When Larry Stockline launched Promess, Inc., with his partners in 1984, there were approximately 200 companies in the United States manufacturing various chip-making machines for drilling, milling, grinding, and turning, etc. Promess designed, manufactured, and marketed sensors for monitoring machine-tool life. Five years later there were less than 20 of these OEMs left in the U.S., and the company was facing an exceedingly dark future, especially since the countries to which the work had been exported were not interested in incorporating American-made equipment into their manufacturing processes. Then, almost overnight, everything changed.
“We were visiting with the plant manager of a motor manufacturing facility,” he recalls, “when he suddenly turned to us and said ‘if you can monitor a machine tool during the manufacturing phase and tell me when it’s wearing down and about to break, why can’t you gauge what’s happening during assembly?’ His question gave us pause, but it also sparked our curiosity.”
The company was then churning out about 32,000 lawnmower engines a day and they’d encountered a problem during assembly, so Promess took their existing expertise and applied it to that stage of the process. It worked, and the plant manager soon began placing orders for the company’s technology, with others soon following. “And that was our entry into the business which we’ve been very successful in to this day,” Stockline says.
The company’s dedication to machine tools was completely understandable in light of Stockline’s background. In the early eighties he was working for a Swedish company and was intricately involved in a program to develop a new line of machine-tool monitoring equipment. When the company eventually decided to shelve the plan, Stockline was still excited about the technology’s potential and thus gave birth to the idea that the technology would someday be in great demand.
Along with two German business partners supporting his efforts, Stockline worked out of his home in the early days, soon building a small 15,000 square-foot facility and watching the employment roll grow to six. Its first big customer was a major automotive company, which was drawn to its approach to monitoring machine-tool edge sharpness. In contrast to other technologies available at that time, which kept tabs on how hard the motors were working—the more energy output required, the duller the blade—Promess took a different approach and patented measuring forces on the spindle bearings as an indication of tool-edge wear. The company was on its way toward becoming a roaring success… until its customers began dwindling away.
“That’s why that visit to the motor manufacturer was such a turning point for me,” Stockline says. “It was a real lesson in paying attention to your customer’s needs, keeping your eyes and ears open for new opportunities, and to resist the kind of tunnel vision that I think we’re all susceptible to sometimes.”
As a company manufacturing complete force, position, torque, optic, fluid, and air sensing and testing systems for in-production monitoring applications, Promess enjoys a global customer base which services and supports 35 countries. It also provides pre-service, sensors, preamplifiers, microprocessors, software, electronics, enclosures, cabling, installation, and training. Despite the point of sale, Stockline says that clients can rely on local representation to service their systems.
The company’s plans include quite a variety of new products and technologies to be introduced in the coming months and years as a result of significant investments in R&D efforts. “We plow 15 percent of our revenue back into research each year, so we’re constantly developing fresh ideas that will be of benefit to our customers found worldwide, particularly those in the gear-manufacturing industry,” he says. “Not to sound overconfident, but we want to always be the one that our competitors are chasing.”