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As appeared in Manufacturing Today
September/October 2006

Ken-tron Mfg., Inc. – Metal Stampings and Wire
Changing with the Time
By Stephanie Sims

For more than 45 years, Ken-tron Mfg., Inc. has provided metal stampings and wire to it’s customers around the world. That is one thing Rick Thompson, senior vice president, says he is proud of, noting that Ken-tron’s customer list is a Who’s Who of Fortune 500 companies.

This past June marked the company’s 46th year in business. In 1960, Erskine Precision Wire, a small wire company, moved from Pennsylvania to Owensboro, Ky. and changed its name to Kentucky Electronics (KE). According to Thompson, the first few years were a struggle for the company; it didn’t have a lot of revenue and experienced losses monthly. A turning point came in 1962, when Texas Gas Transmission bought controlling interest in KE, providing needed capital.

The company started manufacturing precision grid wire for receiving tubes and television gun parts. In 1966, when color television was newly popular, KE had 600 employees. The company also expanded to six locations in Owensboro. But by 1967, transistors were replacing receiving tubes and foreign competition stopped the growth of KE.

In 1983, Robert Hudson and W.C. Cundiff purchased Kentucky Electronics’ Owensboro plant and renamed it Ken-tron Mfg., Inc. Since then, the company has received Aerospace Standard AS 9100 Rev. B and ISO 9001:2000 certification.

“We have prospered for 46 years, in spite of complete product changes, major customers going out of business, business moving offshore, health and other insurance cost explosions and many other factors that were obstacles to success,” Thompson says.

Thompson says Ken-tron is most known for creating metal stampings and wires for the TV industry. However, he says this industry began to dwindle in the late 1990s, and now is less than 1% of their business. “There are probably only about two or three TV plants in the whole country now,” he says. “They are being made in other countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China, India and Korea.”

The company is focused on different markets now, such as automotive, aerospace, medical and industrial. Ken-tron manufactures metal stampings and wire for a wide variety of industries.

“We try to have our manufacturing employees trained in as many positions throughout the factory as possible,” Thompson says. “Being adaptable to changes through cross-training is crucial. After an employee becomes adept at their position, they will participate in the training of employees from other departments or new employees. We keep all employees abreast of their performance by communicating quality, productivity and overall performance data.”

Thompson recently discussed other company and industry issues with Manufacturing Today.

Manufacturing Today: What are some challenges the company is experiencing?
Rick Thompson: At the present time, the biggest challenge is the increasing metal prices. Nickel has increased from $2.50 per pound in the summer of 2002 to over $15 per pound in August 2006. Copper has gone from $0.69 per pound to $3.50. The majority of our products contain copper or nickel.

We try to avoid (charging our customers more) by becoming more efficient in other areas – we try to leverage our geographical proximity to add value to the fact that (we are close to customers) and make a quality product and deliver it on time. We always do all we can do to set ourselves apart from a quality standpoint.

MT: What else sets Ken-tron apart from its competitors?
RT: Ken-tron has two distinct product lines: drawn wire and metal stampings. We take wire or cable raw material and pull it thru dies to make it smaller diameters. With the metal parts, we take metal in strip form and create components to customer specifications and drawings. The set-apart factor in both product lines is the ability to manufacture a small close tolerance product. We make metal parts to tolerances of +-.00015 and wire to +-.0001.We are also distinctive by our ability to produce three types of metal stampings: progressive die, multi-slide or four slide and transfer press or deep drawn.

MT: How is your company maintaining/improving manufacturing quality?
RT: We use our AS 9100 and ISO quality system as a tool for continuous improvement. Ken-tron communicates with our customers continuously ensuring that the products and services they want are what they receive. We have employee training, both in-house and off-site, proceeding constantly.

MT: How do your customers define quality?
RT: We do not have a typical customer. We supply to customers in a very broad range of industries: medical, aerospace, music, automotive, military, electronics, etc. Every industry has different quality standards and every customer has specific wants and needs. Increasingly those “wants and needs” concern not just the tolerances and specifications of the wire and metal stampings, but cover areas such as packaging, shipping, material certifications. While our diversity of industries served is one of our greatest assets, it is also a challenge to remain current on each customer’s specific requirements.

MT: What is your company’s approach to managing inventory?
RT: We try to operate as close to lean as possible. For our raw material, we work with both our customers and suppliers to set up order quantities and schedules that allow us to maintain an inventory that is economical yet does not threaten the supply chain. This again requires flexibility on our part since many of our customers have finished goods inventory requirements of us. We have supplier-managed inventory at off site locations; some customers have a specific quantity of parts we must maintain in house. Many of our shipments are kanban releases against an ever-changing schedule. Conversely, we have many wire sizes that we produce as stock items.

MT: What is your position on current management philosophies, such as lean manufacturing?
RT: Lean manufacturing is a great program. For a small company, you have to have someone to implement and see that it continues. We prepare a business plan each year and have quarterly progress reviews with formal reporting on results. Continuous improvement is spelled out in our quality system and we benchmark our performance against other companies. In our business, you never get to the point where you can relax and enjoy your successes; you must be constant in improving and finding more efficient ways to do the job.

MT: What are you most proud of at your company and/or its manufacturing operations?
RT: Being a small, closely held company allows us to be light on our feet. We can react quickly to new opportunities. Ken-tron does not have the levels of bureaucracy that slows some of our competitors from taking on new lines of work, buying equipment, etc. We are also proud of the fact that our plant is clean and orderly. We have provided stable employment for over 20 years. Turnover is well below the national average.

MT: What are Ken-tron’s plans for the future?
RT: We sell our products in over 15 countries. We plan to continue to expand our current markets. Equipment is continually being upgraded or replaced. In December, we will install a complete new aqueous cleaning system for our parts operation. I am often reminded of a quote by Carrie Fisher: There is no point at which you can say, “Well I’m successful now. I might as well take a nap.”

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