Rego-Fix: Swiss-Made Precision Toolholding
The three sons of the late Fritz Weber lead the next chapter for Rego-Fix, the fast-growing Swiss precision toolholding manufacturer
By Sarah A. Webster
Editor in Chief
It all started with the union of a broom and handle. From that one collet-like innovation by company founder Fritz Weber in 1950, Rego-Fix has transformed itself over the past 63 years into one of the world’s leading precision toolholding manufacturers, serving the metalworking industry.
Now lead by Weber’s three sons and nestled in Tenniken, in the Jura Mountains, not far from the birthplace of Swiss watchmaking, Rego-Fix is very much a reflection of the "Swiss Made" culture.
For ages, that label that has stood for quality and precision, because it was made in Switzerland. How and why did the Swiss become world-renowned masters of precision?
Switzerland is a small, landlocked country, a little bit bigger than the state of Maryland, bordered by Germany, Austria, Italy and France. Perhaps its reputation for precision has something to do with the Alps, which had to be contended with and conquered. There seems to be little room for error in building tunnels through those dangerously grand mountains or laying narrow railways along their steep, avalanche-prone faces.
Culturally, the Swiss embrace precision in virtually all aspects in life. They are a punctual, clean, thrifty and orderly, logical, lot.
Rego-Fix is no different.
A History of Innovation
Fritz Weber (1924–2008) came from a large, poor Swiss family and was known around town as an idea man. His original innovation, to connect a broom to a handle, was a metal collet-like innovation that quickly found supporters. The product was considered successful enough to launch the one-man company Fritz Weber Feinmechanik und Werkzeugbau in Reigoldswil in 1950.
Within seven years, the company grew to 15 employees at Rego-Fix’s tight headquarters, which also served as the Weber home, tucked into the hillside in the Swiss canton of Basel-Country.
"I was born almost in the factory," Richard Weber, now CEO of Rego-Fix, joked.
Several phases of expansion followed, eventually leaving Rego-Fix with little space to grow.
That was especially true after Rego-Fix’s revolutionary product launched in 1972—the patented ER collet chuck. Prior to that invention, machinists using collet chucks often slammed a hammer onto their machine to knock their collet chuck loose.
Weber developed a slight shoulder around the circumference of the collet check that allowed for easy removal, a simple and elegant solution to a routine problem—and one that would forever change the future for Rego-Fix.
Growth was fast after that innovation, leaving Rego-Fix in an almost perpetual race to keep up with demand.
In 1980, the company went public and changed its name and trademark to Rego-Fix, a spin off the town of Reigoldswil, where the company was originally founded. In 1982, Rego-Fix acquired another production building in Switzerland.
Richard Weber fondly recalls his late father returning home from his first trip to the US and excitedly declaring: "They need thousands and millions of collets!" In 1988, the US subsidiary, Rego-Fix Tool Corp., was established.
By 1998, the company was out of room at its original location and moved about 12 miles away to Tenniken, where it made major investments to modernize, including a major expansion of its facilities in 2012.
The Weber sons made sure to include ample space for future growth. "When the economy was good, we were always a little behind," Richard said of production.
A Demonstration of Advanced Manufacturing
The new Rego-Fix headquarters embraces advanced manufacturing.
Apart from being super clean, it is environmentally friendly and highly automated. It has a green roof that collects rainwater to flush toilets, the air circulates seven times per hour, the company burns wood pellets for heat and it has a growing family of Kuka and Staubli robots. In fact, the company added 10 Kuka robots in the past year.
"That’s why we can stay in Switzerland," Richard Weber said.
Before the company embarked on its most recent and extensive expansion, in the midst of the Great Recession, the Weber sons had to really weigh the pros and cons of keeping production in their home country.
Labor and virtually all other costs are extremely high in Switzerland relative to the rest of the world, largely because of the high value of the Swiss franc (the long-netural country passed on joining the EU).
For that reason, and despite producing about half of the world’s watches, Switzerland is not not known for being a production country per se. But Rego-Fix, with the help of automation and other factors, has become a high-output production company, running three shifts, 24 hours a day to keep up with demand for its products.
Aside from the automation, Switzerland’s highly skilled workforce also allows the firm to keep production in its home country. A scan around the production floor shows workers of all ages and both sexes, a very different landscape than the production floor in, say, a US factory which tends to be male and greying.
While the US and many other countries battle a shortage of workers skilled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, "the skill level is high" in Switzerland, Richard Weber said. Which is necessary, since each employee oversees three highly productive machines.
What’s more, there’s a high level of institutional knowledge at Rego-Fix. The company has an impressive number of workers who’ve been there for 40 years.
"That is typical," Richard Weber said. "Most employees are with us for a long time."
Another asset is simply what he called the "very good support system" for precision manufacturing in Switzerland. "Everything is closer in Switzerland," Richard Weber explained, including, for example, the company that heat-treats all of Rego-Fix’s product line.
A Full House of Products
Rego-Fix offers a full range of collets, tapping collets, holders with nuts, wrenches and other products.
But its most popular introduction in recent years has been the powRgrip line, which allows for tool changes without heat or hydraulics.
Introduced in 2002, the powRgrip system is a mechanical clamping system that generates the highest clamping forces, unbeatable run-out, and the ability to use different size tools all in the same holder. The PG system consists of a toolholder, high-precision collet, and a compact bench-top hydraulic press to insert the collet into the holder.
The specially designed collets are inserted with up to nine tons of force, creating gripping strengths higher than shrink fit without the small tool and cutter type limitations of using high-temperature shrink systems. Tool changes take just seconds, instead of minutes.
In 2012, the powRgrip portfolio was extended to include size PG 6, specifically for micro machining. It is aimed at the aerospace and medical industries.
A Future of Ideas
One of the key challenges facing the Weber sons and the Rego-Fix they aim to lead into the future is keeping innovation alive without their father at the helm.
"We three brothers view this as a responsibility to our family and employees," Richard Weber explains.
While Richard Weber runs the global business operations and Andreas Weber, President of Rego-Fix Tool Corp., runs sales out of the North American office in Indianapolis, IN, Stefan Weber, Vice President of Marketing and Product Development, seems to have inherited his father’s idea gene.
"You can’t learn innovation," Richard Weber said. "It’s really a gift … Stefan is the innovator. He’s always had good ideas."
Stefan, however, said it’s much more of a team effort in the end. He has 12 fellow engineers who work in Rego-Fix’s research and development unit.
"We need to bring out new stuff, and if possible, to protect it with a patent," Stefan Weber said.
In an honor to his father’s legacy, he added: "We have so many good ideas." ME
This article is a digital exclusive feature for the May 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.