It’s really quite a shame that not too many Americans understand or appreciate the life and times of tool-and-die companies – among the darlings of old-fashioned ingenuity that is and has been the driving force of American manufacturing prowess. Such a company is R.J. Zeman Tool and Manufacturing of Waukesha, Wis.
As a successful and distinguished full-service tool-and-die shop (as well as a job shop and manufacturing company) Zeman Tool is a critical link in the manufacturing chain, providing the precision equipment and services that other manufacturing companies rely on to produce their own high-quality products.
Zeman Tool’s number one market is the fluid power industry and its manufacturers of hydraulic products. It also supplies equipment to the off-highway equipment industry (builders of forklift trucks, road pavers, backhoes, and graders); automotive industry, electric power equipment, medical equipment, agricultural equipment, general manufacturing, and electric appliance industries. “Being this diversified helps us through the highs and lows of each sector,” says Jim Lomas, general manager.
Zeman manufactures workholding and assembly fixtures, injection molds, die-cast molds, functional and variable gauging, short- and long-run production parts, prototypes, and specialty machines (including material handling, high-tolerance machining, and automated inspection equipment).Daunting are the challenges facing tool-and-die manufacturers who must produce nothing but the most precise products. “When people think tool-and-die, the things that come to mind immediately are precision and quality,” says Lomas. “In today’s marketplace one might wonder how we can achieve these things and still get product out as fast as we do. It’s our shop capabilities, our flexibility, and our willingness to adapt to our customers’ needs that enables us to accomplish these things.”
Reliable, Capable, Flexible
“The biggest thing we’ve got going for us is our complete capabilities. This is what allows us to deliver to our customers on schedule,” says Lomas. Being a full-service tool-and-die shop means that Zeman handles almost every element of a project inside its facility. In-house processes include milling, turning, boring, wire EDM, sinking EDM, jig grinding, and CMM part inspection. “Essentially everything but heat-treating and surface treatment is handled internally, which allows us to mini-mize cost and greatly simplify scheduling.”
“Sometimes we will actually run prototype parts for our customers while we’re building a workholding fixture for them,” continues Lomas. “This helps them meet their immediate requirements for that product.”Flexibility is the keystone to Zeman Tool’s success. The company is physically and philosophically structured to handle any emergency requirements that its customers may encounter. With delivery schedules as tight as they are in today’s hurry-up world, Zeman’s toolmakers sometimes work on as many as three different projects in one day, reacting to customers’ever-changing needs and priorities. Jim Lomas elaborates, “A customer might call us saying he needs something taken care of and you have to be willing and able to drop what you’re doing and handle their situation – so it’s our willingness to be flexible that has enabled us to grow and be successful with virtually no cutbacks.”
Zeman can turn on a dime in its responsiveness to customers’ changing demands. Often times during the course of a project delivery dates will be moved up. “That’s when we have to use the flexibility of our employees and put people in the necessary areas to do what it takes to meet the date,” says Lomas. Another example of Zeman coming to the rescue is when a customer’s own production line breaks down. “We get them up and running as soon as possible, so not only are we dealing with their projects out on our own shop floor, we are also dealing with getting equipment in their facility up and running,” says Spencer Schreindl, Zeman’s engineering manager. “This is really another key to our success. We can reverse engineer a damaged part and get the customer a working one as fast as humanly possible.” In some cases they will even move work from the customer’s shop floor and complete it at Zeman.
Of course, success cannot be achieved without quality and this, says Lomas, begins with the company’s suppliers, including Vektek, which provides hydraulic components, and Franklin Fiber, suppliers of raw materials.Zeman Tool has over 20 years’ experience in designing and building hydraulic tombstone fixtures, which, over the past few years, have become the company’s predominant product. “We’ll design and build a fixture with a custom casting for any order, low- or high-volume,” says Schreindl. He also notes that Zeman has produced as many as 26 tombstones at one time.
Zeman hydraulic tombstones are designed differently from competitors’ products. “We pour our own castings for the base of the fixture, and we integrate hydraulic flow into the column so little or no plumbing has to be added,” says Schreindl. Because the hydraulics are internal to the casting, maintenance is simplified. Fixtures with cast columns can withstand high material removal rates, minimizing harmonics that can occur when parts are being machined. Workholding equipment and hydraulic tombstones are in constant demand from manufacturers because more parts can be machined at one time, resulting in reduced labor costs. Another reason for their popularity is a hard fact of life: fewer people are choosing to enter the blue-collar workforce.
While some companies are laying low and taking a wait-and-see approach to the uncertain economy, Zeman Tool is pushing ahead in its stay-the-course resolve to prepare for an economic upswing. “We continually upgrade our facility with state-of-the-art equipment because we want to be able to handle our customers’ needs,” says Schreindl. “This recession has hit our area really hard and many quality companies that we’ve competed with over the last 40 years have closed shop,” adds Lomas. “With that competition no longer around we should have a lot of work available to us when the market picks up. And there’s never been a better time to hire, there is a large group of high quality toolmakers available.” Zeman plans to use that excellent talent pool and hire when the time is ripe. “It’s just a matter of putting the right pieces together now until the economy improves.” Zeman plans to grow its business by 30 percent over the next couple of years.
In anticipation of this growth Zeman recently hired its first full-time salesman, Dave Thompson. Prior to this the company’s managers served as sales staff. “This distinguished us in the field because our managers know all of the ins and outs of a project, from an engineering perspective and a manufacturing perspective,” says Schreindl. “Our customers always felt they were in good hands.” Now Thompson (a 10-year veteran in industrial sales and a former toolmaker) will focus exclusively on working with customers to help get them the precision equipment they need to manufacture their products. “With the addition of Dave we plan to grow significantly, since he knows the industry so well and brings years of expertise to our customers,” says Lomas.
Zeman Tool was founded in 1966 and is still owner-operated by its founder, Robert J. Zeman. At 80 years old he is only semi-retired, and still spends his days overseeing shop operations while his three daughters and son work for him. Today the company serves clients throughout the United States (primarily the Midwest) and also has customers in several foreign countries. Its 30,000-square-foot facility employs 50 dedicated people, most of whom have been with the family-run business for more than 20 years, some for more than 30 years.
These long-term employees are an example of what used to be the norm in the American manufacturing sector. “I think it’s a shame that some of the large manufacturing corporations are shifting their work to other parts of the world and eliminating jobs here,” notes Lomas. “In the not-so-distant past if you interviewed with a large manufacturer you were told that you had job security until you retired from that company. Recently that trend seems to be reversing. Our smaller, family-run business offers job security you won’t find at some of these larger corporations.”
The future looks very promising for this confident company. “Zeman Tool will remain a strong player in the industry for years to come, ” says Lomas. “We can’t let the economy dictate or limit our company’s potential. Our customers have needs and we know how to fulfill them, even if it means investing in capital equipment during a recession. This has been our philosophy over the years, and it works.”