Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm
The clutches made by Milwaukee-based NORAM Power Transfer Solutions are integral parts in lawn and garden equipment, go-karts and other power devices used around the world. NORAM’s clutches and clutch brakes are used in lawn and garden machines made by global manufacturers such as MTD Products Inc., which makes lawn tractors under the brands of Cub Cadet, Yard-Man, White Outdoor and Troy-Bilt; and Electrolux, which makes the Craftsman brands for Sears.
Located at 4360 N. Green Bay Road on Milwaukee’s north side, NORAM makes two models of clutches that are used in lawn equipment and other outdoor power tools. One can handle up to 18 horsepower, and another newer and larger model can handle up to 25 horsepower.
Much of NORAM’s success over the years is due to its highly diversified base of customers, according to Jeff Hargarten, president and chief executive officer of NORAM.
"Nobody carries more than 12 percent of our annual sales," he said. "We’ve got a lot of little niche markets."
About 40 percent of NORAM’s annual sales are to lawn and garden equipment manufacturers. Construction equipment makers take up another 40 percent. The remaining 20 percent of sales are to go-kart racers, floor buffer manufacturers and other markets.
Most riding lawn mowers sold in America have electric clutches to engage their mowing blades. The clutches sold by NORAM are manual.
"The trend in American culture is to want to push a button," Hargarten said. "I try to sell against this. A mechanical clutch is easier on the motor, belts and other pieces of the (mower’s) system. An engineer would say that a mechanical system is better."
The company is now working with Toro and John Deere & Co. to begin incorporating its mechanical clutches in walk-behind commercial mowers that would be sold in the United States.
Continued efforts to reduce cost are behind those manufacturers looking at the NORAM clutches, Hargarten said.
"Cost is the driving force now," he said. "And at the end of the day, ours lowers cost. Ours comes with a shaft-mounted drive pulley, and the electric (clutch) doesn’t have it. Ours is like an all-in-one."
The trend toward cost-cutting by lawn mower manufacturers has Hargarten feeling optimistic about his company’s prospects for the future. The firm recently started testing a new product, called the PAC Actuator, which the firm believes will help it make gains in the lawn tractor and mower market.
"There are 1.5 million riding lawn mowers built (in the U.S.) every year," he said. "There’s a long way to go."
The PAC Actuator can be paired with one of NORAM’s existing clutches, effectively turning NORAM’s products from a mechanical clutch into an electric one. It can also be used to engage the decking systems of riding mowers, lowering their blades to the cutting surface.
The PAC Actuator operates on compressed air, instead of magnets, drawing less power from a motor than other electric clutches. That leaves more power for the motor to use for other applications, Hargarten said.
"This can be a very inexpensive electric clutch," Hargarten said. "It’s being tested to engage the mowing decks at several of our OEM (original equipment manufacturer) customers. It’s also being used on some materials handling equipment and some floor buffing equipment."
NORAM’s clutches also are featured on walk-behind brush cutters, chippers, shredders, stump grinders and various construction machinery.
The Milwaukee-based manufacturer recently began exporting its 18-horsepower clutches to China, where they are built into other larger pieces of equipment and are exported again. Exporting to China has Hargarten believing that his company is on the right track.
"We’re proud to export to China, because that shows that it’s not just a one-way street," he said.
Because NORAM’s components rely on such a high degree of engineering, Chinese manufacturers will find it difficult to steal the company’s intellectual property, Hargarten said. Hargarten is confident that if a Chinese manufacturer was able to copy one or more of NORAM’s pieces, the company’s patent protection could be enforced if the competitor tried to export parts back to the United States or Europe.
NORAM has produced other clutches used in go-kart racing since the company was started by Hargarten’s father, Bill Hargarten, in 1960. The company has made its GE Racing Clutch for more than 40 years, and has two new products in the go-kart racing field.
The company introduced its Cheetah series clutch about three years ago. The Cheetah is an upper-level clutch, highly engineered for performance go-kart racing, Hargarten said.
"The clutch discs we use is the secret in our clutch," he said. "It’s a smooth but very fast start, easy to maintain and long lasting."
NORAM has no intentions of entering the automotive clutch industry, given the state of the American automotive industry and the price controls that are being imposed upon suppliers, Hargarten said.
"We’re not in automotive, and we’re not going to be," Hargarten said. "To see the way they treat their suppliers – I don’t want to get anywhere near that."
NORAM’s 2005 sales increased about 10 percent, Hargarten said, and he’s expecting about 5 percent sales growth for this year.
"Last year was an exceptionally good year," he said.
Much of the company’s growth is being realized through lean manufacturing principles, such as cellular manufacturing areas and other efficiencies.
"We have our own version of lean (manufacturing)," said Gregg Hackney, vice president of operations. "It means reducing our work-in-progress inventory, lot quantities and set-up time. We’re now at lot sizes (the number of pieces being processed at one time) of about 200 pieces, when we were at about 1,000 three years ago."
In the last several years, NORAM has worked to "flatten out" its organization, Hackney said. That flattening has resulted in all of its employees being cross-trained in multiple areas. It is even routine, he said, to see himself, Hargarten or engineering manager Dave Hampson taking out trash, driving a truck or making sales calls.
"We can move in two steps in any direction," he said. "This allows us to respond efficiently to what today brings. And we can manage the unexpected with cross-trained people. We help our customers get their products to market sooner. Nowadays, every engineering department is swamped. Trying to get things in to get tested, there’s a long lead time. We will take in our customer’s products, we will retrofit our product to fit it, and we will test it according to their demands."
NORAM Power Transfer Solutions
- Location: 4360 N. Green Bay Road, Milwaukee
- Revenues: 10 percent increase in 2005.
- Founded: 1960
- Products: Clutch, clutch brakes and related products for lawn care, construction, go-kart racing and other markets.
- Employees: 45
- Web site: www.noram-clutch.com