Machine Tool Builders got its start as a service business. Since co-owners Ron Peiffer and Ken Flowers were accomplished engineers with many contacts throughout the gear industry, the partners initially started and grew the company performing service and repair work on gear cutting and grinding machines.

What started as repair services, MTB has since evolved into one of the premier gear machinery solutions providers in the industry.

Armed with a vast amount of industry connections and a portable tool box, Peiffer and Flowers went to work. As demands increased for their expertise, the sales soon followed allowing them to add necessary staff to support the ever-increasing needs of the industry. By this time, their focus shifted from repairing to rebuilding, retrofitting and re-controlling of aging gear shapers, hobbers, and grinding machines of which are critical to the manufacturing of gearing componentry.

MTB Applications Engineering Manager Yefim Kotlyar and Software Engineer John Waxler discuss MTB’s latest gear-grinding developments on a Pfauter P400G. (Courtesy: Machine Tool Builders)

Following instincts

Business owners know that it often pays to follow their instincts, and sometimes a gamble can pay off big. That’s the position Flowers was in 25 years ago when he found himself at a fork in the road: An opportunity to embark on a new business venture or stay the course and play it safe.

It all started, according to Flowers, with a simple call one day.

“I had a friend of mine who was making a living repairing companies’ machines on site,” he said. “One day I got a call from him because he had run into a situation where a project was beyond his depth, and he needed some additional technical expertise, so I helped him out. I can only surmise he contacted me because I had a great deal of knowledge on the machinery given my invaluable tenure at American Pfauter in the ’80s.”

At the time of the call, Flowers said he had a great job as the application engineering manager for NUM Controls Corporation, but, nevertheless, it didn’t stop his friend from regularly hinting that the pair should start a company repairing and rebuilding manufacturing equipment.

“The idea festered in the back of my mind, and my family thought I was crazy to even think about it seriously,” he said.

Over the course of several months, Flowers’ friend pursued the idea relentlessly, telling him of all the business opportunities he was identifying that they’d be able to take advantage of together. Finally, Flowers realized it was time to make a decision.

“It was pretty risky, and a little scary, but I decided to leave my job and start Machine Tool Builders Inc.,” he said. “The good news is that, from the very first day, we never missed a paycheck. So, in looking back and seeing what we are today, I can say that my gamble paid off.”

MTB engineers design and outfit a new control cabinet for a recently re-controlled machine. (Courtesy: Machine Tool Builders)

No outside investments

Perhaps most interesting is that the company was launched with no outside investments and very little money in the bank, according to Flowers.

“Initially we were working out of our homes, which wasn’t a problem because we were doing most of the repair work at the customers’ plants,” he said.

But within six months, the business was going so well that they couldn’t keep up, so they hired MTB’s first true employee: Ron Peiffer.

Peiffer, a talented and ambitious engineer, quickly established himself as a key asset in the success of the business, so he was offered a piece of the pie. Having multiple owners involved in the say of a rapidly growing business is not the easiest to manage, according to Flowers.

“My friend wanted out of the business, and Ron and I decided to become partners in the business moving forward,” he said.  

Engineers going over a Pfauter P1501 hobbing machine rebuild. (Courtesy: Machine Tool Builders)

Setting up shop

Not long after their partnership, the co-owners realized it was time to acquire office space, so they leased an industrial garage in Machesney Park, Illinois — the town in which the company is still located today. Not long after setting up in the garage, it was apparent the business needed more space, so they rented a larger building; however, that location quickly became too small as well. The pair finally purchased an 18,000-square-foot building.

“We had two large bays, one with an overhead crane, but looking back, we were bursting at the seams there, too,” Flowers said. “So, we planned another 25,000-square-foot addition, which went a long way toward giving us the space we needed to continue expanding our capabilities and growing the business long into the future.”

While following their successful business model and on a record growth trajectory, the company also managed to streamline its area of expertise: Experts in gear-manufacturing machinery, according to Flowers.

“We repaired and rebuilt quite a variety of different types of equipment in the early days, but we’ve since returned to our core competency, which is any type of machine that’s used to manufacture gears,” he said. “And we’ve also gotten more heavily into building custom machines and rebuilding large machines now that we have the space to do it, because that’s something we really excel at.

The expansion has also allowed the organization to add several new machinery lines to its lineup.  That includes Burri Grinding machines, HAMAI horizontal hobbing solutions, Donner+Pfister Inspection machinery, and SMG gear hobbing machines.

Before and after Pfauter P900 hobbing machine rebuilt and converted to CNC. (Courtesy: Machine Tool Builders)

Software expertise

Flowers said MTB differs from other rebuilders in the fact that the company is a “do it all” provider, which includes the versatile software it writes.

“The people who work here today come from a wide scope of manufacturing and engineering backgrounds, so our collective knowledge is quite broad and valuable,” he said, referring to the company’s 25-plus employees. “We can help a company that’s involved in producing some of the more exotic gearing — such as double helical, envelope and worm, and cluster gears — by not only updating their equipment, but also writing software for their machines. And our software is also singular in terms of the features and functions it offers. You can measure your part over balls or pins, then enter the actual measured value and let the machine do the calculations so that you’re right on size from the very first part produced.”

As an example, MTB was recently contacted by a company making very complex gears that had two Liebherr LC1002s with outdated controls that had developed chronic maintenance issues. MTB was able to install a new CNC system and write new software, which allowed the machines to continue production, protecting the customer’s investment by breathing new life into their existing machines, according to Flowers.

“We modernized their machines at a fraction of the price they would pay to replace them; they were ecstatic, to say the least,” he said.

Wide-ranging customer base

These skills have led to a prestigious customer base, according to Flowers, and, in servicing their needs, MTB has done business in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, and France. It has also exported rebuilt machines to China and Italy. 

“Machine Tool Builders is considered to be among the best gear-machine rebuilders in the U.S. and maybe in the elite class worldwide,” said KC Warren, director of Sales & Marketing.  “Although there is no specific ranking, the number of competitors that can achieve the quality, performance, breadth, and overall cleverness of design are few. I would easily put us at the forefront of the rebuilding and recontrolling effort in this country.”

In terms of the company’s structure, Flowers and Peiffer have come up with a unique way of conducting their work.

“Ron and I both come from technical backgrounds, so we hired the right people to run the company so we can do what we do best, which is working with customers on their machines,” Flowers said. “If your gear machinery is acting up, outdated, or in need of repair, give us a call; you’ll be glad you did.”