According to Merriam-Webster innovation is defined as a new idea, method, or device, so a reference to the Hydra-Lock Corporation certainly wouldn’t be out of place. Founded as the result of a patent awarded for the first in its line of hydraulically expanding arbors and chucks, it has continued developing new work- and tool-holding designs throughout its 60-year history, so that it now holds more than 100 patents. The reason for this has to do, in part, with the nature of the company’s relationship with its customers.
“Since 99 percent of our projects involve custom designs, we have an atmosphere that encourages innovation and creative thought,” says Bill Andre, the company’s treasurer. “That’s how it’s been from the very beginning.”
That beginning occurred in 1947, when George Atherholt—who was the chief engineer for AC Spark Plug—developed and patented a hydraulic work-holding device. This led to the founding of A&C Engineering, which he launched with a partner. One of its early customers was Ex-Cell-O, and a site visit made by a few of that company’s employees convinced them of its potential. So, in 1964, they bought it, renaming it the Hydra-Lock Corporation as a better reflection of its proprietary technology. One of those men was Eugene R. Andre, who eventually became Hydra-Lock’s sole owner, and is now the company’s president and chairman of the board. Bill Andre—and his brother, Bob, who is vice president—have both been with the company for more than 30 years.
What first attracted him, and what continues to engage him to this day, is the fact that “we have a unique product, and it can be applied to such a wide variety of applications,” Bill says. “Each week we’ll receive requests for quotations on fascinating projects, and it’s exciting to be able to play a role in every aspect of the job, from concepting to shipping.”
The model he describes allows for input to be obtained from many internal sources. One of them is Robert Laube, the company’s manufacturing manager, who often contributes to the design process as well. “What generally happens is we’ll receive a request and it will go to our design department,” Laube explains. “If it’s a fairly straightforward job, they will go ahead and sketch up a proposal and send it to the customer. But if it’s within that 10 percent of especially challenging jobs, where there’s a slightly different application or actuation method, then a design meeting will be held. Once the design has been finalized and approved by the customer, I’ll write the order up for manufacturing, and I’ll even follow it through the process if need be. So in those cases I’ve got my finger in every aspect of the job, from concepting all the way to shipping.”
Since the company counts the biggest names in the automotive, aerospace, heavy equipment, medical, and power generation markets as its customers, these special applications come up quite often. “We’ve held everything from large turbine fan blades for the 747, precision gears for the space shuttle arm, and parts for gyroscopes,” Laube says, “to something so small as a titanium heart valve while it’s being machined. And I think it’s the fact that we all work together, and that everyone pitches in and provides their input when there’s an especially challenging project, that has allowed us to be so successful in meeting our customer’s needs.”
Those customers are found around the globe—in places such as Europe, Canada, Indonesia, Mexico, India, Russia, China, and Australia, as well as other Pacific Rim countries—while all manufacturing activities are conducted at Hydra-Lock’s 41,5000 square-foot facility in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Generally employing about 40 experienced personnel—including eight design engineers—the company is known for its hydraulic arbors and chucks, which come in three classes: A, which is the solid steel expanding sleeve; B, the split steel expanding sleeve; and C, comprised of the Conform-A-Chuck and Conform-A-Arbor products. Although the company also provides quite a few peripheral devices, such as tool holders, collets, work supports, and satellite tools, they are all aimed at achieving a central goal.
“And that goal is to solve other people’s problems with the best equipment we can possibly produce,” Bill Andre says. “Our motto, in fact, is ‘If you can machine it, Hydra-Lock can hold it,’ and we work every day to continue delivering on that promise.”
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