GRAND RAPIDS — You might say that Larry Hollenbeck and Nathan Kilbourne sell precision.
At least that’s part of what they and a staff of 12 other people — including the owner, Casey Cnossen — sell for Wing & Jabaay Inc., Machine Tool Sales.
The distributorship, located on 44th Street about a block east of U.S. 131, is one of a dozen companies competing head-to-head in West Michigan for the business of tool and die makers, mold-makers and other manufacturers that need to cut aluminum or the hardest steel to tolerances which, within recent memory, would have been unimaginable (we’re talking numbers like 40 millionths of an inch).
Wing & Jabaay — founded in 1956 by Ray Wing and Stan Jabaay — sells everything from 1,600-ton presses to CNC metal-cutting machinery.
Hollenbeck, the firm’s general manager, says the supplier competition in the industry is fierce, if somewhat stately, because tool and die shops just don’t buy a new press or a CNC mill overnight.
“We make regular visits to our clients and prospects,” he said. “You’ve got to know their processes intimately. And the timeline in a sale often is months. And it can be years.
“In this industry,” he added with a grin, “there is an absolute requirement for a client to have a need. He isn’t going to spend this kind of money to be nice to you. The lowest cost of these machines is somewhere in the $200,000 range and easily can go over $1 million.
“The decision is going to be made in the boardroom, if there’s a board, or the president’s office. And it’s going to wind up in a banker’s office, too.”
One of W&J’s distinctions lies in Kilbourne’s work area: mold-making. The firm has West Michigan’s only demonstration showroom for Makino machining centers.
With the assistance of Brant Pascavis, applications engineer, a mold-making or tool and die client can come in and play, sort of, with the equipment or at least see it put through its paces.
“This is a show-and-tell industry,” Hollenbeck told the Business Journal.
“Being able to get hands-on with this equipment is a very critical issue in decision-making. It’s heavily oriented toward that because we sell to a very mechanically oriented group of people.”
That’s because once the equipment is programmed, it does its extremely complex stuff on its own. In larger shops, Hollenbeck said, one person often is charged with programming specifications into CNC machinery.
“Often in smaller ones, though,” he added, “we find operators doing the programming.”
And, to people outside the industry, the things the metal-cutting machines can do are phenomenal.
W&J showed the Business Journal a device that uses a graphite electrode to transfix a 2-inch thick piece of tool steel — just about the hardest steel that exists — with a 2-inch slot 1/32 wide.
The machine produces the cut with perfect edges. There is no discoloration and only a few detached beads of slag. There is no finishing, polishing, grinding or filing, either, because that would destroy the desired dimensions. Additionally, the machines can replicate identical cuts for as long as workers can provide it with the materials.
Making such a cut was impossible until a few years ago.
Likewise a CNC Wire EDM — electrified brass wire in a bath of de-ionized water — can cut a linked set of initials from tool steel; again, no finishing required. And should the wire break during the cut, the machine rethreads itself and goes on about its business.
In fact, Kilbourne — formerly a mold-maker — notes that one of the CNC metal-cutting machines is as productive as three craftsmen formerly were when operating numbers-driven machinery. Moreover, one man now can handily “supervise” three CNC machines, which cut with tighter tolerances than was possible with older equipment run by even the most experienced craftsmen.
“In fact,” Hollenbeck said, “often when we deliver one of these machines, three older machines go out the door.”
So is CNC automation destroying jobs? Actually, Hollenbeck said, such devices make it possible for an industry to continue operations when fewer and fewer qualified people are entering the job market.
Hollenbeck explained that the other Makino showrooms in the upper Midwest are in Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Indianapolis.
Like its dozen or so competitors, W&J shows off its other wares — most notably the big presses that are the bulk of its business — in clients’ shops to which the firm already has sold such devices. Included in W&J’s sales package are client training seminars held in a posh multi-media center in the basement.
Hollenbeck and Kilbourne grin when they tell of something else that’s really special about W&J.
“We have nine sales people here plus three in the Detroit office,” Hollenbeck said. “And if one of them is gone, his phone rings here and a real, live person answers it. It’s the same with us. We don’t leave it to computer or voice mail.”
“We hate those things,” Kilbourne said.
“Yeah,” Hollenbeck chuckled. “We have to deal with them all the time.”
The other major time factor in sales for the tool and die industry is manufacturing and set-up time for new equipment.
Hollenbeck explained that it’s rare for a press manufacturer to have a machine completed when the sale occurs. “If they’re making a press from scratch,” he said, “it’s a nine-month process. And, of course, it arrives at the client’s shop in stages and is assembled there.”
Products such as Makino machinery are manufactured much more rapidly — say in three months or less. “But they also come here from Japan or Singapore,” he said, “so you’ve got to figure in six weeks of time on the water and in customs.”