Volume 15 | Issue 1 | Year 2012

Subtract an ‘M,” add an “I” and the Simmons name forms an anagram for “mission” – perfectly appropriate, as Simmons Machine Tool Corporation is a mission-based enterprise: It seeks to keep customers, itself and the world on track.

“On track” is far more than a figurative phrase; it’s literal. Simmons first envisioned – and then made reality – the huge and advanced machines that engender creation and reparation of wheels and axles on train cars (freight and passenger). Substantial accomplishments keep clients – and the freight and passengers – safely rolling on the rails.

This venerable enterprise – it celebrated its100th anniversary in 2010 – profoundly impacts global rail infrastructure. It began in a small business community then busted beyond boundaries – like a protein-pumped bicep that rips apart a shirt sleeve.

Consider: The Albany, N.Y.-based enterprise recently received one of its largest-ever work orders – which keeps it “on track” to achieve personal-best revenues of $30 million in 2012. The order, consummated in the fall of 2011 (and estimated at $13.5 million) involves an Australian mining company. The contract underscores how the company is expanding its boundaries – and growing its muscles.

“In the richest mining countries, companies found it necessary to establish their own railroads, to transport iron ore and copper,” says David William Davis, Simmons’ president and chief operating officer.

Where major industrial railroads exist, that’s where you’ll find Simmons. To borrow an industry phrase, clients’ rails move mining product “from pit to port.”

But they can’t do it all. That’s where Simmons comes in. Demand for output has increased. “Now, it’s as much as two to three times, compared to the previous five years,” continues Davis. “Companies quickly tried to add capacity.”

But you can’t increase capacity at the compromise of safety. Only so much iron ore can be loaded. Heavily encumber a train and you invite disaster. It comes down to wheels. Using another physiological metaphor, it’s like bone rubbing against bone, without the protective cartilage. “Steel upon steel creates a lot of wear and tear,” says Davis, describing wheel science.

The consequence? “A train could jump the tracks,” says Davis.

Not a good thing to happen. “Trains carry hazardous chemicals and huge amounts of freight, not to mention people,” says Davis. “Derailment means danger, huge loss of money and potential tragedy. We perceive the machines we provide as mission critical.”

When a derailment occurs, inspectors try and find out why. “They look at the reprofiling records, and at how wheels and axles have been mounted, as well as many other factors,” says Davis.

Reprofiling (which restores wheels and axles to optimal levels) can be an expensive and time-consuming maintenance process. So it’s often overlooked. After all, companies like to keep chugging along. “No one wants to take locomotives out of service for very long,” Davis points out.

But maintenance is crucial. And, again, this is where Simmons – and its services and products – come in. Simmons creates huge machines dedicated to railway wheel set maintenance or production applications that keep the wheels rolling (literally and metaphorically) and it educates clients on how to use the technology. Its sister company evens operates its own machines for customers, thereby providing a total service solution.

The company has developed a comprehensive portfolio that includes:

  • Underfloor machines for in situ wheel profiling of locomotives, transit vehicles and high speed trains;
  • Portal Type wheel lathes and surface wheel lathes for reprofiling of single wheel sets;
  • Wheel mounting and demounting presses for assembling wheel sets and removing wheels from axles;
  • Wheel boring machines for cutting a new wheel to match the axle diameter;
  • Axles lathes for maintenance of used axles and production of new axles;
  • Metrology and measuring systems integrated with Simmons’ wheel boring machines and wheel presses for fully automated “zero defect” assembly of wheel sets;
  • Stand-alone wheel set measuring systems and axle measuring systems;
  • Engineered-to-order wheel shop layouts (Simmons provides engineering consulting services to assist customers with layout of new facilities and rearranging existing facilities.)

For locomotive maintenance, Davis describes what happens: “Companies don’t like to take a locomotive out of service for very long, so they take it into a building equipped with our underfloor machinery. That is probably the highest unit-volume machine we make. The locomotive goes on top of the machine, which is in a pit beneath rail level. Sliding rails retract, exposing the wheel set to our machine, which comes up and reprofiles the wheels.”

Indeed, Simmons’ value resides in helping clients achieve increased capacity and increased safety. It isn’t enough to add more trains and cars. That involves limitations, as mining industry operations now realize. “One way to improve capacity is to improve wheel shop operation in a central facility,” says Davis. “The faster you bring in an old wheel set and reprofile it for a new wheel set under the vehicle, the faster and more effectively you increase capacity to move output from pit to port. That’s what we do – anything related to wheel set inspection and the required maintenance. We build the machines and provide the automation.”

He brings another metaphor into play: “We make the fishing rods and reels, sell them to our customers, train them how to use the equipment and design the factories. But it is up to them to catch the fish. Equipment and facility is turned over to the customer. They take it from there.”

Simmons Machine Tool Corporation has expanded throughout the world together with its partner companies within the NSH Machine Tool Group.

The first spike was driven into Simmons’ track to success in 1910. The company was founded by Charles Simmons, who focused on building new machine tools. His business really took off during World War II. “After Pearl Harbor, Mr. Simmons developed a plan to rebuild and upgrade existing tools, due to interest from the War Department,” relates Davis. “To order all new machine tools and rebuild the Pacific fleet would take a long time. The Department was looking at nine months. Mr. Simmons said he could do it in 12 weeks.”

So, Charles Simmons pioneered the concept of rebuilding and reengineering machine tools, and this proved important to restoring the United States’ decimated Pacific fleet at a pivotal time in the country’s history.

After World War II and up until the 1980s, Simmons continued building machine tools for industries such as power generation, ship building, weapons manufacturing and railway. Along the way (in 1964), it made a major acquisition, Niles Machine line, which offered large vertical and horizontal boring mills and other huge machines that serviced the industries.

In 1984, the company’s current chairman and owner, Professor Hans J. Naumann, invested in Simmons and concentrated focus on the railway industry. “That was the year the company, as we know it today, truly began,” says Davis.

The same year, Naumann made an important acquisition: the Stanray Underfloor Wheel Truing Machine product line from ABEX Corporation. In 1986, Simmons acquired the Farrel Railroad product line. Both lines were integrated into Simmons’ design and production capabilities. The company could then offer complete turnkey production lines throughout the world. While taking on new projects in North America, Simmons introduced technology and developed business relationships in China, Russia and India, as well as in key markets in Africa, Australia, South America and Southeast Asia.

In 1991, the company landed its first major turnkey production line contract in Qiqihar, China and established its first direct foreign sales and service office in Beijing. Soon after, Simmons established offices in Nizhni Novgorod, Russia and Guadalajara, Mexico.

In 1992, Simmons expanded into Europe. In Chemnitz, Germany, Naumann established Niles-Simmons Industrieanlagen GmbH. This resulted from the purchase of a company called Niles.

This acquisition allowed Simmons to access European machine tool and railway technology. Niles already had a high precision CNC turning center product line and extensive engineering expertise. Simmons and Niles-Simmons’ combined efforts developed new turning, milling and turn-mill technology for underfloor wheel profiling applications.

“Then, in 2000, Professor Naumann acquired Simmons’ main rival, a company called Hegenscheidt-MFD, located in Erkelenz, Germany,” recalls Davis.

The acquisition added state-of-the-art underfloor wheel lathe technology and high-tech laser-based measurement of wheelsets in service, and it led to the formation of the Niles-Simmons-Hegenscheidt GmbH, or NSH Machine Tool Group. In 2006, NSH Group established NSH-China Technology Industries Co. Ltd. (NSH-CTI) to better serve the NSH Group’s growing customer base in China. Currently, NSH-CTI manufactures Hegenscheidt’s U2000-400 underfloor wheel lathe for China’s extensive high-speed-railway network.

Today, as a member of the NSH Group, Simmons is part of an international enterprise that employs more than 1,200 people and has boasted recent revenues that exceed US $380 million. Further, the partners share their resources. For instance, with sister company Hegenscheidt-MFD, Simmons offers underfloor profiling technology that provides flexible solutions for diverse applications such as high-speed rail vehicles, heavy haul locomotives and light rail vehicles. Solutions include the Hegenscheidt U2000-400, available in single and tandem versions. It utilizes fully automatic positioning, machining and measuring processes. Further, it’s capable of machining two wheel set pairs simultaneously.

As Simmons rolls ever onward, it sees new opportunities. These will come from overseas. “In 2012, we anticipate to export about 80 percent of what we manufacture,” says Davis. “Group Chief Executive Officer John Oliver Naumann emphasizes further coordination within our group to offer the best technical solution to our diverse global customer base. Simmons is ideallypositioned within the group for providing expertise in railway wheel shop design and implementation for the maintenance of wheel sets.”

And that leads back to the aforementioned Australia project, the $13.5 million order that will substantially increase company revenues. “It’s for the Fortescue Metals Group, or FMG,” says Davis, “which is an emerging force in the Australian iron ore market.”

FMG is industry maverick very fast in implementing new projects, describes Davis. “They realized the need for a new wheel shop for enhancing throughput of pit-to-port operations.”

Simmons attached itself to governmental proposition, and this lead to its stronger presence on the “Down Under” continent, as the company supports the viable third option.

“FMG is an industry maverick, very fast in implementing new projects,” describes Davis. “They realized the need for a new wheel shaft for pit-to-port operations.”

After all, the enlargement operation covers Australia’s northwest region, and their railroad extends from the mining operations and toward a seacoast position called Port Hedland. There, iron ore is loaded into ships.

“The majority goes to China, but customers also reside in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India,” says Davis.

The effort requires strong infrastructure and equipment. “We are building a fully automated central wheel shop and car repair shop, where iron ore cars arrive for periodic inspections,” say Davis. “Together with our Australian partner, Andrew Engineering, we provide the lifting and inspection equipment for ore car inspection and maintenance operations as well.”

Simmons is no runaway train never going back, heading on the wrong way of a one-way track, to borrow lyrics from a popular song. It knows where it wants to go. No signalman will divert it from its course.

So, when you hear the whistle blow, stay away from the tracks. This company is an onrushing force, more powerful than a tornado.

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