At ThermoBurr's Shelby Township, MI location, Vice-President Dave Koster is scrutinizing a part worth thousands of dollars. "It has to be perfect," he says, holding the part in his hands. "And of course, the customer wants it yesterday."
Koster's comment more or less sums up ThermoBurr's mission statement—flawless execution of deburring for expensive parts (some worth as much as $250,000 a piece) in a very short amount of time.
That value proposition is shared by the entire network of ThermoBurr service centers around the country (including locations in Illinois, New York, South Caroline and Western Michigan). Though all locations are united in mission, each facility varies slightly in the services and technologies that it offers, depending on the needs of the businesses and industries that surround it.
ThermoBurr got its start 26 years ago "along the back wall" of sister company, SurfTran—a supplier of thermal energy deburring equipment. "Initially, our services were offered to SurfTran customers who had an immediate need for deburring," says Koster. "ThermoBurr was conceptualized as a means of filling the short gap between the time an equipment order was placed and the delivery was made."
But with the advent of concepts like Lean Manufacturing and Just-in-Time Manufacturing, ThermoBurr found that its business was no longer being limited to customers waiting on delivery of equipment. "A lot of companies might not have room on their shop floor for the equipment," says Koster. "Or in same cases, it just wants to focus on its core competencies and leave the deburring to someone else." As a greater number of companies elected to outsource deburring, ThermoBurr's business grew and the company was prompted to establish satellite facilities.
In 1999, SurfTran and Thermoburr were purchased by Pennsylvania-based ExtrudeHone, a supplier of machining, deburring and casting equipment for a variety of industries.
The Right Process for the Part
In automotive-heavy Shelby Township, typical applications at ThermoBurr include screw machine parts, hydraulic and pneumatic valves and fittings, stampings, gears, die castings, fuel injection components, aluminum extrusions, manifolds, carburetors, thermoplastics, CNC parts, ABS and transmission components.
Consequently, the facility focuses primarily on a pair of deburring applications—thermal energy deburring and high energy finishing. It also offers rust removal services, electrolytic machining, micro precision cleaning and aqueous and ultrasonic cleaning of parts.
The thermal energy method (TEM) is a process that vaporizes internal, external and hidden burrs with the aid of intense heat. Because thermal energy focuses on areas with large surface area and little mass, threads and other workpiece features are not damaged in the process.
High-energy finishing, not to be confused with tumbling or vibratory finishing, uses speed in conjunction with media to deburr parts and is ideal for surface conditioning. The particular process employed at ThermoBurr is centrifugal disc finishing. In centrifugal disc finishing, a rotating disc spins parts and media within a stationary chamber, creating a hurricane-like effect.
One of the reasons that ThermoBurr employs the TEM and high-energy processes is that both technologies are well-suited toward fast turnaround times. "Most of the parts we get in require a 72-hour turnaround time," says Koster. "When necessary, we can also provide same-day service."
Part of ThermoBurr's success can be attributed to the fact that its job shops operate as a network as opposed to stand-alone units. If one particular ThermoBurr location does not offer a required deburring process—electrolytic machining or abrasive flow machining, for instance—parts can easily and quickly be routed to one that does. "If we can't get it done here," offers Koster, "we have the ability to get the work performed at one of the other ThermoBurr shops without missing a beat. It allows us to be a truly agile shop." Another benefit of the network structure is that it allows ThermoBurr—as a collective—to offer a broader, more diverse menu of services than could any single job shop.
A Cook's Approach
Koster sees deburring as a process similar to cooking. "Any time a new part comes in, we take a very close look at it and determine what the best process is going to be for deburring it," he says.
At ThermoBurr, parts are analyzed using high-power microscopic analysis at each stage of the process cycle. "Just because a particular process worked well for one part type doesn't necessarily mean it's a good fit for the next part that comes through the doors," says Koster. "There are a lot of factors that need to be looked at." Once the part has been analyzed and the process tested, a recipe is developed and strictly adhered to. All information about the part and process is documented for future reference.
Koster attributes much of ThermoBurr's success to the painstaking analysis and documentation—along with the discipline approach taken by its workers. "We've got a lot of good, very well-trained people here," he says. "Even though we have this advanced equipment at our disposal, it's the people we rely on the most. They are the ones doing the part analysis, controlling the media and running the equipment."
ThermoBurr's employees also play a key role in ensuring that the equipment is well-maintained. "Our business is a service-oriented business," Koster says. "With the fast turnaround times that we are expected to maintain, four or five hours of unplanned downtime can be devastating." As a result, most of the equipment at ThermoBurr is subjected to varying levels of inspection on a daily basis.
Koster sees to it that many of the employees at ThermoBurr are cross-trained, so that they can operate any piece of equipment in the facility, should the need arise. "We use a buddy system, just as you would if you were learning how to swim. There's always somebody standing off to the side, with life jacket in hand, just in case." Koster says that new employees start off in "shallow water," learning the basics of deburring first and then working their way up to the more advanced technologies.
But it's not the advanced equipment or the cross-training that Koster cites as ThermoBurr's key to success. It's the employees' passion for the industry and the day-to-day challenges. "It really helps that we love what we do here," he says. "Everyone here—from the sales reps to the guys operating the equipment—is motivated by a desire to find an innovative solution to each customer's unique problem."