Small Town, Big Ideas

So you find yourself two hours south of Chicago, rolling along Route 71 through low hills of Illinois farmland. You slow as you approach the town of Mark, population 450. Passing through, nothing outside the car is sufficiently interesting to draw your attention from the conversation inside the car.

Then, just as you crest the summit of the last small hill of the sleepy town, the conversation stops. There it is. Nestled in a shallow valley of green and brown, flags billowing in the stiff breeze, incongruous, grand and pristine: Mennie Machine Company, a neo-classical monument to one man’s vision. White, stuccoed, crowned by rooftop alabaster replicas of Greek and Italian statuettes. Proof, if ever proof were needed, that big ideas are not exclusive to the big cities.

In the late 1960s, Mark (IL) native Hubert J. Mennie took the advice of the pioneers and, like many a small-town boy before him, headed west to California, the land of milk and honey. Whatever the motivation behind his migration, Mennie, a graduate of local company Westclox’s tool & die program, probably didn’t anticipate cleaning people’s swimming pools to earn a living. For him, California meant swallowing pride: not much milk, not much honey.

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But Mennie was a quick learner. During his time in California he saw that people owning and running their own companies were doing rather well. The idea of doing likewise, in his own inimitable style as it turned out, appealed to the young pioneer. Mennie took action; he went home to rural Illinois and in March 1970 he started Mennie Machine Company (MMC).

Hubert Mennie’s first steps, though tentative, were guided by a strong commercial and engineering nous [mind or intellect; we had to look it up, too]. By the late 1970s, with the support of his wife Cheryl, Mennie had turned his vision into a modest but ambitious reality as a respected tool and die contractor for the U.S. military.

A decade of hard work saw the company expand its activities to designing and producing automated computer-controlled equipment and custom automated manufacturing solutions – skills that were to become the cornerstone of the company’s present-day high-volume production machining activities.

By this time, Hubert and Cheryl’s family was taking a very active part in the proceedings. Sons Bill and David started out on the shop floor and soon graduated to leading roles as the company grew and looked to the future. A little later, the Mennie daughters followed their brothers into the business – Jennifer got involved with the company’s financials, and Amy, the youngest Mennie, was to be instrumental in the company achieving its ISO-9002/QS-9000 certification in 1998.

So MMC finally had a full complement. Where one Mennie was good, imagine what six could do!

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Strength in Numbers

These days, Hubert Mennie is still at the helm; his wife Cheryl, as CFO, keeps a close eye on the company’s finances; Bill and David are both vice presidents of the organization; and daughters Amy (QS-9000 management representative) and Jennifer (finance), hold key management positions. Jennifer’s husband, Joe Smoode, holds the plant manager position. David’s wife, Annette, is responsible for accounts payable/receivable, and Amy’s husband, Jake Cimei, is responsible for purchasing.

What started out as a small tool and die job shop has, thanks to a solid foundation, bright successors and a dedicated workforce, become a model business with more than 170 employees and a turnover of more than $30 million.

The company’s customer base reflects the aspirations of its management: MMC currently serves several high-profile agricultural, off-road and automotive manufacturers, including Eaton, General Motors, American Axle & Manufacturing Caterpillar, Chrysler, Sauer-Danfoss, Ford and TRW.

Joe Smoode, plant manager, explains how the company came by such prestigious clients. “To start with, we knocked on a few doors,” he says. “Sometimes we’d do some work for someone because they had a machine failure or they were moving a line and needed some temporary help. Often we’d be helping for anything from two months to a year, and that got us in the door.”

In 1992, a division of GM launched a new program that required complete, machined parts in a two-week lead time. MMC was selected as the machining contractor because of its ability to meet the unusually tight deadlines. As a result, MMC was put on GM’s bid list, opening the door to more automotive work later on.

Roger Abbott, head of process improvement, shares the all-pervasive can-do feeling at the company. “Part of the reason for our success is that, as an organization, we don’t let opportunities slip away. As Joe says, if a company is running into trouble or needs help over a difficult period, that’s an opportunity for us. We usually grab it and run with it. There’s a lot of hard work from some very dedicated workers – they make it work – but the main thing is we don’t let opportunities slip away.”

And we’re talking serious opportunities! “We ship between 80 and 250,000 parts a week, according to our customer’s demand,” says Smoode. “Roughly 300 different part numbers – some parts just 10 a year, some up to 20,000 a week. Most are sent directly to the customer’s line ‘assembly clean.’ We also perform sub-assembly operations per our customer’s request.”

Needless to say, the Mennie shop floor is a blur of activity. $18 million worth of machining cells dominate the 130,000-square-foot space, semi-hidden behind tall, black-and-yellow fencing through which the occasional flash of a yellow Fanuc robot arm can be seen. Conveyor systems continuously feed raw material in one side of a cell and remove finished components from the other.

Marposs gauging and vision systems on the lines check for quality, and parts are removed and packed for delivery. At eye level it’s difficult to see exactly what’s going on, but find a vantage point high above the hustle and bustle and, suddenly, it all makes sense.

“We currently have 27 robots loading various machining cells, turning out a variety of parts, including transmission, steering and suspension components, drive segments, hubs, bearing adjusters, etc., all to production quantities,” says Smoode. “Across the 31 cells we have 51 Haas machining centers and 30 Haas rotary tables and indexers. Just six are dedicated cells,” he states. “Flexibility is the key to what we do.”

Included in Mennie’s armory of Haas vertical machining centers are 19 VF-1s, ten VF-2s, nine VF-3s, five VF-4s and fourVF-5s. The company also has four HS-1RP horizontal machining centers, 28 HRT 210 rotary tables and two HRT 310 rotary tables.

Top 20

Mennie Machine Company’s experience with manufacturing systems means that most of the engineering for a new cell is done in-house by its engineering department. For example, a Haas machine going into a low-volume cell is installed and running within just two days. A higher-volume cell can take 2 to 8 weeks, depending upon the complexity of the machining process. Drawing on the same skills, the company adds value to its services by engineering everything from the customer’s part to the machine fixtures.

“Our customers send us the drawings and we do the rest,” says Smoode. “We have seven full-time engineers, and we decide what we’re going to do, how we’re going to fixture it, machine it, etc. As with the cell engineering, all of our fixtures are designed and made in-house. We try to make everything as user friendly as possible, so all the operator has to do is hit a button.”

MMC’s investment in Haas machines makes it, in terms of number of machines, one of the top 20 users in the world, and one of the top two in Illinois. The machines are supplied and serviced by the Haas Factory Outlet (a division of Arthur Machinery) in Elk Grove Village, near Chicago.

According to Bill Mennie, quality and delivery are among the key reasons why MMC chooses Haas. “The simplicity of the design of a Haas, and the ease of integration with auto-loaders, hydraulic clamping systems and robotics, make Haas machines suitable for this kind of high-volume production work,” he says.

“I have to say, we’re very happy with the Haas machines,” adds Abbott. “They’re very operator friendly, easy to work with; and to produce the volumes that we do, we have to run them hard.”

In fact, Mennie runs the Haas cells for 24 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, sometimes turning out up to 95 parts an hour. Clearly, if you’re asking this much of your plant, maintenance should be a primary consideration: MMC has a comprehensive preventive maintenance program. “We have a dedicated maintenance crew, many of whom attended the school at the Haas plant in Oxnard,” says Abbott.

“Equally importantly, we have a great relationship with the Elk Grove HFO. We currently have a meeting once a month with a senior maintenance engineer, and we keep a consignment of all standard wear items on-site, just in case. Having said that, since we took delivery of the first machines back in 1994, we’ve had nothing other than the usual maintenance issues.”

Mennie’s preventive maintenance program also includes a replacement policy that upgrades the Haas machines every 5 to 7 years.

Philosophy

“Work hard, and never let quality take second place to cost.” Hubert J. Mennie’s founding philosophy for running and growing MMC has stood the test of time.

He believes that it’s not always the fastest or the cheapest company that wins the contract. “It’s the company that the customer can trust to do the work correctly that will win out in the end,” he states. It’s this kind of thinking that’s behind MMC’s quest for excellence in everything it does. Or, in Hubert Mennie’s words, “If you work hard toward your goals, and strive to make the best possible product, you will never have a lack of customers.”

In practice, Mennie genuinely believes that teamwork is what makes it possible for the company to do what it does. “Teamwork goes hand in hand with trust, and together they’re the key to building and running a large, successful company. Teamwork is also what makes implementation of large automotive contracts possible.” Watching the well-coordinated activity on the MMC shop floor, the truth in Hubert Mennie’s words is obvious.