Comus® International Group is a leading manufacturer of world class switches, including tilt and tip over switches, solid state relays, reed switches and reed relays, and motion and vibration sensing switches, and even old style glass mercury switches. David Soyka reports on how the switch from mercury to a non-mercury solution has grown this New Jersey-based enterprise.
Comus International was founded 30 years ago in 1978 by Robert P. Romano, who today remains active as company president, to manufacture glass mercury tilt-switches. It has grown into a leading manufacturer of patented non-mercury devices such as tilt- and tip-over switches, motion/vibration sensors and float switches found in such diverse applications as medical equipment, automobiles, steam irons, alarm systems and even the Arch of St. Louis. Since its inception the company has expanded its operations into several separate divisions located in the U.S., England, Belgium and India.
Such diversification resulted from the realization that the company needed to, well, diversify. “Back in 1984, we had the vision to see the need for a non-mercury switch,” explains Joseph Perez, vice president. “Mercury is a robust metal that worked really well, but at the time there wasn’t the consciousness there is today that mercury, if not treated with care and consideration, can be harmful to the environment. However, by patenting the first nonmercury switch, we were well positioned for the trend away from mercury. Today, mercury is used primarily in some telecommunications applications worldwide and here in the states only when environmental regulations grandfather its use for certain conditions where certain applications can only work with mercury switches. Of course, our entire non-mercury product line is RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) compliant. We are also an authorized recycling facility and we work with the EPA to ensure that companies who still can use mercury dispose of it properly.”
In the 1990s, Comus expanded both around the world and with a broader product mix through the acquisition of two companies. One manufactures relays, the other dry reed switches. Perez notes, “Certain switches are more popular or more suited to certain geographical regions. One advantage of having divisions in Europe, Asia and North America is that we act as one another’s distribution network for our respective territories. Also, from my position here in our U.S. division, the relationship of the dollar to the Euro has recently attracted a lot of export business and we have been quick to respond with the sales network and customer relationships we have already in place.”
Another advantage Perez points out is, “we compete with a lot of different companies that vary depending on the product segment; however, I believe we are one of the only companies that offers such a broad array of different sensing solutions in the world. Our breadth of knowledge and depth of product line is unparalleled in the industry. This is particularly important for customers who require custom designed solutions for their application. Comus has the capabilities to provide full technical engineering support by either modifying our standard products or designing a new product from the ground up to fit a particular customer specification.”
He adds, “This product diversification coupled with the wide spectrum of market segments we serve helps us remain stable and maintain steady growth; while some sectors may be experiencing slowdowns, other sectors are in upswings. This year for example, one of our divisions experienced a bit of an off year, but meanwhile two other divisions more than made up for this with growth that exceeded our projections.”
This isn’t to say that Comus is totally impervious to economic cycles. “One of our large customer segments is the utility meter industry. The problems in the housing market nationwide have caused a significant decline in new construction, which, of course, means fewer meters are being installed. In this one instance we have experienced through sheer circumstance a 30 percent downturn, so there’s an example of how, when the general economy is in a down swing, we’re definitely feeling it.”
The U.S. division of Comus, headquartered in Clifton, N.J., specializes in motion and tilt sensors, which it manufactures in a 30,000-square-foot plant. (Additional capacity is provided by 15,000 square feet in England, 90,000 square feet in Belgium, and 30,000 square feet in India.) “We’re semi-automated in the sense that most of our processes are controlled by an operator to some extent,” Perez explained. “Even where we’ve automated a particular process such as welding or testing, for example, and eliminate the need for a highly skilled operator, we still need a person to manage the process and maintain the equipment in a limited
He acknowledges that cost of raw materials is a continuing problem, as it is for any manufacturer these days. “We try to take as much expense as we can out of our products while never sacrificing quality. We look to consolidate manufacturing processes wherever possible to achieve economies of scale as well as instilling a constant need to find efficiencies where processes cannot be eliminated or consolidated. Better forecasting helps us anticipate what kinds and quantities of materials we’re going to need. This helps us to enter into longer term contracts that offer stabilized pricing. Still, we’re feeling cost pressures, and right now we’re only passing on a portion of our expenses into the purchase price of our products.”
Comus employs approximately 350 people worldwide (85 in the U.S.), and markets its product through its own direct sales force and distributors. “What channel we use depends on the product
line and the geographic location. For example, we can source everything in the Midwest through a single distributor if and when desired by our customers.” Perez says.
QUALITY AND INNOVATION
Manufacturing is ISO: 9001 certified. “In addition, we follow Level 3 PPAP (production part approval process) for particular products, a quality standard used primarily in the automotive
industry, which is one of our larger customer segments,” Perez notes. The standard is also used in other industries, notably aviation and nuclear power, and is intended to reduce the likelihood of part failure.
Indeed, quality is the company’s competitive differentiator. “Our switches are hermetically sealed to protect their contents. That means, depending on the application, they can out last our competitor’s products 10 or even 20 times over in terms of their life and performance,” Perez emphasizes. “In contrast, similar products coming out of Asia are often made with low grade-plastic and therefore are limited in terms of their life and durability. Sure, they’re less expensive, but not when you figure how many times down the road you’re going to have to replace them, not to mention wasted time and money dealing with frequent product failure. In fact we have a customer right now who looked at our switch several years ago, as well as a low cost competitor’s version. In the end cost was the deciding factor and we lost the bid. But as of six months ago this customer has come back to us and moving forward they will be using our switch in their application because they are actually losing more in product recall and in consumer hardship.”
Another differentiator is product innovation. “We make what we call our line of Hybrid tilt switches that integrate electronics along with the mechanical non mercury switch to create higher switching capacities with an anti-vibration feature,” Perez notes. “The customer not only gets an RoHS compliant solution, but with the fit, form and function of the old style mercury switch.”
Comus recently extended its electronic sensor line with integrated MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) based sensors that are able to sense angles, acceleration levels and G-forces and are easily customizable for a particular application. These sensors are typically used in tilt control, rollover detection, and impact and movement detection, leveling and positioning control. The advantages to this sensor include a wider range of power supply voltage as well as a wider output of digital signal voltages with high reliability and water- and airproof construction.
“The angle or G-force level, whichever is desired by the customer, can be set to a fixed value at the factory simply by changing the software” Perez says. “But the beauty of these sensors is that they are also user programmable and easily adjustable, making them extremely flexible for use in a variety of different applications.
The aim of these innovations, he says, is to provide customers with “the total package; a turnkey solution that easily integrates into their existing application or product package. We strive to turn customer ideas into finished quality products, on-time; on budget. We have a highly experienced team of engineers to ensure the switches we supply totally satisfy customer objectives and expectations. In addition, we invest between 10 to 15 percent of revenues back into R&D in order to constantly innovate and bring more value add to our products. While there’s certainly a market for inexpensive, high volume product, it’s not the market where our focus is directed. Our customers are attracted to us because of the considerable value we offer in terms of quality and technology and our desire to keep to our roots. When Bob Romano began back in 1978 we were a small company who valued our customer’s needs above all else, despite our growth we have never forgotten this.”
For any customer of Comus, that’s reason enough never to have to switch.