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And other sound business advice from the 2005 Machine Shop of the Year, Manitowoc Motor Machining & Parts, Inc.
By Doug Kaufman
Over the past 13 years, readers of this magazine have come to expect creativity, innovation and a healthy “gee whiz” factor from the annual Machine Shop of the Year Award winners. From technical expertise to absolute professionalism, the winners of this prestigious award have been great representatives of this industry.
The 2005 Award winner is no exception. Ask anyone who knows Scott Wichlacz, owner of Manitowoc Motor Machining and Parts and you’ll learn about his enthusiasm, energy and creativity. Then, talk to his employees and you’ll discover that the view from above really does permeate the entire shop.
“If if weren’t for our employees’ hard work and dedication to their profession, MMM&P would be non-existent,” says Wichlacz. “Their continuous effort in improving themselves and our business has made all the difference in customer satisfaction and quality in our 20 years of operation. They are a cohesive group of individuals who are able to problem solve, think critically and cooperate with all of their colleagues.”
Wichlacz says his entire shop takes great pride in being a “cut above average,” and everyone is genuinely concerned about the outcome of all the jobs that come through our doors as well as the people who bring them in. “To connect on a personal level with our customers, we make additional efforts to remember their first names and also deliver holiday gifts to our regulars,” Wichlacz says. “In today’s fast-paced world, simply remembering someone’s name can be the difference between getting the job or having it go somewhere else.”
Being named Machine Shop of the Year is a testimony to his employees, says Wichlacz, and he eagerly anticipates even better performance because of it. “The level of professionalism and expectations of the employees is certainly raised when you get any of the scholarships that we’ve earned or when you’re awarded any industry awards. When you aspire to those things and go for those awards, it definitely raises their expectations because they know that by going for these things and getting them, it proves we’re keeping up with what it takes to earn them. They then expect more of themselves when they see everybody else doing the same thing the business itself is trying to reach these goals. And the more professional you can make your employees feel, the more they’ll expect of themselves and others.”
At MMM&P, “Update, Educate and Diversify” is more than just a snappy motto. Wichlacz says he firmly believes in the need to do all three in order to be successful.
“Good machinists can do reasonable work with reasonable equipment but good machinists can do fantastic work with up-to-date, modern equipment and there really isn’t much substitute for that,” he says. “We are constantly updating our equipment by investing very heavily in tooling and equipment that is accurate and efficient, as well as a pleasure to operate.”
New last year at MMM&P is a Rottler F67A 4-axis capable CNC mill designed specifically for blueprint machining on high performance engine components. “Our shop services include a full line of boring, honing, milling and lathe work; cleaning (chemical, soda, thermal, ultrasonic and bead blasting); welding, shaft straightening, crack repair and balancing. We offer computer-operated META-LAX sub-harmonic vibratory stress relief a process used for weld conditioning and stress relieving engine components and assemblies,” Wichlacz explains. “Our Stuska dynamometer can test stock and high performance gas engines up to 1,600 hp. And in addition to all that, we also have a Rottler F88 with all the extras. It’s been a wonderful addition for handling those jobs too large for other shops in a quick and precise manner.”
MMM&P was started “from scratch” by Wichlacz, his wife Vicki and daughter Sara, July 15, 1985. Armed with little more than a strong desire to be a business owner and skills learned at previous jobs, Wichlacz started out small, renting a 1,200 sq. ft. building with one employee. Later, a 3,500 sq.ft. building was purchased, giving more room for growth. Then, after 9-1/2 years in business, the expansion continued again. “We purchased a 13,500 sq.ft. building where we are now located,” says Wichlacz.
Keeping employees and himself current on education is a priority for Wichlacz, he says. “If I or one of my employees notices a class that would be beneficial to our professional development, the company will pay the fees for the class, transportation and room and board. I believe that if you fail to keep up with the current technologies and education and market demands, you’ll fade away like so may other small businesses have. We are committed to keeping up with current technology and will always be looking for new opportunities.”
That search for opportunity recently led Wichlacz to take over partnership in an equipment sales company. Because he spends time each week on the road, he says his employees were told they needed to step up and fill his shoes while he was gone. Not only did they discover they could, they found increased shop opportunity besides.
“We found we could get additional customers because of our capabilities we actually can do work for other shops. It’s convenient for the other shops because I’m there and can pick up the work and bring it back to them. And it’s great for us because it brings in additional niche work we wouldn’t have found otherwise.”
The work that MMM&P takes in is highly influenced by its “farm belt” location, with about half of its business
coming from the heavy-duty and agricultural arenas. The other half, says Wichlacz, comes from small engine, passenger car, light truck and custom machine work.
“We’ve been known to do some very difficult and unusual jobs, and we seldom turn down any job that comes through our doors.” explains Wichlacz. “All work is done in-house, including complete crankshaft reconditioning, complete cylinder reconditioning, cast iron and aluminum welding, as well as general machine work with lathes and milling machines. By employing two retired machinists with many years of experience, we are able to serve niche markets in custom machine work and train less experienced employees in these areas.”
The latest project MMM&P has gotten involved in, says Wichlacz, is machining of new 1927 Duesenberg cylinder heads from raw castings. These straight-8 DOHC heads include four valves-per-cylinder just as they did 80 years ago. “These are heavy, cast-iron heads that are 42˝ long,” explains Wichlacz. “There were 480 of the cars originally made and there are still 360 of them on the roads today. The problem was, the original heads had a tendency to crack, so a lot of the cars out there are in need of repairs.
“Our CNC machine is incredible for this project,” he says. “It would be almost impossible to produce them without it. Granted, they did it that way back then, but I don’t think anyone would want to do it by hand now!”
Wichlacz says another innovative project using the CNC machining center was a Chrysler Hemi block that was severely damaged by improper arc welding.
“We machined the damaged area using the F67A, then took a pattern from another Hemi block with the same casting and date numbers. The next step was to have a cast-iron plate made by a local foundry. We cut that plate using the the initial CNC program that we had used to cut out the damaged area initially and then fit and metal stitched the repair into place.”
It is the flexibility to be creative, both in machining skill and in customer service, that allows Manitowoc Motor Machining and Parts to stand out from the crowd.
“There isn’t a person in the shop who can’t take a job in, make a decision and get it going without having to follow a strict chain of command,” says Scott Wichlacz. “A lot of our general machine work has come about because other shops didn’t want to take on the small jobs or take care of the customers when they needed help. A lack of personal attention from other shops has helped us immensely!”
Wichlacz is justifiably proud of his shop’s reputation for a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
“Sometimes we’ll get a really old broken part in. Someone may be apprehensive about working on it, but I’ll always tell them ‘What you have right now is absolutely worthless. There’s no way anything we can do will make it worse. Let’s work together to figure out how to make it better.’
“I don’t remember ever sending someone away saying we couldn’t take care of them. Sure, sometimes it isn’t economically feasible to do the repair. But we always try to find a way to do it,” says Wichlacz. “This attitude requires us to use new thought processes, to step back, look at the big picture and then make your plan about how to deal with the problem.
“It’s just like the answer to the old adage, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’” Wichlacz explains. “It’s simple. One bite at a time.”