Workcells Boost Efficiency, Cut Waste

Workcells Boost Efficiency, Cut Waste

Since the publication of “The Machine That Changed the World” by James Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos in 1991, companies have sought to improve on the workcell idea. Also known as the kaizen process, workcell benefits are undeniable: minimal waste, reduced production bottlenecks, and — best of all — lowest possible final cost of production. What’s not to like.

The first beneficiaries of workcells were automakers. Their huge production runs of similar, internally planned products yielded immediate rewards. But companies like Ajax face different challenges. Ajax produces products specified by our customers. That means Ajax’s workcell development must be responsive to customer requirements.
Using RIEs To Implement Work Cells

RIEs (Rapid Improvement Events) isolate key departmental managers and tasks them with improving a single business process in a short amount of time. The event is not considered complete until the process improvement actually takes place. RIEs require quite a bit of advance planning to be successful. Most of the prep work involves gathering decision-making data so that the process does not stall. Top management must also make sure the RIE team feels free to make important decisions. Some of these decisions may require significant changes within the organization. That can cause disruption.

“REIs aren’t necessarily easy,” said Ajax Vice President of Sales and Marketing Don Wellman. “It’s all about making our processes better for our customers.”
“We place emphasis on the rapid part of RIEs,” Don continued. “Corporate speed makes a big difference when working with world-class OEMs. We need to move as fast as they do.”
Don said Ajax plans on doing at least three RIEs this year. “Workcells are a priority with our RIEs, since they yield so many benefits that directly improve customer service and value”.

Forming A Citizen

Forming A Citizen

The path to American citizenship is neither fast nor easy.  It’s not supposed to be.  Find out how the Ajax HR department helped make an employee’s dream possible.

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Ajax Honors Veterans

Ajax Honors Veterans

Ajax Metal Forming Solutions celebrates all those who have served and continue to serve in the United States Armed Forces.  We invite all Minnesota businesses to join us in honoring the brave men and women who stand in harm’s way in the name of freedom.  Thank you for your service to our country!

History of Veterans Day

On November 11, 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued a message to his countrymen on the first Armistice Day, in which he expressed what he felt the day meant to Americans:

The White House, November 11, 1919.

A year ago today our enemies laid down their arms in accordance with an armistice which rendered them impotent to renew hostilities, and gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and juster set of international relations. The soldiers and people of the European Allies had fought and endured for more than four years to uphold the barrier of civilization against the aggressions of armed force. We ourselves had been in the conflict something more than a year and a half.

With splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns, we remodeled our industries, concentrated our financial resources, increased our agricultural output, and assembled a great army, so that at the last our power was a decisive factor in the victory. We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral, of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought.

Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men.

To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.


The United States Congress adopted a resolution on June 4, 1926, requesting that President Calvin Coolidge issue annual proclamations calling for the observance of November 11 with appropriate ceremonies. A Congressional Act approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday: “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.”

In 1945, World War II veteran Raymond Weeks from Birmingham, Alabama, had the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans, not just those who died in World War I. Weeks led a delegation to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who supported the idea of National Veterans Day. Weeks led the first national celebration in 1947 in Alabama and annually until his death in 1985. President Reagan honored Weeks at the White House with the Presidential Citizenship Medal in 1982 as the driving force for the national holiday. Elizabeth Dole, who prepared the briefing for President Reagan, determined Weeks as the “Father of Veterans Day.”

U.S. Representative Ed Rees from Emporia, Kansas, presented a bill establishing the holiday through Congress. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also from Kansas, signed the bill into law on May 26, 1954. It had been eight and a half years since Weeks held his first Armistice Day celebration for all veterans. Congress amended the bill on June 1, 1954, replacing “Armistice” with “Veterans,” and it has been known as Veterans Day since.

Forming Ajax Careers, Now And In The Future

Forming Ajax Careers, Now And In The Future

Curt Jasper and Courtney Mickelson devote huge amounts of time and energy to the people side of the business.

HR Manager Courtney Mickelson and Director of Operations Curt Jasper

”The Ajax team is proactively learning how to grow the company’s talent pool by volunteering on local organizations’ boards or discussion panels to understand colleague and employer issues.“ We always look for new avenues to approach our next career objective,” Curt said.

The Company’s #1 Talent Builder – The Skills Matrix

Ajax Plant Manager Brandon Holmes is a perfect example of how development programs can identify and grow talented people quickly. Brandon joined Ajax in 2007 and worked his way up through production, fabrication, logistics, and management roles to become the company’s newest Plant Manager.

HR Manager Courtney Mickelson and Director of Operations Curt Jasper
Brandon is a credentialed Class A Journeyworker whose professional development includes creating, attending, and instructing the M-Powered manufacturing program at Hennepin Technical College and the sheet metal program at Anoka Technical College, both in Minneapolis. Brandon has completed coursework in lean manufacturing and six sigma process improvement and is a Certified Professional Project Manager (CPPM).

The Ajax Skills Matrix is a color-coded grid that shows a composite of production skills needed and mastered by members of the Ajax workforce. This at-a-glance talent management tool, posted prominently in the company break room, inspires workforce members to learn new skills and become the multi-skilled team that boosts production efficiency. Managers can also assess the available skills at any given time and contrast that to the production schedule, enabling them to quickly identify and correct any future gaps.

Benefits To Workforce and Customers Alike

Put yourself in the Ajax customer’s shoes (if you already have, thank you!) and imagine you’ve just handed off a critical project on a tight timeline. Wouldn’t you be happy to know the many ways the Skills Matrix improves performance on your project? Here are just a few examples.

  • Increased workforce competency and greater personal commitment to your project’s success.
  • Greater management understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of people assigned to your project.
  • Increased production capacity and efficiency through earlier detection of skills shortages.
  • Improved recruitment efficiency through hiring and training people with backgrounds in areas of need.
  • Better project planning based on the projected availability of skilled people.
  • More consistency and stability, keeping the company, and your projects, moving forward.
  • Better product quality and reduced production bottlenecks.
  • Inspires workforce members to build their talents because the company’s steady growth yields new career opportunities.
Ajax Production Manager Brandon Holmes

Ajax Production Manager Brandon Holmes

It Starts At The Top

The Skills Matrix only works when company management is committed to seeing it through and keeping it embedded in the minds of people at all levels of the company. Vice President of Sales Don Wellman said the Skills Matrix must become part of the Ajax core culture. “It starts with us,” he said. “Management needs to prioritize the Skills Matrix in order to get the most from it.”

Don said once people begin to see the benefits of the Skills Matrix, the cultural embedding gets easier.  “The good news is that everyone can see how well it works,” Don said. “That gives the entire Skills Matrix project plenty of momentum to keep it rolling forward.”

Career Doors Open With Apprenticeships

Career Doors Open With Apprenticeships

How career-seekers can dream big, avoid student debt, and discover opportunity.

Altheha DrePaul’s workday is again packed. “Month end is always so busy,” she said in her soft Caribbean accent.

As an International Account Manager who handles multimillion-dollar manufacturing projects, Altheha oversees the production and export of metal formed parts to companies in China, Brazil, Mexico, and other international destinations. She clearly loves her work, because her smile is ever-present. “Time flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it,” she laughed. “Have I been here 10 years already?”

The “here” Altheha refers to is Ajax Metal Forming Solutions of Minneapolis. Altheha connected with Ajax through the M-Powered program at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis. A friend had invited the unemployed and struggling native of Guyana, South America to an informational meeting at HTC. That meeting lit the fuse. Altheha has since followed a life-changing, 10-year career path that led her to this busy day filled with meetings and phone calls to corporate customers worldwide.

This is a success story that Ajax likes to repeat. It’s good for business. Ajax has historically grappled with a frustrating and long-running issue that many Minnesota manufacturing companies face: the Skills Gap. There’s simply not enough qualified job applicants to meet demand.

That’s why Erick Ajax, one of Ajax’s owners, formed an educational partnership with HTC a decade ago. Together they developed M-Powered, a fast-track training curriculum in advanced manufacturing that continues to produce successful graduates such as Altheha.

She joined us in 2007 as a machine operator,” Ajax said. “Altheha went on to complete her M-Powered program and then our registered apprenticeship program. She became a Class A Journeyworker by completing 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of additional classes in the Minnesota state college system. She has since greatly increased her earnings and benefits,” he said.

Pre-paid tuition – the foothold

A huge advantage for students like Altheha who enter registered apprenticeship programs is the pre-paid tuition companies provide. Ajax covered every dime of Altheha’s tuition up front. She incurred zero student debt.

Student debt, long a concern, has reached the crisis level. In Minnesota, the average student debt load is $31,526, ranking sixth nationally. Seventy percent are carrying student debt, good for fifth nationally.

Student debt is particularly troublesome because it forces grads to delay home purchases, marriage, and retirement savings. One in six of these loans default. Moreover, many of the student debtors dropout. The dropout rate is alarming: only 43% of public college students will complete their four-year degrees. The financial obligation will follow these young debtors around like a shadow.

What Altheha needed was a foothold, and she got it. Students in registered apprentice programs actually earn income rather than assume debt, as much as $125,000 by graduation. As a result, very few quit the program. In return, the company gets well-trained employees that fit hand-in-glove to their human resource needs.

Ajax said his company doesn’t limit opportunities to the plant floor. “The great thing about manufacturing is that there’s a wider range of career paths to choose from once the employee is ready to advance,” Ajax said. “Several of our successful employees have gone on to pursue advanced degrees. If a student is ready and willing to put forth a great effort, the sky is the limit.”

Ajax said manufacturers need good people in finance, marketing, HR, sales engineering, computer-aided design, and others. “Manufacturers need good people in all these fields,” he said. Ajax said his company pre-pays $5,000 in annual tuition for successful employees who continue on to earn 4-year degrees in relevant areas of study.

The Message To Parents

Ajax Human Resources Director Curt Jasper said his company has been able to double its workforce in four years due in part to registered apprenticeships. “We have a great program in place,” he said. “Now our job is to get the message out.”

Jasper said his company’s program includes learners from diverse backgrounds; including men and women who speak English as a second language. “Manufacturing has improved its reputation,” Jasper said. “The old days of dark, dirty, dangerous plants are over. The modern plant is a highly technical, computer driven operation. More and more Women especially are getting into manufacturing for the higher pay.”

Ajax provides very competitive pay, retirement plans, insurance, health care, and numerous other incentives to attract top workers. “We’re a Minnesota Top Workplace for three years running,” Erick Ajax said. “We’re a clean, safe, workplace.

Ajax said Class A Journeyworkers can earn more than $20 per hour. The more experienced Journeyworkers can earn well over $30 per hour.

Ajax has decades of apprenticeship experience, Jasper said. His company offers five different trades in the apprenticeships program:

* Tool & Die Maker
* Machine Operator
* Production Sheet Metal Worker
* Punch Press Operator
* Maintenance

Ajax said his company continues to modernize its learning programs to include online resources like, an online, competency-based learning and development solutions for manufacturers.

A career idea that politicians of all stripes agree on.

This idea is so win-win that politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that it works, a rarity these days. On April 13, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken reintroduced his college affordability bills. The bills, which are co-led by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, are part of a long-time collaboration between the two Senators to help students avoid insurmountable debt.

Sen. Franken recently hosted his “Advancing Career Pathways Summit” in St. Paul, where he showcased a variety of successful and innovative school-business partnerships that will serve as models for his new legislation, “the Career Pathways Innovation Act,” which will incentivize such partnerships. The Summit drew more than 350 Minnesota educators, business leaders, and policy makers.

“As I’ve traveled around Minnesota, I’ve seen employers take important steps to address the skills gap, which is hurting our economic competitiveness in the 21st century,” Sen. Franken said. “Countries like Germany and Switzerland have an education and workforce training system that understands the value of on-the-job learning. Here in Minnesota, I’ve seen smart business leaders take this approach, including Erick Ajax whose manufacturing company helps workers improve their skills on the job, while advancing their education. He is succeeding because his workers can climb a good-paying career ladder, and in return he has a reliable and skilled work force.”

Also this month, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, along with Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, introduced the American Apprenticeship Act to provide funding to states to expand apprenticeship programs.

“We have businesses that need workers and workers that need jobs,” Sen. Klobuchar said. “Oftentimes their skills just aren’t matching up. In Minnesota, more than 70 percent of our manufacturers said it was difficult for them to find workers with the right skills and experience.”

Program Qualifications

The U.S. Department of Labor created guidelines to help companies like Ajax get DOL certification to become a registered apprenticeship program participant. The guidelines are strict. Curriculum design approval by the DOL is a requirement, and the employer must employ three highly-experienced and certified mentors for each apprentice.

Requirements for Ajax’s students are also strict: Applicants must:

* Present a high school diploma or GED
* Demonstrate good conduct and study habits
* Score 80th percentile or better on the Precision Metalforming Association aptitude assessment.
* Pass a drug test
* Pass a math test
* Pass a thorough background check

Successful applicants must gear up for rigorous learning. Perfect classroom attendance is expected, as are excellent grades and an enthusiastic attitude. At Ajax, program dropouts are very rare. “We’ve done a good job of screening the youngsters we bring into our program,” said Jasper. “We don’t want to lose a single apprentice.”

Manufacturing Day

On National Manufacturing Day, more than 1,600 American manufacturers will open their doors to high-school students and the general public as a means to promote manufacturing in America. Ajax Metal Forming Solutions has been constant participant in Manufacturing Day and this year will host hundreds of high school students from around Minneapolis for plant tours and demonstrations. Manufacturing Day occurs annually on the first Friday in October, this year Oct 6, 2017.

“Manufacturing Day is an excellent place to start learning about advanced modern manufacturing and registered apprenticeship programs,” Erick Ajax said. “Any young person who wants to launch a great career in manufacturing should start preparing right away.”