Accurate Gauge and Mfg. Inc., this year's Quality Plant of the Year recipient in the small plant division, puts the responsibility for quality on its operators-and yields winning results.

Accurate Gauge and Manufacturing Inc. (AG, Rochester Hills, MI), does not make gages anymore. In fact, almost since the day it was founded in 1966, says Greg Mann, operations manager at AG, the company was making other products based on customer need.

Last year, AG, manufacturer of precision parts primarily for heavy-duty truck, commercial vehicle and automotive industries, made $25 million in sales-a testament to the company's quality products and service. AG celebrates 40 years of business in 2006 and the Quality Magazine's 2006 Plant of the Year recipient in the small plant division continues to conduct business with a focus on two things: its employees and its customers.

From left to right: Accurate Gauge's team includes Darrin Soukup, manufacturing engineer, Greg Mann, operations manager, and Dennis Brophy, plant manager and quality control manager. Source: Maggie McFadden, Quality Magazine

Walk into AG's Rochester Hills, MI, facility-the company's third building since being founded-and it looks like everyone just moved in. The conference room, reception area, offices and even the shop floor, are as clean and well kept as could be, yet they moved into the current facility 11 years ago.

The state of AG's facility is a reflection of the pride its employees have for the company. "Everyone picks up after himself," Mann says. A tremendous amount of responsibility is bestowed on each AG employee, and in turn, this responsibility has translated into a successful company that attends to quality and deliverability with all its products. According to AG's supplier scorecards for 2005, the company reported 100% on-time shipment. "We never overbid our capacity," says Mann in response to the positive numbers.

AG runs a three-shift, six-day-a-week production schedule. Source: Maggie McFadden, Quality Magazine

Quality Success

Dennis Brophy, plant manager and quality control manager at AG, is proud to show off AG's first-ever quality manual, which he helped develop around the time he joined AG in 1978. Since then, the company's quality manual has more than doubled in page count, but the basics in the manual still hold true. "Even then, our main emphasis was on quality control," Brophy says.

Operators at AG conduct their own part inspections. "We put quality in the process," emphasizes Darrin Soukup, manufacturing engineer at AG. Putting quality in the process could be AG's motto. Every operator at AG is trained to be a quality inspector. Throughout the entire production process, operators look for defects.

In addition to operator inspection, two employees at AG conduct quality control audits. Mike Jolly and Mark Neumann's main focus is checking features on parts that operators cannot physically do themselves. The two coordinate measuring machines at the plant are used to conduct first-article and shift-change product inspections.

"We rely on the quality department primarily as an auditing function. Every operator is an inspector and they are the prime element ensuring quality parts out the door," Mann says. "Inspection is done at every machine."

Operators at AG are given significant responsibility. "Our operators are responsible for everything from cleaning their workstations to critical inspections," Mann adds. And as part of the company's business philosophy, each employee is actively involved in ongoing training and improvement initiatives.

Improving Productivity

AG's Advanced Product Quality Program (APQP) team meets every Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. to address and review any problems, including production and scrap or rework.

On the third Friday of each month, the Action Team, which includes shift foremen, quality personnel and APQP members, meets to discuss training opportunities, requirements and improvement initiatives.

AG uses Action Notices to alert employees about anything from production inefficiencies to changes in inspection requirements. Source: Accurate Gauge and Mfg. Inc.

To keep AG employees in the loop about everything from production inefficiencies to changes in inspection requirements, AG relies on its Alerts and Action Notices program. Notices are saturated throughout the plant, making it difficult for any employee to miss. Usually made up of text and a photo, the notices are sent via e-mail, posted on each workstation, spread through word-of-mouth and even scrolled across the moving text screen above the shop-floor's time clock when necessary. Operators are encouraged to give feedback and participate-facilitating a team approach to each job. "A lot of times the process is initiated by the operator. An operator sees something improper and will address it," Soukup says.

As part of continual process improvement, AG has its own Universal Reaction Plan, which gives operators protocol to follow if something goes wrong during the production process. To further encourage communication, employees work out of one room so that everyone is aware of everyone else. "Maintenance operators, scheduling, engineering-we are all aware. It fosters communication," Mann says.

Part variability is forever on the minds of AG employees. Already this year, AG invested $1 million in a multi-axis machining center from Germany to help eliminate variation from creeping in. And they do not just invest in equipment that will get the job done the fastest.

"Our techniques are not necessarily the fastest, but we are more efficient because our techniques eliminate the possibility of variation," Mann says. To help ensure quality parts out the door every day, the AG team does cost analysis and productivity analysis before investing in something new. "We won't institute a new tool or technique if it will diminish quality," Mann says.

AG makes a point to invest in updating on a regular basis, whether machines or production equipment, inspection tools or computers. In fact, Soukup says, the company updated all its computer systems for 2006, and regularly replaces leased computers every two years to make sure that AG stays on top of the latest technology. One of AG's current goals is improving its database system. "We are moving toward a Web-based system," Soukup says.

As another strategy to improve productivity and quality, AG employees build many of the company's own specialized cutting tools, do all their own programming, and design and develop their own part fixturing. This allows the company to conduct on-fixture inspection and verification.

"Our philosophy is that if we do it, we will understand from the ground up. If someone else did it-we won't have the ownership we need," Mann says. "It's very important that we emphasize developing education in-house." Such a philosophy facilitates a sense of ownership and pride among AG employees.

Steve Northrup, tooling engineer, studies the multi-axis machining center installed at AG in January of this year. Source: Maggie McFadden, Quality Magazine

Employee Focus

According to Nancy Cream, chief financial officer at AG, the company's turnover rate is virtually zero. "I think we treat everybody on the floor as family. We are such an employee-oriented company that they stay-people enjoy working here," Cream says. Most employees enjoy working at AG so much that they like to stay for a while.

Soukup's been with the company for seven years. If asked how long he's been with AG, he prefaces by saying, "I'm pretty new. Every day I unlock the door, I feel like it's my first day. I enjoy it here," Soukup says.

Mann, himself, started at AG in 1968. Just before that time, he was in college and ran out of money. The plan was to work for his stepfather and founder of AG, Al Velthuysen, for a few months, save enough money to go back to college and leave. "It didn't happen," Mann recalls. "I fell in love with the work."

There are family members, children, nephews, husbands, wives and uncles that have worked at the company together, Cream says.

"What keeps people here is respect. Everyone is treated with respect and everyone takes a little bit of ownership, which makes a great work environment," Mann says.

To keep employees feeling like a part of the team and so that no operator feels uninformed, Mann, Brophy and Soukup each try to spend some time every day with all three shifts.

Customer Focus

AG's focus on its customers is a top priority. "We try to anticipate what our customers' needs are even without them saying it," Mann says.

One day, AG came across a customer with inventory difficulties. "They had a hodgepodge of inventory in these big bins," Brophy describes. Because many parts look similar, it was difficult for the company to know what they had and what they needed.

In response, after implementing a barcode label-making system, AG began adding labels to all four sides of its parts so that the customer could more readily tell what parts they had in inventory. "We weren't asked to do that," Brophy adds. "The relationship we have with the customer goes a long way."

With several Tier 1 automotive customers, AG needs to strive for the best performance and cost-effective processes possible to keep its customers happy. For 2005, according to AG's supplier scorecards, the company reported zero parts rejected for four out of six of its largest customers.

Drive for Perfection

In their quest for quality parts and zero defects, failures do, of course, happen along the way. It is the response to those failures that makes AG a true plant of the year. "You have to be analytical. Is it something you can change, so it never happens again?" Mann asks.

AG looks at every failure as an opportunity to improve. "[Failures] do happen. Those are the things you learn from, as long as it doesn't get out the door-it's a learning experience," Brophy says.

Mann tells the story of one program that the company was sunsetting. AG had already made about 100,000 parts and suddenly had a failure. Management could have ignored the failure because the project was near its finish. "Instead," Mann says, "we turned it into an exercise on failure prevention."

Mark Tario, engineering manager at AG, shows off a workstation at the Rochester Hills, MI plant. Source: Maggie McFadden, Quality Magazine

With Mark Tario, engineering manager, leading the way, the company came up with a solution to foolproof the process. Tario's solution allowed operators to check for both pressure and position during the production process. AG's customer was so impressed, they asked Tario to write an article about his solution. "We could have easily not gone through the trouble because the job was almost done. But now, any new job we get will benefit-it all becomes standard procedure in the next job," Mann says.

Such practice and attention to permanent corrective error set a tone for the rest of the plant and helps keep employees motivated. "The leadership here fosters the culture of ‘let's try it,'" Tario says. Q

For more information on Accurate Gauge and Mfg. Inc., visit their Web site:

AG at a Glance

-Accurate Gauge and Mfg. Inc.

-Location: Rochester Hills, MI

-Founded: 1966

-Number of Employees: 72

-Production Schedule: 3 shifts, 6 days per week

-Certification: ISO/TS 16949: 2002

-Products: Precision parts primarily for heavy-duty truck, commercial vehicle and automotive industries

-Shop floor: Approx. 60,000 square-feet

"A" is for Accurate

In 1966, Al and Ray Velthuysen, father and son, did something they always wanted to do and founded Accurate Gauge and Mfg. Inc. (AG, Rochester Hills, MI). That same year, Al got married and a few months later, Ray went off to Vietnam. Business continued and AG flourished, finding a niche in manufacturing precision parts.

"Accurate" was used in the name because the founders wanted the company name to show up as early as possible in the Yellow Pages.

Manufacturing gages was AG's original intent. "As so often happens, virtually from day one, the company was doing other things," says Greg Mann, operations manager at AG and stepson to Al Velthuysen.

A few years ago, Al Velthuysen passed away, but he continues to touch the lives of AG employees. A photo of an 80-something-year-old Al kayaking, sits framed in a glass cabinet in

Ray's office.

Al remained active in the company into his 80s. He was founder, inspiration, maintenance man and janitor. "He was still taking out the trash in his 80s," recalls Dennis Brophy, plant manager and quality control manager at AG. "That set a tone for everybody else."