Their work with machine tools has given Advanced Machine & Engineering and its sister company, Hennig Inc., a global reputation for com-engineered manufacturing products. See inside this Rockford operation.
Machine tools are the unsung heroes of today’s manufacturing world. In the modern, advanced manufacturing setting, these tools are the workhorses that can transform blocks of metal into high-precision components for all kinds of industries. The general public rarely sees these machines in action, yet they’re the lifeblood of a modern factory.
In a place like Rockford, where nearly 20 percent of the workforce is tied into manufacturing, these tools are enabling a new age of precision-engineered parts and requiring a highly skilled workforce.
Enter Advanced Machine & Engineering Co. (AME), which has built a global reputation for machine tool components and custom-engineered machining processes. Over the past 50 years, this family-owned company has built a reputation for doing difficult jobs with a high degree of precision.
Along its journey, this homegrown company has purchased global players and built relationships with international manufacturers, putting itself in some of the biggest machining markets in the world. But in its mission to think globally and act locally, this company’s loyalty to Rockford is unwavering.
“Because of the Rockford area’s deep background in manufacturing, we’ve made valuable connections with many suppliers around the region,” says CEO Dietmar Goellner. “It’s created a win-win situation for everyone.”
How It Works
You’re likely to find machine tools in at least two forms of advanced manufacturing. First, and most common, is the Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machine, a giant box-like device controlled by a single programmer. The machine’s human operator translates a blueprint into a series of commands for the CNC, which then reduces a block of material to form a widget.
Material reduction is performed by a series of cutting tools and workholding fixtures. These tools don’t come straight from a box; in most cases, they’re tailor-made for the creation of a specific widget.
You’re also likely to see machine tools inside a Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS). This fully automated machine combines the CNC process with an automated inventory pallet system that can retrieve parts and interchange tools during the manufacturing process. Because an FMS is entirely automated, human hands are involved in only a few stages of production. It can even work after the operator has left the building.
It’s in this environment of automated machining where AME thrives.
“We’re an industrial niche, highly engineered products type of company,” says Nick Goellner, marketing director and a third-generation company manager. “Everything is application-based and most of our products are complementary components for machine tools and other industrial machinery.”
One of the company’s oldest products is the carbide saw. Designed in 1969 by Nick’s grandfather, company founder Willy Goellner, this giant circular saw blade has hardened carbide tips. The saw and its accompanying handling system, all produced by AME , can saw down large steel bars or railroad ties into smaller parts for additional machining.
“Typically, you’d cut this material with a band saw, and you just go slow, inching your way through,” explains Nick Goellner. “The carbide saw is for high-production environments. Companies like Caterpillar will use this and say, ‘We’ve got to cut as many as possible today,’ and that saw is just running all the time. We get orders for clients who need this for really high production.”
AME has also made a name for itself in the components that make CNC operation possible. The company’s “tombstones,” for example, look like tall metal blocks with dozens of drilled holes. These custom-built tooling towers help to hold a widget in place as the CNC drills, mills and rotates the component during its process.
“They’re not easy to make,” says Goellner. “All those holes have to be perfect, because otherwise the part the machine is holding will be out of location and will create quality problems. That’s why, when we make them, we send customers an inspection report so they have verification of our accuracy.”
While AME focuses on machine tools, its sister company, Hennig Inc., has spent half a century producing safety systems that protect machines from the debris that’s removed during CNC manufacturing. Hennig, with its world headquarters in Machesney Park, Ill., produces steel covers that contract and enclosures that keep coolant and metal chips from flying around.
Inside AME ’s Rockford factory, Goellner shows off one of Hennig’s signature products: a telescoping cover. A metal plate about 4 feet square sits atop this machine. The cover rolls back and forth as the plate is manufactured, ensuring that metal chips, or fragments, won’t interfere with the rails inside.
“The machine moves on guideways that sit beneath this cover,” says Goellner. “Those guideways can’t have any metal chips in there. So, the covers ensure that any swarf [metal debris] falls off and is cleaned up by the chip conveyor.”
The Hennig chip conveyors take this approach a step further. They scrape metal fragments from the bottom of a CNC machine, filter out coolant used in the manufacturing process, and convey the chips to a receptacle.
Goellner shows off a Hennig chip disc filtration conveyor at work on AME ’s own FMS.
“The aluminum face shield of this CNC was made at Hennig,” says Goellner. “We made those angled chutes on the bottom. In this alternate conveyor design, the belt rotates in the other direction. The chips fall to the bottom of the conveyor and get scraped out with a paddle, instead of being carried out on the top of the belt.”
The manufacturing process looks and works much differently at AME than at Hennig. Where AME is largely focused on machining, Hennig incorporates far more fabrication, with lots of welding, stamping and other metal forming processes performed in-house.
At both locations, an order begins in the engineering office with initial concept designs. Because both companies create custom solutions, these engineers must adapt a certain product to the client’s manufacturing requirements. In making a carbide saw, for example, engineers must design a feeding system that takes raw material from one step, cuts it, and moves it to the next step. No two factories are exactly alike.
“We’ll design with the client to make sure they have more than just the product; our goal is to provide the complete solution,” says Goellner. “This isn’t just out-of-a-catalog kind of work. Custom machinery can take up to two years from initial contact with the customer until an order is made. It can take months to build, and then you have to go to the facility after delivery and debug it, once it’s installed.”
Inside the AME factory, highly skilled workers transform raw materials into very precise parts using old-school manual machining and ultra-modern CNC equipment. Precision is a priority, because one mistake on an AME part can affect the manufacturing outcome for a client. Accordingly, some AME parts are built to tolerances, or accuracies, of one one-hundredth of the thickness of a piece of paper.
Next to several of AME ’s CNC machines is a small blue box: an air gauge produced by one of AME ’s German partners and marketed in North America by AME . It uses air flow and airflow feedback to measure accuracy.
“You’d put the hard gauge inside your component and air gently blows out,” says Goellner. “There’s an air–to-electric transducer that gives feedback to the machine to help you measure and reach tight tolerances on a part.”
To ensure absolute accuracy, many components head to the coordinate measuring room. Inside, a team of workers measures a heavy metal plate using a large and complex measurement system.
“You could put a car in there, and this system could tell you exactly where every important point is,” says Goellner. “Some companies pay us to do just the measurements, because not every manufacturer has a measurement system large enough to fit their work.”
A Family Affair
Hennig and AME together employ about 300 people in the Rockford area, and about 400 more internationally. The companies maintain production centers and, in some cases, full or partial ownership of facilities in Brazil, England, France, Germany, Czech Republic, India, Japan, Korea and China, in addition to five U.S. locations.
What’s now a company with global reach began with an immigrant’s dream and some hard work in the 1960s.
Willy Goellner was born in Germany, survived a concentration camp during World War II and lost most of his family during and just after the war, including his sister, who got stuck behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. As an engineering student in Austria, Willy set his sights on the American Dream.
With support from the Lutheran church, Willy arrived in the U.S. in 1958 with his wife and two sons. They started in Chicago and soon arrived in Rockford, where Willy found a job at Ingersoll, a machine tool manufacturer that, at the time, was one of the city’s most influential employers.
“A lot of people here at AME used to work for Ingersoll, and a lot of people in factories around Rockford worked at Ingersoll,” says Nick, Willy’s grandson. “Around our shop, there’s a lot of, ‘Oh, he’s an Ingersoll guy.’”
In 1966, Willy struck out on his own and began designing, engineering and consulting on machine tools and related fields. Cash was tight, but in a few years he saw an opportunity to expand his operation and begin his own manufacturing operation.
Over the next 40 years, AME grew as it launched new products and bought up other manufacturers. In 1999, it acquired Hennig Inc., after distributing the German company’s products since 1977.
Throughout its growth, AME has always been a family company. Willy’s son, Dietmar, was put to work sweeping floors at age 12 and is now CEO. Most of Willy’s descendants have worked, or currently work, at the company. About 15 family members work here. Several other employees also have relatives working with AME or Hennig.
“Even though we have, between our two companies, nearly 300 employees in Rockford, we still consider everyone family,” says Dietmar.
From its inception, Willy wanted to instill in his company the values of European apprenticeships. What he created has become a unique, government-approved training program that’s become a crucial proving ground for new employees.
“For a company in manufacturing, it’s like a gold mine to have this apprenticeship, because you hear constantly about the skills gap and how nobody knows how to work with metalworking machinery anymore,” says Nick Goellner. “We have these old machines, the first ones our company owned. Our apprentices start and work on these machines and they learn to do it the old way before they learn on the new machines.”
Nick Roeling, of Rockford, already had experience with manual machines at Jefferson High School and another apprenticeship when he arrived at AME in 2011. Over the four years of his internship, though, he practiced on saws, manual machines and lathes before moving up to CNCs and the FMS.
“Running the CNC machine was just the coolest thing,” he says. “You program something and then you take a raw piece of stock, put it in the machine and run it. When you’re done, you’ve got this finished product in front of you. You feel accomplished when you can actually turn a hunk of metal into a finished good.”
Roeling was joined his first year by three more new apprentices. Another five apprentices were completing their training at advanced levels. By day, Roeling and his colleagues worked their shifts at AME. A few nights each week, they joined other apprentices in classes at Rock Valley College.
The apprentices had plenty of guidance from their much more experienced colleagues, some of whom had been with AME for three decades. Their success in manufacturing inspired Roeling to dig deeper.
“Nobody was scared to show me what they could do or how they’d do something,” says Roeling. “They’d show me their way, I showed them how I learned it, and they’d say, ‘It’s totally up to you – you be the judge of whether you think my way’s better or yours is better.’ It was never set in stone, so long as the finished product was to tolerance.”
Once he’d completed his apprenticeship, Roeling was offered a job at AME’s grinding room, where he ensured all product was built to tolerance. He soon was promoted to the sales department and, thanks to his continuing education, is now preparing to become product manager for AME’s fluid power product line.
Roeling is thankful for the highly structured and well-rounded apprenticeship he had at AME. It’s provided him with an experience unlike his colleagues elsewhere.
“I know from my classes at Rock Valley that there were other guys who had programs in other shops, and it didn’t sound like the others had the same experience AME was giving, in terms of well-rounded experience, running lathes and mills and grinders,” Roeling says. “A lot of them were already on a particular machine and that was all they were running, so they didn’t get to run as many as we did at AME.”
Looking Toward the Future
AME and Hennig have always specialized in the machine tools industry, but in their quest for continued growth, company leaders continue pushing into new markets – especially complementary markets where skills in custom engineering, metal fabrication and precision manufacturing can serve new industries.
Continuing its expertise in manufacturing safety, AME produces rod locks and press safety equipment that can keep a stamping press aloft in the event of a power outage.
“If there’s a loss of power, this locks up and keeps the press from slamming down,” says Nick Goellner. “For certain types of machines, the government demands these devices be used. But we had a client in Italy who wanted to be able to raise the lifts at an opera house, so we used these locks and designed them to unlock only in certain positions, so that they could safely raise and lower the floor.”
Employing its mechanical skills, AME also provides spare parts and equipment rebuilds of outdated manufacturing equipment.
“Someone can call us and say they’ve got an old machine that’s not what it used to be,” says Goellner. “We can come in, reverse-engineer parts, update controls and, although it’ll still look like an old machine, the guts will be brand new and will work like a new machine.”
On the Hennig side, Goellner sees opportunities in the backup generation market, specifically in housing for generators and other electrical equipment. Such sheet metal enclosures help to protect a generator from the weather and reduce its noisiness.
“We can do enclosures for CNC machine tools, where we build the sheet metal around it, or we can do this for diesel gas and natural gas generators,” Goellner explains. “And we’re also doing things like e-houses, rooms that hold a bunch of servers or telecommunications equipment. They have to be temperature-controlled and protected from the weather, so we do all the sheet metal around it and the electrical inside.”
His father, Dietmar, finds value in speeding up the manufacturing process at every stage.
“We want to quote fast, bring our lead time down, and continue with quick-response manufacturing,” says Dietmar. “We can couple this with advanced manufacturing and lean manufacturing process improvements. We have unique products to offer and many of those serve niche markets.”
No matter how AME and Hennig evolve, Dietmar believes there’s an imperative to manufacturing quality goods in American factories. He’s dedicated to Rockford’s manufacturing-driven market and invested in the local workforce. He sees opportunities on the horizon with companies “reshoring” operations to America from low-wage countries.
“To be successful as a country, we need to have a strong manufacturing base,” he says. “We need to make things. We need to build things. This is a national security issue. We can’t just provide service industries. We have to produce things to thrive.”