Fabricator finds a better way to organize tooling

workbench on wheels with drawers

Your Ultimate Guide to Work Trucks Toolboxes and Modular Tool Storage

By Dan Davis A slowdown in business is not something that is typically celebrated, but Norm Penner, president, Okno Manufacturing, Arborg, Man.,looks back fondly on a slow spell back in 2004. That’s when workers turned their attention to cleaning up the shop, setting the company on a new path. Penner grew up in his dad’s metal fabricating company, learning to weld at 8 years old and working regularly after school when he turned 12. By the time he turned 20 in 1994, Penner had taken over the company, along with his brother Marvin, when his father Abe decided to leave the company and spend more time working with his church.
Needless to say, with all of those years of experience, Penner has a pretty good feel for how a metal fabricating company operates. He’s done everything—material ordering, quoting, account management, design, fabrication, and shipping. “When you start out as a little farm shop, that’s
what you have to do. I’m very hands-on,” Penner said. During that time, Penner learned more about business as well. One of the key lessons was that when you have good employees, you need to keep them. If they left for other employment opportunities, they weren’t likely to come back. That’s what made the business slowdown in 2004 so challenging. A big contract for a large amount of metal fabrication work failed to materialize when it was supposed to, and as a result, the shop was significantly less busy than what the production floor was used to.

These swivel-style drawers are designed to be opened with one finger. The idea for them came when Okno Manufacturing in Arborg, Man., found itself waiting on a manufacturing contract, so management decided to have everyone focus on cleaning up the place. When shop floor workers decided they needed new cabinets to store punch tools, the swivel-style cabinets were invented.

“Instead of paying everyone to sit around the coffee room all day, I said we might as well start cleaning. So, we literally started washing the walls and ceiling,” Penner said. With the cleaning underway, workers looked at clearing up some of the clutter in the shop. In particular, a decision was made to invest in some cabinets to store the heavy punching tooling for the company’s C-frame presses. (This was before laser cutting machines became the dominant workhorse for producing sheet metal parts.) Penner said that when he looked at the cabinet offerings from the large industrial tool suppliers, he got sticker shock on what was available. He saw lightweight cabinets with flimsy drawers for as much as
$10,000 each. They were expensive and unlikely to hold up under the weight of the heavy-duty press tooling. Like any good metal fabricator, Penner thought he could find a better way. That’s when he set forth on trying to decide just what was needed.

Tools on a Swivel

Penner knew that the cabinets had to have a heavyduty design, but he also wanted them to be easy to open. He knew from experience that someone would be approaching a tool cabinet with only one hand free; the other hand would be holding the heavy tooling. In typical circumstances, the person would put the tool on the cabinet or on the floor and use two hands to pull the traditional slide drawer toward him. Using two hands provided equal pulling pressure on both sides of the drawer; relying on one hand to pull such a drawer open might result in one side being favored over the other and jamming the drawer. That’s when Penner thought of the drawers opening on a swivel, with only one side being attached to the cabinet. That way, a drawer could be opened with a pinkie, and that employee could place a tool
directly into the drawer. The tooling didn’t end up on the ground or on the cabinet top, where it could be left and ultimately attract other homeless tools. (It’s the law of the fabricating floor: One item not placed where it should be ultimately attracts other, similar items, creating an organizational headache.) Okno Manufacturing produced a prototype, and the shop floor workers liked it. They built some more cabinets for the company’s own use. Visitors from neighboring businesses noticed as well. When they got a glimpse of the shelves from these cabinets swinging out instead of being pulled out like a traditional drawer, they asked if they could order a similar cabinet. “It slowly started from there. I wasn’t even seriously thinking about marketing the cabinets right at that time,” Penner recalled. “It wasn’t until some years later that I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we see what we can do with this.’” Today the cabinets are made from 12- and 14-ga. steel with a powder-coated finish and have a 1-in. shaft that supports the drawers. (At tradeshows a representative of Swivel Storage Solutions, the company that was founded to market and sell the cabinets, often can be seen standing on one of the trays to demonstrate the cabinet’s strength.) The mobile cabinets also have a braking system that is engaged by a foot pedal, found on the side, which raises the casters up and sets the cabinet on its adjustable footings. The cabinet top is made from 0.25-in. plate.

To accommodate press brake tooling in the drawers, cabinet designers removed the tall edge and introduced durable plastic grooves to allow the tools to stand up and not bang into each other.

Bushings in traditional slider-type drawers are exposed and easily attract dust. Over time these drawers can be more difficult to open because of the dust buildup.

Penner said that manufacturers liked the cabinets not only for storing punch tooling, like Okno Manufacturing originally did, but also for organizing
machining-related items such as cutting tools and inserts. The company even has made custom cabinets for a manufacturer of saw blades in which large coils of raw material, ranging in width from 1 to 3 in., are kept in separate drawers. Penner added that the saw blade cabinet is part of an automated cell, and the Swivel Storage Solutions cabinets were specified for the application because the robot could easily open the drawer

New Brake Begets a New Cabinet

In the early 2010s the demand for the toolboxes were taking off. Okno Manufacturing needed a new press brake to keep up with the orders.
This new press brake wouldn’t be like one of the company’s old mechanical or hydraulic brakes. This would be a precision machine capable of making high-tolerance bends consistently. It also would require an investment in precision tooling.

This press brake tooling wasn’t the 10- or 12- ft. sections that were used in those older brakes and sometimes treated in a rough-and-tumble manner. This new tooling set was precision ground and represented a noteworthy investment for the company. Throwing these tool segments around like a leftover piece of plate from a cutting job wasn’t going to happen. The tools needed to be treated gently and kept from banging into each other, which might happen if they were just kept in a simple drawer, swivel or no swivel. Penner also saw that workers actually ran the risk of pinching their fingers when picking up or placing the tooling in a drawer. The tools can be heavy, and someone could hurt themselves if they weren’t paying close attention to handling the tooling. “That’s when I redesigned the shelves and opened the ends up,” he said. Today the swivel-style cabinets can accommodate press brake tooling. Each shelf has grooves that tooling can slide in and out of or simply be locked into if they are the kind with push-button locking mechanisms. The grooves are made of very highm molecularweight polyethylene, which is durable enough to stand up to heavy and long pieces of tooling. The grooves allow the punches and dies to stand upright. They aren’t going to bang around when the shelving is closed or if the cabinet is moved on the shop floor. To accommodate tall tooling, the shelving can be adjusted without disassembling the cabinet. Penner said that spacers can be removed from the shaft and repositioned so that the swivel drawers can be moved up and down to create the heights needed to accommodate the different-sized tooling. Caps at the bottom and top of the spacers keep the drawers securely
attached to the shaft and operating as expected.

A Lifetime Product

These cabinets have changed the shop floor not only for those metal fabricators that have bought them, but also for Okno Manufacturing. Metal fabricators get a product designed to last for generations, and Penner’s company has a product line that is a nice compliment to the job shop’s contract work. While there is no particular seasonal demand for these organizational devices, Penner said that business will pick up in the months following tradeshows, which usually occur in the spring or fall. When people see the cabinets in action, they understand just how they perform differently from the typical slide drawers they are used to. Seeing is believing, and ordering is often the result. “When our inventories go down to a certain level, we just put orders in for particular models, and we build back up. That’s where it can really help out the shop,” Penner said. “If we are caught up in the shop, we just say, ‘Where are we running low? Let’s quickly do a run of those cabinets.’” Penner is excited about the product line’s future. As metal fabricating becomes more complex, such as bending stronger materials, companies are going to have to invest in new tooling, and they’ll want to protect their investments. The company also is diversifying the product line. It already has sideboxes for service trucks and is working on aluminum versions for marine applications. Penner said he doesn’t see business slowing down
anytime soon.

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