Longevity requires adaptation. Anticipating change and evolving to meet it do not guarantee success. But success over a long enough period is strong evidence that a shop had the foresight to hone vital skills. Such is the case with Wiscon Products Inc. Located in Racine, Wis., the shop has pursued aggressive change when needed and is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary.
Wiscon was born of expertise honed during World War II. During the war, Henry Christensen served as a tool and die maker. When the war ended, Henry had a child on the way and set of skills he could turn into a livelihood. Together with a high school friend and several other machinists, Henry opened a one-room, 80 ft² (7.43-m2) machine shop to serve local manufacturers.
In 1957, Wiscon moved into a new, 10,000 ft² (929-m²) facility. In addition to serving as a job shop for local customers, the company began manufacturing its own line of school furniture. Within several years, rapid growth justified significant expansion, and the company added another 15,000 ft² (1,394 m2) to its operations. By this time, Henry’s first son was a teenager and regularly working in the shop.
“I got my first paycheck when I was 13 years old,” said Rolfe Christensen. “After college, I joined the company full time, eventually buying out my dad’s partners in 1975. By that point, we’d already transitioned from manual machines to NC and then to CNC, representing a pretty significant shift.”
Over time, Wiscon discontinued its own products and fully embraced contract manufacturing. When Hamilton Beach decided to outsource the manufacturing of its products, it turned to Wiscon for many components, providing a steady stream of work for several decades. Wiscon consistently invested in new machinery to expand its capacity.
In 1999, Rolfe’s son Torben Christensen joined the company. By then, Wiscon had a long-established reputation as a reliable screw machine shop with a knack for producing high-quality work. After many years of success, though, the shop sensed a crossroads approaching in the early 2000s.
“A lot of our work was along the lines of commodity parts,” said Torben. “Around 80 percent of our work was making various widgets in quantities of 10,000 or more per week. The offshoring of that work accelerated and the portion that stayed here was having all of the profit margin squeezed out of it.”
Spurred by those trends, Wiscon began planning a significant evolution of its business model. The company decided to increase its capabilities and shift to production of more complex engineered components. To enable this change, Wiscon invested in an MS52-6 multi-spindle machine from Index Corp., Noblesville, Ind.
“It was scary signing a purchase order for $1.8 million,” said Rolfe. “But we knew if we didn’t do it, we were going to be left behind. Index did a lot of work to prove that we would profit from the machine and be better off with it. It was still a leap of faith on our part, but if we hadn’t taken it, I don’t think Wiscon would be in business today.”
The timing proved fortuitous. With the financial crisis of 2008, the commodity work that Wiscon had been moving away from evaporated entirely. A good thing was that the company’s finances had been well managed. Entering the recession with ample cash on hand allowed Wiscon to make additional investments in advanced technology, even in a down market. Those investments included a second MS52-6, an Index C100 production turning center and a CMM.
One particular family of parts provides insight into the transformation enabled by the MS52-6. A part in the family would first be rough turned on a cam screw machine, then transferred to a lathe for finish turning. The operator would put a square on it in a mill and then gear hob it. Finally, it would be put into a drill fixture to have a small hole drilled in it. The part had to be washed twice between processes. The total cycle time was 150 seconds and, due to movement through the shop, it would take four weeks to turn around a standard order for 5,000 pieces.
On the MS52-6, all operations are performed in a single setup with a cycle time of just 28 seconds. Instead of four weeks, the standard order of 5,000 pieces is completed in three days. Across the whole family, Wiscon is still producing 700,000 pieces annually, all on Index multi-spindles.
“It’s hard to overstate what Index multi-spindle technology has meant for our success,” said Torben. “When we got our first machine, we were competing with about 30 other shops for local work. Today, all of our work is national and we don’t really compete with anyone.” In 2010, Torben became Wiscon’s president and CEO, buying out his father and continuing on with the family legacy. A commitment to tackling challenging work has been a defining aspect of his tenure leading the company.
“We’re taking parts off of the machine complete,” said Torben. “These are parts with angled holes and incredibly tight tolerances called back to a true position on the part face. We’re holding bores as tight as 0.0003" [0.0076 mm]. We’re holding parallelisms as tight as 2 μm. We have runout tolerances for threads that are 0.0001" [0.00254 mm] at 3" [76.2 mm] out from the data point. We invested in developing the ability to do things other shops simply can’t and that’s been our key to success for over a decade.”
In addition to advanced technology, Wiscon also invested in its people, cultivating engineering capabilities to tackle extremely complex parts as efficiently as possible and operators who can get the most out of the machines. This has required creativity in the face of the ongoing skilled labor shortage. “For operators, we don’t have a talent pool to pull from anymore,” says Torben. “At this point, our goal is to find unskilled workers with potential and bring them into the training program we’ve developed.”
Wiscon begins the recruiting process early, speaking at local high schools and middle schools, offering tours to their students and participating in an area MFG Day event. The company has worked hand-in-hand with local high schools to develop curriculum for classes on CNC machining.
When new operators-in-training are hired, they begin a lengthy onboarding process that includes time in every department to afford them a comprehensive understanding of the full production process. From there, they spend time supporting a group of machinists on the shop floor, learning how to use measurement equipment to verify part dimensions and perform a final inspection on parts.
With that knowledge in hand, trainees are assigned to a specific machinist who provides extensive application-based training on a machine. Training also includes time spent on Index’s Virtual Machine, a software product that provides a digital twin of a specific machine for the purposes of training, programming and process optimization.
Today, Wiscon has standardized on Index machines, including four multi-spindles, ten production turning centers and one vertical lathe. In recent years, the company has been able to win work from customers that were reshoring production from overseas, a trend that is expected to accelerate post-pandemic. Staying at the forefront of technology is now a key aspect of the company’s strategy.
“We want to be the best and it’s hard, if not impossible, to do that if you don’t have the best equipment,” said Torben. “We pride ourselves on being able to say that we’re ahead of other shops in terms of our technology standards, and we’re going to continue to hold ourselves to that and use it to drive future growth.”