When it got its start in the late 1940s, Federal made hand-operated bottle filling machines for the dairies in southeastern Wisconsin. As Wisconsin's dairies grew, so did Federal. By the early ‘60s, the company offered electrical bottle fillers with as many as 26 valves on a rotary line, allowing it to continuously fill up to 26 glass bottles at once.
Today, Federal still makes machines that can fill glass and plastic bottles with milk and other dairy products. It's also diversified – Federal designs and builds machines that handle virtually any non-carbonated liquid, ranging from dairy and juice to liquid soap to paint, said Otis Cobb, the company's president.
Federal gained entry into the chemical, paint and industrial product market in 2004, when the company purchased Engineered Products and Services Inc., a Georgia-based company. Federal had previously purchased technology from Engineered Products.
Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. All of Engineered Products' manufacturing capabilities were moved to Milwaukee, Cobb said.
"Their main business was in filling containers with paint, chemicals and other industrial products," Cobb said. "(The acquisition) got us into filling multiple other products."
Federal's filling machines are made in two different styles – one that measures the level of liquid inside each bottle as it is filled, and a newer technique that measures the net weight of the liquid inside the container, Cobb said. The net weight technique minimizes contact between the liquid and machinery, and is therefore more desired in areas where potential contamination needs to be minimized.
The net weight filling systems, paired with bottle sanitizing and capping systems that Federal designs and builds, have helped extend the shelf life of dairy products, Cobb said.
"As small (dairy) farms have gone out of business and larger companies have started shipping milk over longer distances they've become more interested in the shelf life of the milk," he said. "By the late 1990s, we could take milk that would normally be good in the package for 14 to 18 days and we could keep refrigerated milk for 45 days by treating the container and the cap."
While there were several Milwaukee-area companies making bottling machines and systems in the 1940s and ‘50s when Federal was getting its start, the company does not have much local or regional competition these days. Federal has several European competitors who also make net weight bottle filling machines, but few domestic competitors in the newer technology.
"We do have some domestic companies we compete with on level filling (machines)," Cobb said. "But there is not as much (demand) in that market."
Federal's headquarters, engineering and main fabrication and assembly are located in its 30,000-square-foot building at 201 W. Walker St. in Milwaukee. The company also has a 16,500-square foot-machine shop, a 12,500-square-foot fabrication shop and 7,200-square-foot warehouse within a few blocks of its headquarters, Cobb said.
Federal's sales rose about 10 percent in 2008, but the company is forecasting a five percent decrease in 2009 due to economic conditions. It has not laid off any employees, nor does Cobb foresee the need to.
"Last year we had a lot of overtime," he said. "We're still at 45 hours per week. We've cut back on some overtime beyond that. I've been here for 31 years and we've only let a couple of people go during that time. And it was for other reasons."
About 25 percent of Federal's orders are from outside the U.S., Cobb said. Most of the company's export orders are for dairy-related systems.
"Our biggest export area is the United Kingdom and Ireland," he said. "In 2008 our biggest sale (of a single system) was from a major dairy company in Saudi Arabia."
Federal also has two large customers in the United Arab Emirates, as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico and Canada.
Federal is now working on systems that would fill bottles with products that the company has not worked with before, Cobb said. He declined to name the industries the company is targeting for its new systems.
Federal is also working to adjust its systems to fill larger bottles and containers than it has before.
"I see the size of the containers filled becoming larger, especially in the dairy industry," Cobb said. "The industry is consolidating facilities with higher speed lines."
Federal Mfg. Co.
201 W. Walker St., Milwaukee
Industry: Bottle filling machines for the dairy, beverage, soap and industrial liquid markets.
Web site: www.federalmfg.com