Darley: Performance Under Pressure

In a churn-and-burn world driven by quarterly profits, Darley proudly stands apart as a private company that doesn’t take outside capital and has put purpose over profit for more than 100 years. As a manufacturer for the Federal Department of Defense as well as fire truck OEMs, they manage a challenging path in which success is predicated on low-volume, high-mix customized production.

“Our pumps are considered Cadillacs. They are the lowest cost of ownership, fully customizable, and you can’t touch the quality,” said Jeff Smith, Senior CNC Programmer. Then again, Darley plays in a very high-stakes niche where if a pump fails, lives may be lost. This is their story. 

A Century of Service

Darley was founded in 1908 in Chicago by William Stewart Darley with the vision of serving municipalities across the USA with integrity and passionate service. Darley manufactured and distributed municipal and firefighting equipment through a series of catalogs. As an engineer and businessman, Darley recognized a need for accessible firefighting equipment and the opportunity to improve availability with readily available Ford Model T chassis. In 1933, Darley expanded manufacturing operations to Chippewa Falls, WI. They soon began offering some of the first affordable firetrucks in the country and extending their support with global production to support the US in World War II.

Over 100 years later, Darley has leveraged its experience in the mission-critical manufacturing industry, supporting military, disaster relief, and training sectors. Every ship in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard fleet carries a Darley pump.

“We produce power take-off pumps, portable pumps, float pumps, you name it. We are a company built on relationships and are constantly looking to provide solutions to our customers that meet their specific needs,” Smith said.

After more than a century, the company has thrived in a low-volume, high-mix production environment. One of the keys to its success has been its early adoption of CNC machining technology with the continued awareness that operational flexibility should not be sacrificed.

Okuma CNC machine at the Darley machine shop in Wisconsin

Darley pioneered the use of CNC machines in northern Wisconsin in the 1980s. Their first machines consisted of a mix of brands, including Okumas. By the late 1980s, Darley’s preference for Okuma machines had grown, and the company began hosting plant tours for interested business leaders in the area who wanted to see them in operation.

As business continued to grow, Darley’s investment in CNC technology—and Okuma in particular—increased dramatically. Since joining the company in 1991, Smith recounts that the company has owned a total of 36 CNC machines—with 33 of those being Okumas. “Currently, we have 14 (Okumas) on the floor: five horizontals, two verticals, six lathes, and one grinder,” he said. They recently took delivery on their 15th Okuma, an MA-600HIII. Smith also commented that there are several key factors driving decision making for equipment investments. “These include machine flexibility, accuracy, capabilities, and operator interfaces that allow us to increasingly adapt to changing market demands while also engaging the workforce with quick training cycles, ease of machine operation, and the ability to trust the equipment they are using will produce at the highest quality for our customers,” Smith said.

Old 4-Axis Okuma LC40 CNC machine

Kindred Spirits

At the heart of the two companies’ 40+ year relationship is a shared vision of helping customers find the right solution for the application. Both have built their legacies on playing the long game, investing in customer relationships, and doing things others won’t or can’t. “For us, that always means problem-solving with our customers to provide complete and tailored solutions to meet their specific needs,” Smith explained.

In Okuma, Darley found something of a kindred spirit. “We’re not necessarily a large fish, but Okuma has always made us feel like we are. We buy one machine a year, and they treat us like we buy hundreds,” said Smith. The ultimate measure of the relationship, however, is how it translates to meet operation requirements such as productivity, ROI, and total cost of ownership. This is where the partnership is paying off in a big way.

Putting customers first and solving their challenges without hesitation is possible because of Okuma’s distributor network. Trusted, reliable, and committed to providing superior value and service to each customer, Okuma distributors stop at nothing to make an impact when and where customers need it most. In Darley’s case, Morris Midwest has been the company’s invaluable go-to for all sales, maintenance, support, machining, and service needs.

“The machines we buy need to last 15 years at a minimum. We just replaced a 2001 MA-60HB that was 22 years old and still incredibly accurate,” Smith explained. So, why replace it? In part because of the enhanced automation options on the newer MA-600HIII.

Darley’s newest machine includes a 320 automatic tool changer. The large tool belt reduces the number of tool changes during setup and supports the wide variety of components the company is manufacturing. Other features include tool-breakage detection and probing cycles, which allow operators to run at the highest speeds and feeds while maintaining excellent precision, accuracy, and control. The result for Darley is less scrap, higher productivity, and greater flexibility; in short, a beefier bottom line. “With our new MA-600HII, the improved setup times due to the much larger tool belt and the 6-pallet pallet pool that allow most of the setup to be internal to other cycle times, we can continue to focus on leaning out our operations through reduced batch sizes. This allows us to be more responsive to our customers’ needs where we aren’t waiting as long to machine whatever is next in queue,” said Carl Krumenauer, the Manufacturing Engineer who managed this machine implementation.

“With our new MA-600HII, the improved setup times due to the much larger tool belt and the 6-pallet pallet pool that allow most of the setup to be internal to other cycle times, we can continue to focus on leaning out our operations through reduced batch sizes. This allows us to be more responsive to our customers’ needs where we aren’t waiting as long to machine whatever is next in queue.”

Carl Krumenauer, Manufacturing Engineer

Overcoming Obstacles to Growth

As a family-run small business, Darley is constantly balancing human-centered culture with process automation and efficiency. The key challenge is how to increase productivity and process efficiency while maintaining the flexibility and quality upon which their success has been built. One answer is by bringing online more capable, accurate, and intuitive machines that increase operational flexibility through decreased machine change over time, streamlining operator controls, and ensuring general reliability so that the machine is the last worry in a complex setup.

Another key challenge, which certainly isn’t unique to Darley, is operating within a manufacturing space where the labor market has been slowly shrinking. Like most companies, Darley is seeing the labor market shift where fewer people are seeing machining as an attractive career path. “Our goal will always be to use technology to improve our workplace through enhanced capabilities, improved safety for our employees, and expedited production that allows us to serve our customers,” Krumenauer commented.

“We need to find ways to tout our culture and access to technology that provide exciting career paths within manufacturing.” Smith further explained.

For companies like Darley who are looking to engage skilled machinists in the innovation process, next-generation GUI (graphical user interface) control interfaces and machine tool automation can often be a dealmaker when recruiting talent. Equipment panels with highly interactive, fluid, and data-rich controls keep workers more mentally engaged. In doing so, they recast their role as more of problem-solving data analysts and less of manual laborers.

Examples of the Okuma OSP Suite interface

These control interfaces are also highly configurable. Each user can customize the operation panel, adding their favorite apps, shortcuts, and common tasks to suit his or her preference and skill level. A variety of available OSP apps enables operators to add customized on-screen shortcuts, user settings, maintenance reminders, and displays. Beyond improving operator performance, this helps cultivate a sense of ownership in the machine, the process, and the company.

A Culture of Service

Today, Darley leans into its legacy of serving those who serve. Its relationships—with customers, suppliers, and stakeholders—are more than transactional. The company’s 100+ year history has cemented this philosophy into its DNA. Maintaining that edge means continuing to deliver the flexibility, quality, and reliability its customers expect, and Okuma is proud to play a role in that effort.

For more information on Okuma machines and services, contact your local distributor.

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