But at least one local firm in the industry broke ground last month to construct a 26,000-square-foot plant in Coopersville.
The firm is SelfLube Inc., and is not, as the name might suggest, a company that changes oil in cars.
Instead, according to its owner-founder, Phil Allor, it refers to the nature of some of the precision components that the firm manufacturers for the tool and die industry — not only in West Michigan but also throughout the Midwest.
Allor, a mechanical engineer who is a native of Detroit and earned his degree at the University of Detroit, founded the company in 1990.
He told the Business Journal that the firm started with two employees and now has a staff of 18 people and produces thousands of parts.
A number of years ago, when SelfLube had only eight employees, Allor said the company backed up its commitment to quality with a project to become ISO 9002-registered.
“At the time, it seemed like we were biting off a lot more than we could chew,” he said, “and a lot of people thought we were just a little crazy. But we did it and it did pay off in a lot of different ways.
“Mostly, though,” he added, “it transformed us into a disciplined, by-the-numbers kind of organization. We’re still pretty small, but in many ways we operate like a big company.”
The firm manufacturers components that tool and die firms and mold makers employ in fashioning their own products.
He explained that in the simplest mold, one is simply stamping two pieces of metal onto a third thin piece that one feeds between them.
“But when they’re making more complex parts,” Allor added, “there’s a lot of action going on inside, and what we do is make the parts that control the sliding motion.”
He said the company manufactures about 6,000 distinct parts. “They’re all very highly specialized,” he said, “at very tight tolerances and with pretty low production runs.”
He said tolerances typically are about two ten-thousands of an inch, a tolerance at which heat affects both the part and the gauges used to monitor it. “So we have to do it all at consistent temperatures.”
Allor explained that SelfLube’s specialty makes its market a bit larger than the tool and die industry, so that the firm isn’t utterly dependent upon that industry’s economics.
That’s fortunate, he added, “because the industry has been in a terrible slump for the last two years and its just starting to come out of it.”
“Part of it is the steel tariffs,” he said, “because of the very high steel content in the products.”
The other difficulty, he added, is that China and Singapore provide their domestic tooling industries with heavy government subsidies. “The government pays for it. It builds the plant or pays most of the cost, so it’s like you’re competing with the government rather than individual businesses.”
So why pick this particular time to build a new plant?
“Well, part of the reason for expansion is that we’ve been living in extremely cramped quarters for many years and we have just about reached the breaking point. So this is going to give us some of the elbowroom that we really need.
“And the other thing is that it’s going to give us room that will allow for expansion in the future.”
Allor said he expects SelfLube to be able to move into the new plant near the end of the year.