Mastery in Machining
The pioneering software engineer Niklause Wirth once said precision and perfection are not dispensable luxuries, but are rather simple necessities, and “quality of work can be expected only through personal satisfaction, dedication and enjoyment.” In Traverse City, Michigan, the very community which pioneered computerized numeric control systems critical in manufacturing today, the precision and product perfection achieved by one highly esteemed enterprise has been compelled by an unwavering dedication to delivering satisfaction for customers and co-workers alike.
With a staff of more than 100 people and some 60,000 square-feet of operating space deploying 35 state-of-the-art CNC lathes and machining centers, Clark Manufacturing Company of Traverse City, Michigan, is recognized as a leading producer of machined parts which are crucial in energy, industrial, medical and agricultural applications. From the medical clamps used by surgeons, and the compression components that help facilitate the flow of natural gas through pipelines, to parts used in high-pressure water pumps, hydraulic systems and heavy-duty agricultural or excavating equipment, Clark Manufacturing has been a supplier of machined parts vital to industry for almost 40 years and no enterprise enjoys a more solid reputation in terms of imparting high-tolerance product precision and quality. Clark’s precision, as well as it’s market penetration, has been largely prompted through its continual focus on self-improvement, quality assurance, its investment in the most sophisticated of mechanized resources, and its commitment to the training (and treating) of the personnel whose expertise is essential in the exacting of excellence. As Vice President Cameron Fuller says, “Our people are not simply operators of machinery … they are professional machinists who take great care, and great pride, in their work as well as serving our customers.”
A Legacy in Manufacturing
Clark Manufacturing Co. was among the earliest of enterprises to fully capitalize on the capabilities that have emerged from advancements in technology and combined this to classic techniques in machining. In fact, Fuller explains that the company has been furthering a legacy in manufacturing which is quite unique to Traverse City, Michigan. This was the same Northern Michigan community where industry innovators John T. Parsons and Frank Stulen developed the first numerically-controlled device utilized in machining the accurate curvature of rotors crucial in the manufacturing of helicopters. In an effort to exact stress calculations in the production of rotors, Stulen initially experimented with a punched-card machine that could generate a 17-point outline. Parsons later expanded on that approach by partnering with MIT to develop a more sophisticated, fully-automated tool, but these processes ultimately contributed to the emergence of CNC systems which have swept through industry ever since.
Clark’s reliance on the technical efficiency and precision achieved through such systems dates back more than thirty years ago and the vision of company founder Gary Clark. The son of a man who founded a metal stamping company in Marion County, Ohio, Gary and an older brother grew-up in the trade, spending weekends and summer breaks from school working for their father. After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University, Gary worked for a time with Dow Chemical Company, and later as manager of a plant that specialized in the manufacturing of fishing lures, before ultimately determining to launch his own company in Michigan. With support and encouragement from his father, Clark Manufacturing began as a tool & die job shop with only a handful of employees and 1,200 square-feet of operating space.
At the time, the father’s Ohio stamping operation had certain niche work which included a bit of assembly that it outsourced to Clark in Michigan. Fuller says this work primarily consisted of creating a small mechanism which helps lock a lid down over the drawer within a cash register machine. Fuller says many may be surprised to learn that since 1960, the locking mechanism found in every cash register produced by the National Cash Register Company was actually created in Michigan. While that work comprised most of Clark’s earliest efforts in industry, its transition to today was spurred by advances in CNC machining. In the early 70s, when advanced systems were finding their way into the market, Gary Clark invested in the company’s first CNC tool and quickly discovered this tool empowered the staff to produce parts not only more consistently precise, but also much faster. Clark was soon taking on more work, more staff and as its customer base grew so too did the need for more operating space.
In 2008, at the height of the economic recession, Clark Manufacturing transitioned into a new plant with some 60,000 square-feet of space to accommodate its Mazak Turning and Machining Centers. Five years before that move, leadership of Clark Manufacturing had also transitioned as Gary Clark sold the company to four employees: Robert Milliron, Will McCord, Cameron Fuller and Brian Walter.
Clark Manufacturing maintains ISO:9001 certification, a quality standard that designates high standards and a dedicated quality management system that defines the best in industry. Fuller explains how the reliance on CNC systems has contributed to the quality and precision of their manufactured parts, but says such tools also help speed-up manufacturing production. This time savings ultimately serves to help Clark save on its operating costs while helping its customers save on pricing. In fact, Clark is so thorough in its internal inspections and monitoring processes, many of its customers forego their respective inspection of sourced parts, allowing Clark goods to be more rapidly directed into their inventory. Complementing Clark’s capacity to deliver quality is its incredible assortment of more than 2,000 gauges which aid and assist in the measuring and monitoring all print specifications. Fuller says that all of the gauges conform to precision benchmarks endorsed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The company utilizes GageTrak software to keep track of calibration schedules. Clark Manufacturing also provides an inventory stocking service. Fuller explains that for some companies who wish to reduce their respective inventory stock levels, Clark will maintain their inventory and stocking needs within its own site operations.
Clark Manufacturing does not compromise when it comes to product quality or performing for its customers. Fuller explains that whether their parts are used in the medical field, energy field or some other heavy-duty industrial field, Clark’s customer base reflects dynamic forces of industry who demand precision. Clark has been equally demanding in its sourcing of materials and services from their suppliers. Fuller says that begins with its sourcing of raw materials, which in this case, is furthered through its long relationship with Ryerson, a 170 year-old company recognized as global leader in the supplying of raw metal. For more than 30 years, Clark and its customers have also benefited from the company’s longstanding relationship and services received from Echo Quality Grinding based in Northern Michigan. It also has long standing partnerships with companies in its home base which have routinely provided heat treating services. As Clark Manufacturing has grown, it has also helped other companies grow, and as Fuller says, the company’s focus on collaboration and commitment are critical components of Clark’s industrial fortitude.
For all the company’s reliance on technology and marvels of machinery, Fuller says the business still comes down to relationships and people serving people. To that point, Fuller explains that providing great service to customers requires attention to serving employees too. He says customer satisfaction is directly impacted, if not determined by, the degree of employee satisfaction within an operation. Fuller explains that the vision at Clark is to ensure customers and co-workers alike are being satisfied. This means not only ensuring that all have the training, tools and operational space to conveniently conduct their work, but benefits and incentives too. At Clark, such benefits include the ability to earn promotions, to advance in their careers, and participate in profit-sharing programs based on annual performance of the company. “Very few job shops have the capability to provide that kind of benefit, but it’s important to the team, and this is a company which depends on a lot of team work”.
Clark Manufacturing is also always looking out for the next generation of workers who will join that team. Fuller explains that one of the ongoing challenges in this industry is connecting with skilled workforce. Fuller and other company leaders routinely mentor students and support programs that are helping produce a new generation of laborers. To that end, Northwestern Michigan College recently developed an engineering technology degree program. Fuller anticipates such programs will help companies like his secure new staff, which is important because he also anticipates further growth for Clark Manufacturing. With growth in the energy sector, as well as medical and agriculture, Fuller says Clark is positioned to further capitalize on opportunities congruent with its capacity to deliver quality.
By investing in the industry’s greatest offering of technology and mechanical resources, by constantly measuring and monitoring its operational performances to ensure quality and precision, and by fostering teamwork in its collaboration with customers, suppliers and staff, Clark Manufacturing services will continue to garner merit as the Michigan-based master of machined goods.
For more information, please visit their website at: Clark Manufacturing Co.