November Tour History
The November tour history is provided by FWEC Vice President Rod Vargo:
PHD, Inc., hosted our November 20 tour. They provide pneumatic, hydraulic, and electrical components for industrial and medical robotics. These components include automated grippers (fingers or hands), clamps (act as vices, stamps, and/or molds), cylinders (to power and guide robotic movements), multi-sectional molds, switches, sensors, actuators, escapements, and linear slides (including complex rack and pinion assemblies). PHD has 540 million SKUs (i.e., product variations) which can be manufactured and delivered in 2 to 4 days from the placement of an order, with minimal pre-existing inventory in place. Custom designs or duplication of odd parts are also available as needed. This is the only company willing to custom design or duplicate as little as one piece.
The components are intended for incorporation into industrial robotics worldwide. These are the parts which blow-mold and handle hundreds of millions of plastic drink bottles each year. They stamp and manipulate auto parts including body panels, can assist in construction of subassemblies such as engine blocks, and are critical to automotive welding, paint, and assembly lines. Similar equipment is integral to the manufacture of tires. Snack and many other prepared foods are largely a result of robotics working at speeds far faster than human ability. Components referred to as nurse clamps handle instruments during robotic surgery.
PHD employs about 320 people locally including 39 mechanical engineers and 3 electrical engineers. The mechanical engineers are about evenly divided between new product development and the design or duplication of special items. The Great Recession resulted in many original equipment manufacturers going out of business, so a significant business arose duplicating parts in a variety of metals or plastics for orphaned machines. In many cases, PHD updates their function or durability. Some pieces may be 3-D printed as trials for fit or function but, for now, durable parts must still be made in more traditional ways. PHD's business plan clearly places emphasis on leading the industry in variety and durability of its components in a cost-effective sense.
The electrical engineers are primarily involved with the slow transition from pneumatic to electrical actuators, particularly through PHD's subsidiary Yamaha Robotics, as costs plummet for specialized miniature motors and other electrical components. Yamaha Robotics can provide both components and complete machines.
Electrical robots controlled by Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) may be switched between different projects much more rapidly than mechanical or pneumatic systems. Electric motors can also allow more planes of movement in a given space. Digital camera eyes allow robots to "see" assemblies, such as precisely where studs or liquid gaskets should be placed within an engine block subassembly. Electronics can provide closer tolerances of movement (4 nanometers) than mechanical systems (0.001 inch).
PHD and Yamaha Robotics had various portable demonstration units which allow working with clients in concepts, design, testing, training, and servicing. These were housed in conjunction with a very pleasant classroom and conference section of a building. Just beyond in the same building were testing, servicing, and related shop facilities.
Three large buildings form a campus north of the airport; the passenger terminal for Fort Wayne International Airport was within walking distance (1.0 mile). The main campus can perform most functions including administration, intricate manufacture and assembly of components, research, testing, and shipping/receiving. A fourth building in Huntington provides additional extensive machine shop functions, allowing PHD to provide 50-80% of its own underlying pieces.
The Huntington facility operates three shifts, essentially working nonstop. The main campus had three shifts until business faltered during the Great Recession, during which it found ways for one or two shifts to still assemble and ship finished product on time. It now has more employees overall as business expanded again. Manufacturing of parts or extrusion of stock for established SKUs can start within minutes of receiving an order. One of the main buildings was retrofitted with a continuously moving overhead monorail for organizing and transferring orders around the facility, particularly to the shipping department. The monorail replaced a traditional roller tramway on the floor which obstructed worker movement, depended on busy workers to move projects along, inherently had problematic turns, and inherently presented potential safety concerns due to being a prominent fixture around the extensive shop floor. Our gracious hosts told a precautionary story about avoiding unnecessarily close tolerances. Most roof assemblies are designed to flex, so the monorail system changed elevation after heavy snowfalls, initially presenting some unexpected conflicts.
PHD and Yamaha Robotics have been steadily adding employees both locally and internationally. They have major design and service facilities in Germany and near Beijing. A sales office is being established in India. Their products and designs are, or can be, compatible with most of the competing parts or systems found worldwide. Yamaha Robotics in Fort Wayne is the only Japanese brand with engineering, service, and manufacturing ability outside of Japan.
About 20 people attended this tour of a complex and growing international business. It started in 1957 by providing a medium-sized Tom Thumb pneumatic cylinder-actuator for General Electric's specific needs in Fort Wayne. For some reason, other contractors were not interested in that low volume medium-sized piecework. From there, the repertoire of paper designs and now computerized SKUs mushroomed but were kept available to customers. Cost-effectiveness, precision, and management had to be steadily honed. Excess land near the airport was purchased years before it was needed, behind an existing main building which was eventually outgrown and sold. The current scale, precision, and administration of PHD, Inc., deeply impressed us.
A special thank you to our PHD tour guides: Gary Murphy, Brian Wallace, and Chris Eleston. Additional thanks to Walt Hessler for helping to make tour arrangements.