Minnesota’s Tooling Legacy

September 24, 2012

Minnesota's Tooling Legacy

The Upper Midwest, especially Minnesota, has developed a significant number of independent, family-owned tooling related manufacturing companies over the last 60 years. Some of these companies have been passed from generation to generation, reflecting a true spirit of knowledge and innovation. Minnesota is home to an impressive cross section of tooling related companies that specialize in areas such as stamping dies, casting and forging dies, plastic injection molding dies, workholding tools, special fixtures, and others. These small- to medium-sized companies create thousands of well paying jobs.

Why the concentration? The tooling industry grew exponentially during and after WWII to meet the needs of local companies.  Soldiers came home and immigrants relocated here, bringing their technical skills with them. Large manufacturing companies such as  Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company and Northern Pump began to produce products requiring skilled workers. Some of these  skilled machinists, along with tool and die makers had an entrepreneurial spirit and left these companies to start their own businesses.  Work was plentiful with the defense industry leading the way, all in need of tool shops to support production.

Today, Minnesota is home to an unparalleled body of expertise in the tooling arena. Two examples are the topic of today’s article:  Wilson Tool International and Command Tooling Systems LLC.

Wilson Tool International:Legacy of Innovation
Nearly 50 years ago, Wilson Tool Company got its humble start in the basement of a building in the warehouse district of Saint Paul, Minn.

Ken and Ruth Wilson founded Wilson Tool International in 1966, and began producing punches for arms plants with only a handful of employees.  Just a few years later, after the Vietnam War ended, the company nearly went out of business. It was about this time that Ken Wilson purchased a small tool and die shop for its customer list and Wilson Tool began manufacturing Strippit ® punches and dies for those customers.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Gordy Straka, assistant manager of specials, joined Wilson Tool as a machinist in 1970. He was working part time at night while attending college. He recalled that, at the time, Wilson was a very small shop.  There were only seven or eight employees and sending out three punches and dies was considered a big day.

Today, Wilson Tool International® is the world’s largest independent manufacturer of tooling systems for punch press, press brakes, and punch and die components for the stamping industry, with close to 900 employees.

Wilson Tool is still family-owned and operated today. It’s headquartered in White Bear Lake, Minn., and operates in nearly every industrialized nation in the world.  It has global locations in England, China, Germany, Denmark, France, Argentina, South Africa, Mexico, Canada, and Brazil.

Much has changed in the metalworking industry since the early days at Wilson Tool— from technology to materials to processes.

Significant Advancements
Bob Haskins began as a machinist with the company in 1975, prior to the introduction of CNC machine tools. At the time, it was all manual equipment, so the skills were in the hands of the people making the machines to do what was needed to produce a good part.

With the introduction of CNC equipment, that skill set shifted to machinists programming the machine to do what is necessary.

“Precision machining has changed dramatically from the early craftsmen who had the skill in their hands to today’s toolmakers, who have the skill in their heads,” said Haskins. “Now it’s all about thinking about how they can program the machine to do what they want it to do.”

Haskins, now a corporate advisor to Wilson Tool, also notes that a significant advancement within the industry is the ability to machine much higher alloy steels.

Until about 15 years ago, toolmakers would take a soft piece of steel, machine it into the desired shape, harden it through a heat treat process, then grind or polish it into finish. Now it’s much more common to take a blank piece of steel, rough machine it, heat treat it, and finish it all at once. This advancement has reduced lead times significantly.

Technological Contributions
Over the years, Wilson Tool has made countless technological contributions that have advanced the innovativeness of the industry as a whole. On the punch press side, these include early Series 90® tooling systems to today’s revolutionary EXP™ punch technology with universal punches.

Other significant innovations and advancements include the cutting edge bending technology, such as the
American Precision® press brake tooling with staged bending or unique clamping systems designed to speed setups. The HP Accu-Lock™ retainer insert, which allows stampers to save time by creating, modifying and reusing special retainers on-site and on-demand, is another technology that gives Wilson Tool a state-of-the-art edge.

However, according to Straka, it’s the Wilson Wheel® family of products that has been the most revolutionary and has had the greatest impact on productivity for their customers. By offering fabricators flexible, high-speed production of slits, ribs, offsets, knurls, logos, flares and EKOs, with virtually no burrs or nibble marks, they have been able to save significant amounts of time.

Both Straka and Haskins attribute Wilson Tool’s enviable success to the company’s commitment to innovation and desire to serve its customers well—whether it’s sharing new technology designed to help fabricators be more innovative in their own manufacturing or spreading the knowledge gained through its own lean manufacturing initiatives with customers.

The heart of Wilson Tool’s business philosophy, globalization through localization, comes from a deep understanding that its own success here in Minnesota can be achieved only through the shared success of customers around the world.

Command Tooling Systems:  Legacy of Partnerships
In late 1980, an elite manufacturer of tooling and accessories for turret punch presses, Mate Punch and Die, experimented in the manufacture of CNC toolholders. The availability of quality toolholders in the marketplace at that time was poor, and it was believed that CNC toolholders could be a viable product line extension. The new product offering struggled to fit Mate’s business culture and structure, which made it difficult to compete effectively in the marketplace.

Mate management decided to offer its employees the opportunity to start a new company to manufacture and market the CNC toolholders product line. In June of 1981, Command Corporation International was formed in Anoka, Minn., as a separate entity.

In 1982, the fully ground “V” flange toolholder was produced. Command soon became the leader in the market in terms of product value. New demands arose as CNC machines became commonplace in the manufacturing community. When these advances made “tension and compression” tap holders unnecessary for many machining centers, Command immediately offered a line of quick change solid tap holders that met with instant success.

Expanding at High Speed
The machine tool industry expanded into high speed machining in the late 80’s. Command was the first toolholder company to accommodate this availability with precision balanced toolholders to eliminate unwanted vibrations at aggressive spindle speeds. Command began selling balanced toolholders as a regularly stocked product in 1987. Shortly thereafter, Command introduced a Premium Balanced line of collet chucks designed for light duty, high speed graphite machining spindles to the industry.

In 1988, Command founded a partnership with Urma AG out of Switzerland. Urma manufactures and distributes top quality boring and reamer products. Urma products were exhibited by Command at the International Machine Tool Show (IMTS) in the fall of 1998.  Additionally, the deal allowed Command to produce spindle adapters, extensions and reducers for the systems sold in the United States. The addition of the Urma product line had precision technology appeal, and offered problem solving products such as the adjustable boring head. With adjustable tools that could be operated at high speeds, Command offered a way to do things the competition could not—eliminate vibration with single point engagement in aggressive boring applications. The results were improved surface finish, better size control and reduced cycle times.

Manufacturing experienced a weakened market in 1991. Orders were still strong but growth was stagnant, and change was necessary for business stability. Command decided to prepare for the market recovery instead of cutting production, and proceeded to build inventory. When the market recovered in 1994, end users were buying Command products for the first time due to availability and, in the process, discovering
Command’s quality advantage.

Future Growth
To serve the company’s long-term needs and growth, a new facility for the company needed to be considered. In 1996, Command moved to its current 57,000-square-foot location in Ramsey, Minn.

In 2008, Command was purchased by EWS, a privately held company located in Uhingen, Germany, with additional facilities in Korea and Russia.  EWS has over 50 years of experience manufacturing lathe tooling, and provides over 35,000 static and live tools for more than 100 machine builders worldwide.
The combination of Command and EWS product lines has created an offering of toolholding solutions for nearly every machine tool in the industry.

Shortly after the purchase of Command by EWS, the economy went into recession, and Command struggled to remain profitable. New ownership, economic downturn, production cuts, and layoffs significantly burdened the company. During this period, Command and its employees worked hard to strengthen their reputation by focusing on improving systems, software and machinery. Newly designed tools helped to develop skills necessary for future growth.

Leading Performance
Command introduced its latest line of driven tools for swiss machines in 2011.  This new line was developed by Command’s internal engineering team in collaboration with local medical manufacturers and EWS.  The high-quality, durable tools demonstrate performance and function—features required for the successful manufacture of intricate medical parts.

Today, Command continues to manufacture a wide variety of products.  The progressive team at Command continues to work diligently, developing new products and solutions to serve the ever-changing manufacturing markets.


DARCY BOYES is business development coordinator for Command Tooling Systems.
She can be reached at dboyes@commandtool.com.

ERIN K. CHIPMAN is the public relations account executive for Linnihan Foy Advertising.
She can be reached at www.linnihanfoy.com.