Kaydon Bearings: A National Asset

MUSKEGON — Without the half-century of technology and process development housed within the brick walls of the Kaydon Corp. Bearings Division in Muskegon, a number of the nation’s signature technology assets might not exist.

On a tour, Todd Bramer, plant manager, showed off a prized example of the division’s core product: a large diameter, thin section bearing.

“A lot of people look at this and say, ‘Big deal.’ They just see a round ring made of steel,” Bramer said. “But we’re talking tolerances that are 50 millionths of an inch — that’s four zeroes on the other side of the decimal.”

This particular bearing was a core component in Lockheed Martin’s Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, the targeting system employed by the U.S. Air Force on the F-16. Other bearings will become mission-critical parts for helicopters, troop carriers, tanks and jets. Those not slated for defense contractors will be used in the semiconductor and medical business. The company is the world leader in specialized bearings for CT scanners.

At other plants, Kaydon has found immense growth in bearings for heavy construction equipment and alternative energy — particularly wind power, where the need for massive windmill bearings is fueling the company’s largest capital expansion ever.

For Jeffrey Manzagol, his 10 months as division president has provided an enviable “perfect storm” within the group’s various markets. All of its segments are growing, most impressively so.

His division comprises the bulk of the company’s Friction and Motion Control Product Group, which has nearly doubled over the past three years to $195 million, and is already $12 million ahead of fiscal 2005.

“It’s not often you get that many diverse business segments to line up the high points of their cycles at the same time,” Manzagol said.

In its most advanced business segments, Kaydon has long been the only company of note. The defense applications, for example, present a host of process and administrative challenges that less experienced companies cannot overcome. Even if a competitor could master the heat treatment of an over 40-inch diameter bearing or its micron level machining, it would still be faced with the difficult task of making every component — down to the steel — traceable to domestic sources, and then be willing to bear the expense of years of program development.

Most other companies in the segment won’t even try, opting to outsource what needs they have to Kaydon.

“These are bearings other companies can’t or won’t produce,” Manzagol said. “A lot of these programs, they don’t even bother calling anyone else.”

Defense has long been the company’s flagship market. Founder Harold Frauenthal launched the company in 1941 to meet the U.S. Navy’s need for large precision gun-mount bearings. Frauenthal’s claim to fame had originally been the specialized grinding machines used to make the gears. There are still some classic models bearing the name at the Muskegon plant today, though that part of the business was spun off decades ago. It exists today as the Campbell Grinder Co. in Spring Lake, and remains a vendor.

Harold Frauenthal died long ago, but his legacy survives in the Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Muskegon and the company he named for his sons, Kay and Don.

And the heart of the company is still largely in Muskegon, even if its corporate headquarters is in Ann Arbor. When Kaydon began trading publicly on the New York Stock Exchange in 1985, the company moved its base to Florida. In 1998, the first action of the new management team was to relocate the headquarters in Michigan.

Today, the bearings division headquarters remains in Muskegon, overseeing three facilities in the Carolinas and one in Mexico. The 91-employee Kaydon Plant No. 1 on McCracken Street in Muskegon is the $350 million company’s second largest manufacturing facility, and the most advanced in the division. Over 95 percent of its machines run a computerized machine tool. The plant carries the ISO 9001 certification, as well as the aerospace AS 9100 stamp and the National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation.

All of the bearings division’s product design and development is housed in Muskegon, where the company’s most complex offerings are built.

“And it’s all pretty much custom work, custom application,” Bramer said. “We don’t compete with the guys that make hundreds of thousands of bearings a day. It’s usually very exotic design, exotic materials and tight tolerances. … Our workers are proud to make the best quality bearings in the world.”

Many of which, Bramer added, support the country’s defense industry and other critical infrastructure.

These programs have proven particularly challenging to develop. The more exotic bearings are consistently in development for three to five years. The Sniper bearing was in development for the better part of a decade. Bramer cited another bearing that he began devising production strategies for when he first came to the company 20 years ago — only now rolling off the line in significant volume. In that case, it took decades for the program itself to be fully realized.

In total, Kaydon employs roughly 200 employees in Muskegon. 

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