Volume 9 | Issue 1 | Year 2006

The 167-year evolution of C. Cowles & Company makes for an interesting story, as a good part of its history ties directly into the development of automobile manufacturing in the United States.

As originally established, in 1838 in New Haven, Conn., C. Cowles provided lanterns for horse-drawn carriages. At the time, New Haven was to carriages what Detroit today is to automobiles. “In the 1800s, New Haven was a thriving center of carriage building, and it was the forerunner of the automotive industry,” says Larry Moon, president and owner of C. Cowles & Company.

From its founding in that small corner of Connecticut, C. Cowles matured into a global player. As the company grew, and as the automotive industry developed, C. Cowles & Company ascended from lanterns into plastic injection molding and automotive OEM components and aftermarket accessories, as well as commercial lighting and boiler controls. As one of the first suppliers to the industry’s original equipment manufacturers, the company remains a supplier to automakers for both the U.S. and Japanese automobile companies.

Natural Progression
Chandler Cowles founded the company to supply lanterns, but he later expanded the enterprise into carriage hardware, including door handles, locks and other coach parts. Years later, those who carried on the company converted this supply line into automobile accessories. “It was a natural evolution,” comments Moon. “When manufacturers started making cars, C. Cowles and Company migrated in that direction and the business grew.”

Today, the company is still located in New Haven, but it is quite different from the early incarnation, as it now includes five operating divisions: Phillips/Moldex Company (PMC), Cowles Stamping, Inc. (CSI), ABS Lighting, Cowles Products Company, and the Hydrolevel Company.

PMC, the plastic injection molding division, and CSI, the metal products subsidiary, comprise the company’s contract manufacturing section. These two main divisions focus on product development and improved manufacturing methods.

More specifically, PMC, established in 1958, is an injection molder of thermoplastic parts specializing in manufacturing gears, bearing retainers and small precision components. CSI is a supplier of complex metal stampings and sub-assemblies for the automotive, bearing and seals & shields industries, as well as other non-automotive related businesses. CSI and PMC pool their engineering talents to provide integrated tool design for insert-molded products.

Automated Environment
PMC’s 46,500-square-foot plant, located in Putnam, Conn., is a highly automated facility employing state-of-the-art technology. This enables it to produce quality products at affordable prices. Operating 24 hours a day in a climate-controlled environment, the division turns out a high volume of precision plastic injection molded components five days a week. Precision molding is accomplished with highly engineered thermoplastics, including carbon fiber and glass fiber-filled resins that meet the most stringent tolerance requirements.

Before it could achieve these required levels of accuracy, several things needed to happen, indicates Timothy Barry, PMC’s vice president of manufacturing. The first thing entailed a significant investment into automating the facility, which began about six years ago, Barry recalls. The facility needed to implement a stable, repeatable process with high-precision equipment. This meant reducing human involvement. According to Barry, the company realized that when you have people operating the machines, they tend to take away from accuracy. “We had to automate as much as possible. Now, everything is left for machines to handle: the processing, drying, and dispensing of the material automatically,” he says.

The system deployed is a completely automated closed loop, with human intervention greatly reduced. The closed-loop electric machines implemented aren’t subject to variations of hydraulic machines. Thus, they provide the required accuracy and the tight repeatability. “To achieve this level of accuracy, we rely on the machines to do the work that humans once did,” says Barry.

The company was also concerned about the accuracy of material delivery, so it installed a material handling system that automated the loading and the mixing of the regrind to the right proportion, says Moon. “This greatly improved the process, as the material is very consistent and no operators are involved,” he explains.

The overall benefits are increased accuracy and lowered costs. “The automated molding aspect not only provides a better process,” says Moon, “but by taking people out of the process, we reduce our expenses, which makes us extremely competitive.”

Today, the facility incorporates a “lights-out” operation, 32 injection machines, automated material handling, automated quality control with closed loop processors and automated CMM. It has about 250 active molds and 32 closed-loop injection molding machines, ranging from 20 to 250 ton clamp pressure. Seven of its presses are all-electric Cincinnati Milacron-Fanuc Robotshots. The rest are hydraulics from Nissei and Arburg. The company intends to soon go all-electric.

In this lean, automated environment, PMC only needs two machine operators each shift. This saves on labor costs, enabling C. Cowles to produce parts at reduced expense and to sell them at attractive prices, below typical market rates. At the present time PMC is shipping approximately one million pieces per month to China for assembly in finished products.

Today, about 40 percent of its business is for office equipment, while 35 percent is automotive. The remaining 25 percent covers several other markets.

The Stamp of Quality
Cowles Stamping INC. (CSI) supplies complex metal stampings and sub-assemblies for the automotive, bearing and seals & shields industries, as well as other non-automotive related businesses. Its products and services conform to the agreed-upon requirements to assure customer satisfaction through on-time delivery, performance, reliability, serviceability and safety.

The production facility produces high volumes of complex engineered metal stampings to exacting customer requirements with capable tolerances at competitive prices.

The manufacturing area encompasses more than 50,000 square feet equipped with the most advanced manufacturing technology. The facility’s presses range from 35 ton to 250 tons and material thickness from .010 to .250 thick. Thus, Cowles can handle virtually any stamping need for small- to medium-sized parts in a wide range of materials. Additional include capabilities swedging, riveting, assembly, welding, and post-tapping, post-plating and heat-treating operations, as well as well as mechanical de-burring, and various tumbling operations. CSI and PMC work as one company interfacing to the customer for insert molded and various plastic and metal assemblies.

New product development entails assistance in part design and raw material selection and full-service tool design and die construction.

Engineering Oriented
C. Cowles & Company’s larger customers are in the automotive and office products industries, and the company uses an engineer-oriented approach with all customers. “As a product is being conceived and developed, we provide an engineer to ensure that a product is designed with the highest quality, yet the process is as inexpensive as possible,” says Barry.

He adds that this involves significant related components, such as selecting the least expensive materials for design, as well as knowing the appropriate materials to bring into a customer’s environment. “These are the types of things we bring to the table as a manufacturer,” he comments.

In addition, Barry says, C. Cowles & Company, within both PMC and CSI, constantly strive to update its technologies to produce cost savings. “We work with companies to reduce cost savings, because the United States is not competitive with the world market. Our labor is more expensive than China’s or Mexico’s, and that becomes a liability if we include labor in the process, and that would make us less competitive,” he says. “We use our labor to develop better products and processes through engineering.”

Therefore the company seeks to increase its competitiveness in the global market by the use of electronic machines, for instance. “Such machines only use what they need, while hydraulic machines stay running and use more power. So there are a lot of things we do to reduce or eliminate excess costs. That is part of our overall theme: reduce costs to make us more competitive.”

C. Cowles and Company may hail from a small town in Connecticut, but it can offer all of the benefits of a global company. As it strives for engineering efficiency and reduced costs related to labor, it has become highly competitive in a global environment.

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