturers and even distributes a low-end line made there. Edwards says Chinese chain is good enough for applications with noncritical requirements for strength, durability, smoothness and quietness, such as rototillers and lately, Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The Indianapolis plant keeps running full-speed producing roller chain in qualities, sizes and materials, on short schedules and at prices the foreign competition can’t beat.

Despite its inherent snakeyness and oily good looks, the key to chain quality is precision: The tolerance of the hole center-to-center distance on the side plates must be held within 0.0002 in. A 37-year Diamond veteran, Edwards credits his collection of antique machines (they don’t make them like that anymore) and his highly skilled maintenance crew for the plant’s long-term competitive success.

Only about a mile from the state’s capital building, part of Diamond’s five-story facility dates back to 1918, and most of it went up in the boom years right after World War II. Edwards has two full-time painters keeping the building safe from the elements, and examines the roofs himself twice a year with a can of spray paint and a camera to document what needs to be done.

Roller-chain side plates are still being stamped by the millions on equipment from the 1940s and 1950s resting on turn-of-the-century hard-maple floors (now arranged in cells according to the latest in lean thinking).

Keeping the rather scarce old machines running accurately and efficiently takes a lot of experience and specialized proficiency. Diamond is very much a union shop, and Edwards is proud of its strong apprenticeship programs.

Diamond’s maintenance people compete with outside bidders for projects ranging from rebuilding and automating the stamping machines, assemblers, and heat-treating equipment to engineering peak-shedding controls for the subatmospheric-pressure steam heating system, servicing the antique elevator and remodeling the corporate offices. He is proud that they’re almost always the low bidder by a considerable margin, and when they’re not, he looks into the reason why.

In a quiet place toward the end of the tour, Edwards stopped and looked me in the eye. “Your magazine talks a lot about outsourcing,” he said. “I want to tell you my philosophy about that.”

He said outsourcing can make sense if it’s something you don’t need to know, like taping drywall. Or even something you don’t have the tools or equipment to do efficiently, like high-volume CNC machining, “at least until you can do it less expensively yourself,” he added.

“But don’t outsource your skilled work,” he said. “Keep it inside to keep your skills up.”

Like the precision roller chains its venerable plant produces by the mile but link by link, Diamond’s maintenance team smoothly and quietly wields the power and efficiency necessary to keep the competition at bay.

Plant Services is looking for plants that have succeeded in the face of low-cost foreign competition thanks to excellent maintenance and asset management. If you work in or know of such a plant, do your part to help support “Made in USA.” Send me a few hundred words outlining the competitive situation and how maintenance plays a role in the plant’s success. In October, we’ll feature the best in our “Survivor USA” cover story.