Lean manufacturing comes naturally at Miller Metal

Marty Miller
Marty Miller, owner of MIller Metal Fabrication in Bridgeville, invests in cutting edge technology to save man hours//Photo by Brian Harvath.

By Kathy Canavan

BRIDGEVILLE – Marty Miller was fixing equipment in a food-processing plant in 1983 when he noticed how many employees it took to box potatoes.

Miller told Plant Manager Naz Elehwany he could build a machine that could pack potatoes as fast as all his employees.

“The guy thought he was nuts,” said Miller’s son Dave. “Then he said he could do it for $1,000, and the guy thought he was even more nuts. The guy gave him $1,000 pretty much so he’d just go away and stop bothering him, but he came back in with a potato machine.”

Three decades later, that plant manager’s son Michael Elehwany is now comptroller of Miller’s $12 million-in-annual-sales Miller Metal Fabrication Inc.

Next up after Miller’s successful potato boxer was a pretzel twister for Hanover Foods. “He didn’t actually invent the pretzel twister, but he spent a lot of time refining it,” Dave Miller said. “He was always fascinated with how things work.”

And so it went, with Marty Miller taking a what’s-wrong-in-this-picture look at processes and scotching the unnecessary steps.

As Miller himself puts it: “That bumper sticker – ‘Question Authority’ – that would be me.”

Rob Rider Jr., the president of O.A. Newton in Bridgeville and Miller’s long-time friend, said Miller seems to be happiest when he’s out on the shop floor figuring out how to do something better.

If Miller were playing the game of Life, he would skip the box marked “college.”

“I think creativity is what’s important. The imagination is worth more than the college. That’s my opinion,” he said.

In real life, he went directly to work doing what he intrigued him. “Just from the start, he knew he had a passion for something, and, a lot of times, especially in this modern era, we have the mindset that if you don’t go to college you haven’t expanded your mind or whatever, but that’s not the case, especially for him,” his son Dave said. “He’s never stopped learning, whether it’s by trial and error, by just reading books or by asking questions.”

Miller opened his own metal fabrication shop in Bridgeville in 1982, and his wife Christine worked with him at first.

“I just kind of liked doing it and I wasn’t very much for bureaucracy, so I thought I could kind of do my own thing. I thought I had a better way of doing it than the bureaucratic, standard way,” he said.

He got some work, and, occasionally, individuals would ask him to tweak inventions they were working on or just make a part for something that was broken.

He realized he could make more money fashioning parts out of sheet metal, so, in 1993, he opened a bigger shop. “We found a junk building in Harrington that nobody wanted and we went in and cleaned it up,” Miller said.

Somebody told Miller about DEMEP – the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership. At first, he didn’t think it was a good fit: “I didn’t want anything to do with it, because I thought a state organization would be very bureaucratic. But it was just the opposite. I clicked with them.”

Lisa Weis and Kim Kilby, manufacturing specialists with DEMEP, introduced him to lean manufacturing, the manufacturing process based on Toyota’s “continuous improvement” efforts to eliminate waste and deliver high-quality products with less cost and greater efficiency.

“It seemed kind of strange to me when I first heard that a state organization could be efficient, “ Miller admitted. “But, almost from day one when they came in, it just made sense.”

Miller spent decades developing money-saving manufacturing workarounds, so he quickly took to the “continuous improvement” concept.

Miller didn’t just create a lean manufacturing plant for himself. He developed faster turnarounds so his customers could also work lean.  That nearly doubled sales.

His short lead times save customers warehouse space. He also offers emergency turnarounds to keep customers’ productivity on track when unexpected demands arise. He even vendor-manages several customers on a weekly basis, supplying only what they need via kanban – the inventory control system developed at Toyota.

Business was so good he was outgrowing his Harrington location in 2006. One of his competitors came to the rescue. O.A. Newton, the Bridgeville material handling solutions company founded in 1916, was also using lean manufacturing techniques to streamline its production. They realized they wouldn’t need to make their own sheet metal parts if they invited Miller to share their locale.

“We kind of sat back and thought about what we do to deliver a material handling system, and we had to think about what our core competencies were and did we really need to handle the sheet metal,” said company president Rob Rider Jr. “That’s when we got together with Marty. Marty kind of lived and breathed lean manufacturing without really knowing he was doing it, because that was always how he thought.”

O.A. Newton segued out of the metal fabrication business and began ordering from Miller. They still exist side-by-side, just up the highway from Jimmy’s Grille, so close that visitors to one company often wander into the other. The only obvious demarcation is the metal-cutout nameplate on the receptionist’s desk at Miller Metal. “We really work together almost seamlessly,” Rider said.

Now, Miller Metal does $12 million a year in sales to companies like Volvo, Vulcan, Baltimore Aircoil and the U.S. Department of Defense. The company makes parts in aluminum, stainless and carbon steel.

Marty Miller uses words like “fun” and constant change” to describe what happens on the factory floor. With high-tech laser cutters, plasma cutters and CNC folders that can crease sheets of metal as if they were loose-leaf, the company stamps out oven sides and truck parts in a fraction of the time it once took.

“Sometimes we can reduce the amount of time it takes to make a part from an hour to a minute,” Miller said. “That’s extreme, but, at times, we’re able to do that.”

Cutting-edge automation and smart workarounds for older machines meant Miller could supply parts just when customers need them. Miller said the automation saves money so he can provide 401Ks and other benefits for his 86 employees.

John Fleming, director of the U. S. Small Business Administration’s Delaware District office, worked with Miller on a loan guaranty for a laser cutting machine. “Marty’s ability to use technology to meet the needs of his clients is very impressive,” Fleming said.

“One gift I will say my Dad has is he has a way of visualizing another solution,” Dave Miller said. “He’s always thinking, ‘Is there a better way of doing this?’ That kind of mentality can be an advantage in a production setting.”

“The thing I always say about Marty is he is very passionate about his customers and his employees and he’s always looking to continually improve and grow with new products, new innovations,” Kilby of DEMEP said. “He’s just a really high-energy person.”

Laughing and joking wafts across the factory floor and the offices at Miller Metal, but when Miller gets serious, he gives all the credit to his employees. “Honestly, it’s really the people who are in the company,” he said “I was able to hire good people. I was able to hire creative people who could think on their feet. I think creativity is important. The imagination is worth more than college. That’s my opinion. I promote people here to think out of the box.”

Those who abhor meetings would call Miller Metal an oasis. “If somebody comes up with an idea, we implement it immediately. We don’t have meetings and all that,” Miller said.  If it sounds good, we do it. You might call that shooting from the hip. It might be considered a bad thing. But it works for us.”

Now Miller’s three millennial sons, with various college experience, work with him. He’s hoping the business will pass to them when he retires. “They started at the bottom,” he emphasized.

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