From the conference-room window at Plant One in Tipp City, Ohio, Michael van Haaren can see the doors of a weathered old garage. “That’s where it all began,” he says. “Emmert Studebaker put a single machine in the corner of that building on his family’s property in 1946, and that’s where Process Equipment Company got its start.”
Nearly 60 years later, that patch of land — the original homestead of Studebaker’s branch of the family, which had immigrated to the United States in 1736 — is the company’s headquarters, or “Plant One,” with four additional manufacturing and warehousing facilities found within driving distance. But Process Equipment’s physical expansion over the years points to a much more significant development: growth in the vast array of equipment, services, and technologies that it provides to its customers. From its beginnings in the corner of a garage, the company is now comprised of four major divisions, including the Joining Technology Group, the Process Manufacturing Chain, the Product Development Group, and the Robotic Accessories Division.
According to van Haaren — who is the company’s president — Emmert Studebaker began by doing tool and die work for automotive applications, with customers including Ford, GM, Delco, and Chrysler. His brother, Robert, joined the company two years later, around 1948, and the company started to focus on building highly specialized tooling and equipment. While retaining its ties with the automotive industry — still a major market for Process Equipment — the brothers became suppliers in the nuclear arena, as well. “In the early days, and well into the eighties, they did everything from designing nuclear fuel rod loading systems to manufacturing control panels for nuclear power plants,” says van Haaren. “They worked with everyone from Los Alamos, to Lawrence Livermore, to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory over the years. And we still work with them, as well as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but not nearly as much as we used to.”
One landmark, in particular, was the development of a laser plane device in the late fifties that was used in surveying instruments. “These instruments were designed for surveying fields and building roads, and that division was so successful that it was spun off and sold to a separate company in the early seventies — it’s now a $350-million business,” says van Haaren. “Before his death, Bob Studebaker was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution for this device, and they even have the first prototype there.”
In the eighties — and as part of its philosophy to “identify new opportunities and needs in the marketplace, and then put people behind filling those needs,” according to van Haaren— the company marked its growth in building automation systems by establishing the Robotic Accessories Division, or RAD. “RAD grew out of a need we’d identified for versatile, dependable robotic end-of-arm tooling,” he says. “And it made perfect sense, because our engineers were designing these types of components for our own use, anyway.”
In addition, the company’s engineers began working in the area of “high-speed pulse,” or capacitor discharge welding — leading to the birth of the Joining Technology Group. “We were the first company in the United States to have built machines, and to have done weld development and production work using that particular process,” van Haaren explains, “and we’re still the only active developer of related applications here in the States.”
Besides these divisions — and in addition to the Process Manufacturing Chain, which is involved in fabricating and machining, among other things — the company has invested significantly in the R&D activities of its Metrology Systems Division (MSD), which is part of the Product Development Group.
“My background is in gears and gear metrology,” according to Brian Slone, who is the company’s MSD business unit manager, “and one thing that led us to bolster our efforts in that area was a cooperative research agreement we were engaged in with the U.S. Air Force. We worked with them to develop a micro-measurement instrument to gauge the interface properties in fiber-reinforced ceramics, such as might be used in the exhaust cone of a military jet engine.”
Slone goes on to explain that some of the technology developed for this particular application lent itself well to the data-acquisition control board of a gear inspection system — specifically the ND 430 “Next Dimension” gear inspection system, which was introduced in 1998. The system was designed to focus on gears and rotary components, whether that be gears, gear cutting tools, or other applications that require precise rotary linear positioning. “The ‘fiber pusher’ that we developed with the Air Force is really what got us back into dimensional metrology and building high-precision devices, so that was a very good relationship for both of us.”
With such a wealth of capabilities housed in four distinct divisions, it would be difficult to identify a major industry to which Process Equipment has not contributed. “Although the majority of our sales are here in the United States right now, we do have customers worldwide,” says van Haaren. “And even though our major thrust is in the automotive industry, we also provide equipment and technologies for everything from textiles to mining, medical devices, the food industry, and a variety of consumer products. Besides Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, and Toyota, we’ve also worked with Caterpillar, John Deere, Westinghouse, and Black & Decker, just to name a few. And we’ve also done work for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.”
The success of its efforts can also be found in accolades such as the “preferred vendor” ranking bestowed on the company by the Ford Motor Company for laser welding and by General Motors for the high-speed pulse welding equipment it has supplied for a major transmission program in which Process Equipment is currently involved. But it’s the diversity of its activities that have helped the company remain healthy during the recent economic downturn, Slone says.
“That diversification has really helped this company survive the last few years,” he says, “and not only to survive, but to prosper, since 2004 turned out to be a record-setting year for us, in terms of sales. And we’ve made a point of reinvesting millions of dollars back into the company, purchasing equipment to increase our accuracy and throughput for the high-precision components we’re working on.”
And while 2005 already appears to be a continuation of that trend, according to van Haaren, the company will not cease its efforts to identify new needs in the marketplace on which it can capitalize. “Innovation has always been a key word for us, and we’ve always tried to have an ‘engineering mindset’ toward the products and equipment that we manufacture,” he says. “By constantly working to develop new concepts, we’ll be able to continue helping our customers do things better, faster, and more economically.”