SelfLube owner Phil Allor, right, and employee Kyle Schutte examine some of the parts the Coopersville company produces. Photo by Johnny Quirin
SelfLube, a small company in Coopersville that manufactures components for metal stamping dies and molds, was recently informed by Honda that it is now an approved vendor for the Japanese company and its tooling suppliers.
“They are a world-class company, so anytime a small company becomes a supplier to a very large, well-respected, quality-oriented company, it’s a vote of confidence,” said SelfLube owner and founder Phil Allor.
Getting the nod from one of the world’s largest and most successful automakers is not a cinch.
“We’ve been working on it for a long time,” said Allor, adding that he and the staff at his 35-person shop have been talking to the Japanese auto giant “probably for a good 10 years.”
SelfLube also is an approved supplier for Chrysler and General Motors tool-and-die suppliers. It produces standardized parts used in metal-bending dies and plastic injection molding dies. The parts range from wear strips and wear plates to bushings, blocks, gibs and gib assemblies, parking line locks, lifter slides and other related items.
“We make about 10,000 part numbers,” said Allor, which means a lot of variety in what SelfLube can make for use in dies.
But don’t visualize huge production runs like a stamping plant churning out car parts. “It’s very low volume for any particular item,” he said.
When a car company comes out with new models or changes vehicle designs and engineering, it needs new machine tools and dies to make the parts, and that’s where the tool-and-die industry comes in. SelfLube supplies that industry or the auto companies directly when they build their own dies.
Allor, 64, is a Detroit-area native, an engineer who was working as a consultant to the manufacturing industry when he founded SelfLube in Coopersville in 1990.
“The quintessential ambition of a consultant is to go on his own” and actually make the items he or she is presumed to be expert at making, said Allor.
While still doing consulting, he took the plunge with a small manufacturing company, Midwest Fabricating, located on Bond Street on Grand Rapids’ north side. SelfLube was started later almost as a sideline, he said, and though at first it employed only Allor and one other person, “it seemed like it had a little promise.”
The name comes from the fact that many of the die parts it made, and still makes, are self-lubricating.
SelfLube became known through word-of-mouth, selling to a few tool-and-die shops in the area, according to Allor. It grew steadily, expanding with more customers and more products, finally to the point where he sold Midwest Fabricating to focus on SelfLube.
That SelfLube survived at all since 1990 is probably a significant indication of how well it has been managed, because some of its earlier customers are undoubtedly gone from the landscape today.
Michigan’s tool-and-die industry began to suffer in the 1990s as American manufacturing began investing in foreign countries where labor costs were low. Many domestic tool-and-die companies went under, to the point where, today, it is generally agreed that about one-third disappeared — and Allor said that number might actually be closer to 40 percent.
“The industry is growing again, but it’s a much different industry,” he said. “The companies are leaner. They operate much more efficiently, and there is more use of purchased components such as the types we make.”
The adoption of standardized die components makes the shops “much more efficient,” he added.
Then came the Great Recession, some of the darkest days of U.S. industry, and of the auto industry in particular.
During the recession, the “transplant” automakers — Japanese, Korean and German companies that set up shop in North America — “fell off somewhat, but they were not nearly in the dire circumstances as were the domestic companies,” said Allor, referring to Detroit’s Big Three.
Now automakers “are a lot leaner, a lot more efficient, and they’ve got better products,” he said, so there seems to be more consumer excitement about their cars these days.
Another plus-factor for companies like SelfLube is that U.S. car makers are “making a little money right now, which is always good for the tooling industry,” said Allor. Members of the auto industry generally have a wish list of new cars they want to make, he said, but that takes significant investment in tooling.
“Because they are making some money, they can afford to buy the tooling,” he added.
Another factor helping the U.S. automotive industry is that costs are going up around the world, with Allor noting that “there are 15 percent annual increases in labor cost in China right now.”
It’s also becoming more expensive for American companies to send management, engineering and other technical staff to work with suppliers “in another country that’s half a world away.”
SelfLube is a privately held company that does not reveal its annual sales numbers, but it was investing in new equipment in 2012 and hired six new employees during the year. “Percentage-wise, that’s a pretty big bump for us,” Allor said.
“We will be hiring some people this year,” he said, although it is a general increase and not necessarily a result of Honda granting SelfLube approved vendor status.
Is Allor confident the U.S. auto industry is truly back on a permanent basis?
“The country goes through business cycles, so nobody is permanently back. There is no permanent anything, really. For the foreseeable future, this year and next, it’s probably in pretty good shape,” he replied.