Ball bearings

Many industrial and household products rely on ball bearings –from sliding patio doors and windows to conveyor systems used in manufacturing to office furniture.

In the 1980s, there were more than 20 U.S.-based manufacturers making custom un-ground bearings for industrial and commercial markets.

Today, there are only three left in the country, including Oconomowoc Manufacturing Corp.

Oconomowoc’s bearings are used in sliding patio doors and screen doors. The company continues to supply some of the largest door and window companies in the world, said Kyle Stoehr, its president.

Over the past decade, the company has greatly expanded its sales to the industrial conveyor market. Its bearings are used extensively in the automotive and poultry processing industry. The U.S. Postal Service also uses Oconomowoc’s bearings in its mail sorting systems.

The furniture industry has also become a large buyer of Oconomowoc’s custom bearings, which are regularly used in drawer systems in tool cabinets, seating applications such as recliners and a new series of high-end office furniture.

What makes Oconomowoc’s bearings different are its custom designs and its ability to integrate custom wheels, brackets and other secondary fixtures, Stoehr said.

“We try to do more than just supply a bearing. When we can install a bracket or casting to it, supplying a complete part, it gives us more security than just supplying a bearing,” he said. “We’ll incorporate some things that are considered commodities, but when we put it all into one piece, we can ward off some of our offshore competitors.”

In June, 2008, Oconomowoc acquired Indiana-based Talmafastener, a manufacturer of bolts, fasteners and related products. The company uses a process called cold headed processing, which forms metal components with pressure only. Cold heading is also useful for forming several components used in Oconomowoc’s bearings, and the acquisition has helped the company lower its production costs, Stoehr said.

“The inner race (inside the bearing) allows itself to cold headed processing,” he said. “The process allows us to stay in business and also gives us a nice product.”

Oconomowoc’s operations are done in three buildings within a stone’s throw of each other. The company machines parts in a 33,000-square-foot facility, while its assembly and office facility is about 45,000 square feet. It also has a 13,000-square-foot warehouse, where it could move some production in the future.

The company moved into its 45,000-square-foot assembly and office facility in September, 2008.

“That allowed us to lean it out and arrange our automated assembly machines in a cellular fashion,” Stoehr said.

Today, Oconomowoc has about 30 employees in its three local facilities. Only a handful of employees work in the company’s assembly area, which relies heavily on automation and cellular arrangement of machinery.

Due to slowing orders, Oconomowoc laid off about 20 of its employees in the summer of 2008. Although its orders have rebounded somewhat, the company’s sales are about 30 percent below its traditional levels, Stoehr said. However, the last few months have shown improvement.

“July was awful, but August was good,” he said. “September and October have trended better. October is looking closer to our 2007 levels.”

The company has recently brought a few of its laid-off employees back, but Stoehr believes it will not call any additional workers back until early 2010 at the earliest.

Oconomowoc is now working on several new products in markets it has not sold into before, which Stoehr believes will give the company solid growth prospects.

It is now manufacturing a caster wheel used on office furniture for a company named Zerocaster. The wheel is hubless, and has a much higher weight capacity than traditional casters used on high end office furniture.

“The market is for chairs that sell for more than $1,000,” Stoehr said. “The (furniture) designers love (the wheel), and we think they will help transform the shock of the (wheel) price into that industry.”

Oconomowoc has designed a large diameter bearing for the wheels, as well as a patent pending system used to make the caster’s stem, which attaches it to the chair.

The company, through its Talmafasterner division, is now working on a project with the Department of Defense to cold head process ammunition casings, Stoehr said.

“We have one of a handful of machines (located in Indiana) in the U.S. that can still cold head these pieces,” he said. “After they process them, they’ll send them up here for secondary operations.”

The company is shipping its first order of 100,000 pieces in November. It believes it will receive a second, much larger order in the first quarter of 2010.

“We’d like to see where this leads us,” Stoehr said. “This could open new doors for us to do additional pieces.”

Oconomowoc Manufacturing Corp.

856 Armour Road, Oconomowoc

Industry: Custom unground bearings for industrial and consumer products

Employees: About 30

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