Lowell shop exports automation

February 20, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Pete Odland says White’s Bridge Tooling in Lowell is considered one of the tool-and-die businesses in West Michigan — “but we’re actually a little more interesting than just a tool-and-die. We design and build automation (systems) and robotic cells and fixtures, and do some pretty cool things here.”

Some of those “cool things” have ended up in factories in Brazil, France, Korea, China, Mexico and Canada.

Odland owned a construction company years ago but that profession can be stressful on a family because it often involves a lot of time spent away home. Then he bought a farm in Lowell, just down the road from a small pole barn structure that housed a tiny tool-and-die shop called White’s Bridge Tooling.

Odland got to know the owner and saw a way out of his construction business. He sold it and bought into WBT in 1991. Four years later, he bought out his partner, making him the sole owner.

In 1991, White’s Bridge had five or six full-time employees; today it has about 15 employees, mostly full time. Its annual revenue amounts to about $2 million, according to Odland.

Like most other tool-and-die shops, White’s Bridge had a lot of business related to the auto industry, but in the years leading up to and including the recession of 2007-2009, many Michigan shops went under — perhaps close to a third of them, according to some estimates.

Creativity, frugality, a reputation for quality and relationships kept White’s Bridge Tooling going, said Odland. It had to downsize, but hung on with whatever work it could get, which included building staging for the construction industry. Some companies still doing automotive work sent small, maintenance-type jobs Odland’s way.

Back then, it was “spooky,” he said, to see so many auction flyers, signaling the demise of yet another tool-and-die shop. That was the only time Odland had to lay off employees.

“I have a pretty close relationship with my employees. I’m really blessed to have an A team, so it was very difficult to lay people off,” he said.

They are all back now, however, according to Odland, and the automotive industry is once again his largest market. The automotive industry is “looking a whole lot more favorable than it did a couple of years ago.”

But White’s Bridge also became more specialized, specifically in automation; it is an official FANUC integrator, said Odland with obvious pride.

FANUC Robotics America designs and builds industrial robots and robotic systems for a wide range of applications, including welding, material handling, assembly, paint finishing and dispensing. After 29 years, FANUC Robotics claims it is the leading robotics company in the Americas, with more than 100,000 FANUC robots installed in the Americas and 250,000 worldwide. A subsidiary of FANUC Corp. in Japan, the company is headquartered in the Detroit area and has facilities across the U.S. and in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

Odland said White’s Bridge’s market is primarily West Michigan, but he sometimes gets orders from companies here that have plants or joint ventures abroad. “For instance, we just installed a robot in a machine down in Brazil,” said Odland. That was at an auto parts factory.

In the last six months, he said, White’s Bridge has built and installed equipment in Baltimore and New York, and has shipped its equipment to Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Korea, China and France.

“We’re actually looking into installing more equipment outside the U.S., particularly for companies located in West Michigan and operating plants in other countries,” said Odland.

White’s Bridge is considering involvement in the state of Michigan’s STEP program to help increase its exports. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. offers federally funded financial assistance from the Small Business Administration to companies with fewer than 500 employees that are interested in beginning or increasing their export business.

The automation equipment White’s Bridge specializes in is typically intended to reduce labor cost and/or improve quality.

“Sometimes it’s more for quality than labor. Robots don’t make errors; they do exactly the same thing, every time,” he said.

“You always hear about how cheap the labor is in these other countries,” he said, which explains why so much U.S. manufacturing has gone overseas. He said it would seem to follow that automation would not be much of a priority in foreign countries where labor cost is low.

“But not all countries have cheap labor anymore,” he added.

Along with the auto industry, White’s Bridge has also been active in the medical device industry. The company provides equipment for production of mostly small fixtures, he said, most of which are destined for use in clean room manufacturing where products are produced and packaged in a sterile environment.

The challenge in medical device manufacturing is the limits on types of materials and processes that can be used, he said. For example, steel used for auto parts can’t be used if the end product is going to remain inside the human body.

Some of the medical device tools his firm is involved with aren’t used on a typical machine; they might be attached to a device that a physician uses by hand in surgery. One such project was a tool used to make a part for a device that uses suction to grip an exposed human heart and hold it in a precise position during bypass surgery.

White’s Bridge has also done work for the aerospace industry, but that has slowed down lately, Odland said. Aerospace isn’t as well suited to automation as other industries, such as the auto industry where a machine tool might be used to produce hundreds of thousands of the same part at high speed, according to Odland.

“With our aerospace customers, if they say it’s a high-volume part, that might mean 20 a month,” he said, laughing.

However, in aerospace, “quality is imperative,” he said, which opens the door for the robots designed to do extremely precise work.

White’s Bridge isn’t really afraid of the competition, according to Odland. “When the market gets good and there is a lot of work, there are always people springing up thinking they can do it. But in our industry, it takes a lot of expertise.

“Every guy that works here is really proud of White’s Bridge Tooling and the quality that we put out,” said Odland.

Odland noted that his firm has its own in-house technicians who design and install automation controls. When asked what kind of an education that requires, Odland said bluntly he doesn’t put a lot of faith in degrees.

“I think that the U.S., and maybe the world, for that matter, is missing out on a lot of talent in the mechanical/technical areas because there is a certain amount of young people that either can’t afford to go to college, or they are the type that can’t sit through four more years of school.”

Yet many, he said, have well-developed technical skills from having grown up with computers. “I’ve actually made it a point to look for those kinds of people that don’t have a degree and train them from scratch,” he said. He said it works, and what is more, “I’ve found that these people are very loyal, because you’re giving them an opportunity at a career, making good money.”

Odland is a major supporter of the current FIRST Robotics team at Lowell High School, which is building a robot that picks up and shoots basketballs to compete against other basketball-shooting robots at GVSU in March. One of his sons is a member of the team.

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