On a Friday afternoon just before a long holiday weekend, the shop floor at Cavalier Tool & Manufacturing Ltd. is filled with workers and with tools in various stages of production, even blocks of aluminum and steel for future jobs.
Toolmakers prepare finished molds for shipment, shift tools from one station to another to put them in place for the next job, check for trouble spots on a nearly completed mold, test a China-made mold that they will integrate into a larger mold assembly and set up an automated, four-axis milling machine for three days' worth of work.
In the offices, there are meetings with new customers and potential new employees — Cavalier expects to add three people to its staff this year.
In a neighboring building at Cavalier's Windsor site, crews are setting up a newly arrived plate milling machine to bring it on line.
By the time the 74 employees turn off the lights at the end of the day, Cavalier's automated machines will start their own three-day operation cycle, running without a single man-hour needed.
“We have a three-day, three-week, three-month program here,” said President Brian Bendig. “On the floor, the guys should be planning three days ahead. The designers will be planning three weeks ahead [and] in the office, they know what will happen three months ahead.”
It's thinking like that, he said, that prompted the firm to begin a steady process of investing in technology as it developed its customer base. Those investments, in turn, led Cavalier to keep growing, even during the recession.
The company saw $14 million in sales in 2011 and is on pace to easily beat $20 million this year.
“And we're doing it without killing everyone with overtime,” added program manager Shawn Spence.
Cavalier Tool opened in 1975, and many of its employees have been with the company since its founding, noted Bendig, who is a second-generation owner of the operation. He came full time into the company 10 years ago, just as the toolmaking industry was undergoing massive shifts because of advancements in new technology and new competition from lower-cost countries.
“A lot of business owners made a lot of money in the industry when it was fat,” he said. “I never had the luxury of knowing what that was like.”
Canadian mold makers that do extensive work with U.S.-based customers also faced an added complication as the Canadian dollar strengthened through the recession, increasing costs compared with the U.S. dollar.
“Any shop that survived 2008, especially in Windsor, has got to have something special going,” said Jeff Mengel, a partner with consulting group Plante & Moran PLLC of Chicago. “There were a lot of shops that didn't survive.”
Cavalier's facility, with a high roof and large overhead crane system, also provides more flexibility to move large tools quickly, which adds to productivity, Mengel said. Automated production adds to a steady flow.
From Bendig's first days at Cavalier, he said it was clear the company needed to make adjustments. He began looking not only at what production equipment was new on the market, but exactly what each machine could do.
“Everything we do is about removing metal,” he said. “If it doesn't remove metal, then it isn't what we need.”
When five-axis drilling machines came on the market, Bendig hesitated, finding that for Cavalier's purpose, using new spindle technology in combination with a four-axis machine made more sense. But the company also will have its first six-axis machine delivered later this year, from Makino Inc., because it believes the investment will pay off now.
Beyond technology, Cavalier keeps everything for production flexible, right down to the wheels on each tool bench.
“I'm always trying to identify the bottlenecks in the system and eliminate them so we can maximize the production time on the machines we already have,” Bendig said.
He cites utilization rates on some equipment that hit 95 percent, and the firm once managed to reach 99 percent utilization.
“A lot of other guys buy the equipment, but they don't use it to its capacity,” Spence said.
Mold designers based in China help to maintain an around-the-clock development process to speed pre-production, although Cavalier keeps its highest-end products in Windsor.
Bendig sees Cavalier as standing separate from other toolmakers in the Windsor area. Its location — on a dead-end street backing up to the airport — is a few miles removed from other mold shops in the region. Its customer base is divided between the auto industry, which makes up 50 percent of its book of business, and a cross section of companies producing everything from medical devices to recreational equipment.
“We'll quote up to 40 different customers a month,” he said.
It has been making molds from aluminum and aluminum/ steel hybrids for 20 years, including high-volume production.
“We never considered ourselves to be a specialist for any product or any size range,” Bendig said. “We never said, ‘We do fascias,' or, ‘We do lighting molds.' “
That flexibility, a diverse customer base and investments in technology combined to help the company thrive through the recession, he said. Potential customers sourced work there because Cavalier had the ability to deliver, he added.
“In the recession, we were the safe bet,” he said.
And now that the auto industry is ramping up again, Cavalier has the ability to pick the best projects, even as it continues to invest in technology to keep growing.