How custom machine shops live with industry’s large volume obsession

Schuster Mechanical shares its secret to success: cater to the big guys.

Siemens has sponsored this post.

Bob Schuster is no stranger to the automotive industry. The GM veteran saw ‘the writing on the wall’ and decided it was time to make it on his own. Though already a manufacturing expert, Bob quickly trained up on Siemens technology, acquired CNC equipment — and Schuster Mechanical LLC was born. His success in the automotive field, and now adjacent industries, continues to this day.

Bob Schuster, owner of Schuster Mechanical, is no stranger to the automotive industry. (Image: Siemens.)

“I’m small and attentive,” says Schuster. “Jobs that I landed were due to my reputation. I will collaborate with the assigning engineer and make sure the job is completed to their satisfaction. I’m not done until they are happy.”

But this level of success, especially for an individual, does not come unexpectedly. Schuster says that much of what he does is made possible using Siemens Zel X, because it enables him to foster and grow close relationships with his clients.

Schuster Mechanical’s secret to success is helping the “big guys”

Schuster Mechanical takes on the important, but small, jobs that big CNC outlets do not want. “They want volume,” Schuster says. “They can’t do smaller stuff like I can.” However, large manufacturers often need one-off replacements for old machinery. This important but underserved niche is where Schuster Mechanical flourishes.

As a one-man-show, its Schuster’s skills, flexibility and adaptability that separates his shop from the rest. If customers call him to a production facility to help design a tool, replace a broken part or make minor changes to a line, he shows up when needed. “Afterall, you can’t stop production,” he says. “I will see the existing design and propose a new one.”

Schuster’s close, attentive and accurate services do not come cheap. But his skill, work and adaptability speak for themselves. “Right now, there is a shortage of available shops,” says Schuster. “But you can’t do any job at the door. You need to be well suited … [its about] having a good relationship and getting the work you like. I’m not doing precision, ultra precision [or volume] work. I’m doing the other work. You have to match the work at the door to your capabilities.”

When makers match work to their capabilities it goes beyond their personal skills; it also boils down to the tools they use. To overcome most of those capability challenges, Schuster has turned to Zel X.

What Schuster Mechanical makes and the challenges it faces

Schuster mostly makes new grippers or effectors and installs them to legacy equipment. These parts must be custom designed to grab, mount and move parts during manufacturing and assembly.

Often customers only need one part; however, this does not minimize its importance as it may be used to make hundreds of thousands of products a day. These new parts could replace ones at the end of their lifecycle or adapt equipment to make new products — or even multiple products.

“My job is to build the fixture and it’s important for me to design it properly and deliver it on time,” he says. This accuracy and time sensitivity is key. If the part is not ready on time, then it may not be available for installation during a plant’s scheduled maintenance. As a result, the customer could lose millions of dollars waiting for the part. Additionally, if the part does not work as designed, equipment may fail, or products may come out of spec. This would also cost customers millions as they try to fix the issue on the fly.

Another challenge Schuster faced when making new parts for old equipment is that the reference data you need is often inexact, incomplete or non-existent. Sometimes the equipment he adapts could have reference manuals hundreds of pages long and he only needs to extract a few details to make the part. However, if the customer made prior changes to the equipment, that reference manual may be out of date.

Sometimes, the only way to get the information Schuster needs is to see and access the current installation in person. However, accessing the part can be hard and dangerous. During early development, Schuster explains, he must “find a window, maybe 20 minutes, to get in there and take it apart, take pictures, put it back together and take all that data to build my improved part.”

He also often crawls into the equipment a second time to install his new part. During installation, he has “been in [situations where] I thought I had time to finish a project and I was fabricating on the fly … suddenly I was told this line has to run. I had minutes to get it going and fortunately I landed on my feet, and it worked.”

(Image: Siemens.)

How Schuster Mechanical confronts development cycle hiccups

It is of course best to avoid challenges like the ones noted above. Though issues will arise with any project, Schuster and his customers can foresee and address most of them early in development using better means of communication.

“I address these challenges by being honest with the customer,” says Schuster. “When I look at the data and there is a misunderstanding … I call the engineer right away and verify.” He notes that after one of these moments of honesty, the customer involved ordered eight new parts the very next day. “Pointing out the error made them happy; they trusted me.”

Schuster also uses Zel X to bridge communication gaps with customers and peers. “Zel X makes collaboration instantaneous. [With email you] needed to export CAD, describe it in PDF and the person on the other end needs to interpret that. That’s a time-consuming process. With Zel X, I still need to do some of the same steps … but instead of an email, the data updates and shares. We can communicate on the phone while looking at the same data and make decisions faster.”

In fact, this improved form of communication has enabled Schuster to reduce on-site visits. “I get to design much sooner,” he says. “I have the ability to do a quick design review and get started. These were done in person before. Now this happens much less.”

(Image: Siemens.)

Zel X also has tools that stakeholders can use to markup, comment and revise data. As a result, Schuster is up to date on what the customer is up to, and his customers knows where he is with a project. Thus, the design process runs smoothly without in-person interactions. “The markup tools are built-in and we are able to talk back and forth and steps are recorded. Misunderstandings were honest before, but now you can see it written so we understand and finish much faster.”

(Image: Siemens.)

When things do go wrong, Zel X is also helpful. It enables Schuster’s customers to keep him aware about how his parts are running. “The sooner I know it’s successful the better,” he says. “I need feedback on any concerns right away. Zel X is the way to do that. [With it, customers can] communicate with me like in the review process. If something was overlooked — sometimes by one or both of us — it’s usually very simple to punch out these little details. It’s easier to correct these faster [in Zel X] than with email.”

What else does Schuster Mechanical do with Zel X?

Another big challenge machine shops face is ensuring that a customer’s data is secure, tracible, accessible and available in a way that fosters collaboration between stakeholders. It has built-in tools for collaboration. When I put data into it, its more secure than it was before.”

Schuster also uses features in the software for quoting, restricting data access (based on a user’s credentials) and storing information safely on the cloud. If he or any stakeholder needs to look up data on the system, they must use two-step authentication. This ensures users only see the data they have permissions to see.

“It’s a step in the right direction and long overdue, like 20 years overdue,” he says. “The methods we shared things with in the past weren’t good.  Almost all shops can do the work effectively, but customers need to be comfortable their data is in good hands. They trust Siemens to be a good steward of their data, and I think they are. That’s a good thing for everybody.”

As for Zel X’s quoting abilities, Schuster says, “The quoting process marches along much more efficiently and quickly. It can shorten the quoting process and make it more comfortable and safer for both parties … Everything is recorded.

To learn more about how Zel X, click here