“Made in China.” This notification can strike fear into the hearts of corporations and businesses around the world. Huge production capacity, cheap labour and low prices are a detriment for those who choose to compete with the nation of 1.3 billion. Conversely, the labels “Made in Canada” and “Made in U.S.A.” are largely indicative of high craftsmanship, strong labour practices, and quality product. Max Die Group is no exception.
The Max Die team consists of three world class facilities that deliver tooling solutions for customers worldwide. To combat the competition, the company offers a robust warranty, flexible payment terms, and, without exception, top quality. We spoke with Mark Brett, Program Manager, Doug Sanborn, Controller, and General Manager Robert Ofner, to learn more.
In the early 1980s, Ofner’s father was working at a company called Windsor Tool and Die, but he always had some sort of business of his own going on the side. In 1981 the owner of Windsor helped Mr. Ofner start Manor Tool & Die. There he served as Plant Manager and by the late 90s both companies were around the same size. Windsor Tool & Die has a long and storied history, and can be seen as the root of Manor Tool & Die. It itself started in the 1920s, building parts for the Ford Model A. It was also a union shop, one of the first to operate in Windsor. The business finally closed its doors in 2008.
Today, Manor Tool & Die makes tools for the metal stamping industry. “Primarily we run and stamp parts for our customers on low volume machines and sheet metal for automotive,” explains Ofner. Under the Max Die umbrella are two other companies, Lakeshore Stamping and Sigma Engineering. Sigma Engineering was launched in 1998 and, like Manor, manufactures tooling for the Metal Stamping Industry. Lakeshore Stamping began in late 2004 when the Group acquired the assets of a fire extinguisher manufacturer. Currently, that division of the business works with small stampings, manufacturing and light assembly. Together, the three arms of the business boast a substantial capacity for building dies.
“Instead of adding on to Manor Tool & Die we bought another shop in a different business and then added to that shop in order to make it a fully equipped tool & die manufacturing company,” Brett explains. “This company was a machining operation, so when we acquired them it gave us an immediate increase in machining capacity which is a fair portion of our process. We got a leg up on our competition and grew at a rapid pace.”
Ultimately, Max Die Group’s customers have a choice – either they get their tools designed and built in China or in North America. When it comes down to it, price is a determining factor, making for a very competitive industry. Max Die Group’s competitive advantage involves its comprehensive offering – the right mix of process, technology, equipment, software, and service.
“Right now our advantage over China and Korea – temporarily, at least – is our skills. In other words, if there are more complex parts to make they are starting more and more to make those in North America.” This is being achieved thanks to new technologies and the new types of steel and composites available today; it’s also tough for newer Asian companies to keep up with the wealth of innate knowledge the Max Die team has accumulated over the years. However, as Sanborn explains, they will catch up sooner or later.
A real advantage for Max Die Group is the company’s proximity to Detroit and the U.S. market. This gives the Group an edge, both in the quality of the labour pool and the costs associated with logistics. “We do have an advantage there – that the tools we build and have warrantied can be repaired in our facility without having to ship them back overseas. China cannot do this.”
Of course, there are customers out there for whom price is still the bottom line, and to this end the goal is always to remain competitive while offering a superior product. The team believes that, “We have to improve and get better, otherwise we won’t last.”
In this industry, for example, a warranty is a crucial component of the business. Customers are starting to realize that when a tool comes in from overseas, if there is an issue after it gets to production, it’s hard to get someone from the Chinese tool shop to come in and support the tool. “In our case, if we ship tools it’s typically to someone within three hours’ driving distance. If they have any problems with the tools or changes they want to implement, then we are there; we are standing behind the tools and are there to fix them. If our tools for some reason wouldn’t run, they get brought back here and worked on so as not to interrupt production. So, this is another competitive advantage for us.”
Max Die Group’s flexible payment terms are another area in which the company is head and shoulders above the competition. The team has been known to ship tools without collecting a single penny, until the customer has their parts purchased by a Ford or GM. This is something that China simply does not allow, as its government does not allow goods to leave the country unless at least 90 percent of their cost is paid. Max Die Group essentially finances the OEM and Tier 1 supplier – a risky venture perhaps, but one that both sets the team apart and build trust.
Of course, there are other factors at play when it comes to standing out in the crowd of this industry. When it comes to equipment, size does matter. Max Die is able to offer big equipment and that is part of what separates one shop from another. “If you can do bigger jobs, it puts you in a different market. If I could I would buy [even] bigger equipment!” says Ofner. “We are not at the very top of the list as far as equipment goes, but that is an important characteristic of our business.” Bigger shops can simply offer greater variety – bigger equipment means that you can build dies, for example, up to 50,000lbs each, and you may need four or five of them to make a part. A shop with smaller presses and a smaller machine capacity may only be able to make dies up to 20,000lbs apiece.
Through its three divisions, the Group does everything from progressive dies, transfer dies, and tandem dies to prototypes, transmission parts (specialty die), aluminum, high strength, ultra high strength, and hot stamping.
As for experience, Max Die Group has a long history of tool & die production in the area. There are, in fact, a number of tool & die shops in the area with second, third, and even fourth generation tool makers. “It’s a high density and highly skilled bunch of tool & die makers that we have – but it is not unique to us, it’s unique to the Windsor and Detroit area. It’s a hotbed for this kind of speciality.” With so many skilled tool & die makers in close proximity, they are constantly trying to better each other and that promotes growth and best practice within the industry.
In terms of further challenges, profitability is at the top of the list and China once again is the main challenger. Shops must produce more volume today because the margins are smaller. Industry-wide, the price for tools has come down quite a bit in the last 20 years; it’s a global industry, and pricing is very competitive. “The challenge is just trying to have the best processes, the best equipment and the best people.”
Short term goals for the company include upgrading and adding to its fleet of equipment. The team is also looking at restructuring the manufacturing floor and moving further toward a manufacturing structure as opposed to a “job shop.” Efficiency is key to the short term goals of Max Die Group.
“Our long term goal is to survive,” Ofner says with a chuckle. “We need to increase the throughput in our sales and continue to invest in our equipment. We are looking at some smaller investments that will pay dividends in the machining side.” On the prep side, the Group is looking at a substantial investment to put in a press that will move the company up a rung in the leagues of press capacity and tryout capacity. The largest press the Group has right now is 1,600 tonnes, and the team wants to move up to a 2,000 or 3,000 tonne press. “This will move us up in the pecking order of die shops. That would set us apart.”
In the meantime, the Group’s focus on quality, precision, service, and building relationships will continue to place it in good stead in such a competitive industry.