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February 2013
Meeting Global Standards
By Jim Froneberger

     Every time the New York Mets hit a home run at Citi Field, a 16-foot tall apple adorned with LED lights and weighing over two tons rises out of a housing in center field. While the apple itself is a well-known icon at the new stadium, most people don’t know that underneath the exterior façade is a little piece of Charlotte.

     Charlotte’s own P.T. International Corp., a leading manufacturer of industrial power transmission products, supplied many of the bearings and other components that make the mechanism in the apple rise after each big homer.

 

Bearings, Gears, and Rails

     While Citi Field’s big apple may be their most visible project, P.T. International’s core business is supplying components for things like conveyor systems, textile machinery, and a wide variety of industrial manufacturing applications. Their industrial power transmission products can be found in the mechanisms of Carowinds rides, in commercial rooftop air conditioning systems, and in airport baggage conveyor systems—just about anywhere power needs to be transferred from a motor to a mechanism.

     “Many of our products are tucked underneath working mechanisms within machines and are not very visible,” says company co-founder and President Tom Haffner. “We help transfer the power from the machine’s motor using products like bearings, gears, couplings, drive components, rails, and linear systems.”

     Located off Westinghouse Boulevard in south Charlotte, P.T. International is somewhat unique because, unlike most other American companies in this industry, they focus on industrial power transmission products that conform to European standard metric dimensions rather than American inch-based standards.

     While the company doesn’t actually manufacture these products in their Charlotte facility, they are ISO certified as a manufacturer and do their own design and quality control work. Most products bear the P.T. International name, but the actual fabrication and manufacturing is contracted out to shops in places like Europe, Brazil or Taiwan because metric manufacturing is still a very small slice of the U.S. market.

     “The shops we use can produce metric at a much lower cost than we can do it here in the United States because we just don’t have the volume here yet,” explains Haffner. “Those shops have the right kinds of cutting tools and grinding fixtures to manufacture metric parts cost effectively in volume because that’s all they use over there.”

     The contract shops machine the parts to P.T. International specifications and then ship the completed components to Charlotte where they are warehoused in the Westinghouse Boulevard facility. The company sells to leading industrial and power transmission distributors and also direct to certain large OEMs which use the supplied components in the manufacture and integration of various types of machinery.

     They do not sell to the end users who employ the mechanisms on their assembly lines or in other facilities. The distributor network and the OEMs handle those relationships.

     Many of P.T. International’s products find their way into very high technology robotic assembly equipment used on automated manufacturing lines. While the bearings and housings themselves haven’t changed much over time, the ways they are used are constantly changing as automated technology continues to find its way into more and more of the manufacturing process.

 

Making the Move to Metric

     With an undergraduate engineering degree from Purdue and a master’s degree in Engineering from Notre Dame, Tom Haffner began his career in the power transmission products business with Dodge-Reliance Electric, a company that now operates as part of the huge ABB Group of Switzerland.

     Like most other American companies in the industry, Dodge had concentrated their product lines on American standard products based around inch-based specifications. But Haffner began to see that to compete on the world market, American manufacturing would have to begin to embrace metrics.

     “If you want to ship something to a country outside of the U.S., you know they are going to want metric,” explains Haffner. “That has been a problem for U.S. manufacturing. Not many countries will want what the U.S. makes until it becomes metric. They don’t want a one-inch bearing in Germany or Brazil. More and more, U.S.-owned manufacturing companies are recognizing that they better look global to grow manufacturing and industrial exports. To do that, they must go metric.”

     So in 1994, after 18 years with Dodge-Reliance, Haffner ventured out on his own. He and partner Hartmut Kossack started P.T. International and decided to focus the new company on European standard metric product lines instead of the American standards most others in the industry are focused on. They saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on the long-term trend toward metrics in American manufacturing.

     Today, P.T. International has grown to 30 employees. Kossack remains involved as a director. Recently, Tonka Bay Equity Partners of Minnetonka, Minn., completed a major capital investment in the company to help facilitate future growth.

     “I think we have a good focus on the market and what is going on,” says Haffner. “Metric is still not the largest market here in the U.S., but we sell both nationally and internationally, to all the main national distributors, and to some large, well-recognized OEMs. If you ask most of our customers, they would truly recognize us for our broad metric offerings.”

     Metrics still make up less than 10 percent of all U.S. manufacturing by Haffner’s estimate, but he says things are slowly starting to change. American manufacturing companies are gradually beginning to see that the equipment they design will have to begin to move beyond the legacy American standards, particularly if they want to expand globally. But for now, many American equipment manufacturers are forced to incur the added expense of maintaining dual product lines—inch-based for the U.S. market and metric for export.

     One of the first American industries to make a complete move to metric is the automotive business. Over the past 20 years, all American automotive manufacturing has gone fully metric. In addition to the cars themselves, all of the automotive assembly machinery that often comes from Europe, Taiwan, China, India or Brazil is metric.

     Some of the companies that make these machines are located in or around Detroit, but many of them are Swiss, Italian or -wned. The designs come out of Europe, and one set of drawings is used both here and in Europe to build the same machines. A piece of equipment could easily be moved out of Detroit and put in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or Mexico City, Mex., if a car production line gets moved or reconfigured.

     “If we’re going to compete as a country, we must have designs that are in metric so they will be acceptable and appreciated worldwide,” stresses Haffner. “We make good products here, but the world doesn’t want them because they’re not metric. We’re slowly recognizing this and companies are realizing that we have to switch over.”

     “One local customer builds machines that are exported to many corners of the globe,” he continues. “In Germany they have another division, as well as India, Brazil and China. Each of these five manufacturing sites builds machine types for the entire globe, minimizing duplicate production lines. That’s the globalization that we are finally seeing, and that’s why metric will win out in the long run.”

 

Educating Future Engineers

     One of the most critical needs of any technology-oriented business is new engineering talent and a highly skilled work force. That’s also critically important to the Charlotte region as a whole. With major companies in the power generation business operating here—firms like ABB, Areva, Duke Energy, Fluor, Mitsubishi, Shaw Power Group and Siemens—Charlotte is establishing itself as one of the major centers of expertise in the energy business.

     With engineering in his blood, Haffner is doing his part to help create this next generation of engineers. In addition to his role as CEO of P.T. International, he serves on advisory boards for UNC Charlotte’s School of Engineering and Engineering Sciences, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Academies of Engineering program.

     “UNC Charlotte is in the right place at the right time,” says Haffner. “Because of energy, Charlotte is ready to become a huge engineering center. The engineering school at UNC Charlotte has really wrapped their arms around the energy mantra and there is a technically diverse skilled work force need growing here.”

     The relationship with UNC Charlotte is a perfect example of how business can partner with academia for each other’s mutual benefit. The University has state-of-the-art testing labs and facilities, so Haffner has hired the University for several projects such as stress analyses modeling on bearing housings and metallurgy analysis of components.

     “I don’t have enough daily need for that testing equipment, so it’s easier to source that out to the University when we need it,” explains Haffner. “It also helps the University professors and students by connecting them to industry and real world applications.”

     Taking it one step further, Haffner has also been instrumental in helping to build an engineering foundation in CMS with the Academy of Engineering program. These schools within a school feature a four-year specialized high school curriculum focused on mid-tier and at-risk high schools to help students understand future careers and increase graduation rates.

     The programs are sponsored by the National Academy Foundation out of New York, which receives funding from such organizations as Motorola, Verizon, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

     By the fall of 2013, CMS will have seven engineering academies located at Hopewell, Vance, Mallard Creek, Philip O. Berry, Olympic, East Mecklenburg, and South Mecklenburg high schools. Haffner says this gives Charlotte the largest concentration of engineering academies in the nation.

     Haffner serves on the advisory board at Hopewell, which will graduate their first class from the academy program this year. He also serves on an advisory board for the National Academy Foundation as well as a regional board for the program.

     The engineering academy program offers a healthy dose of math and science, but also features specialized introductory engineering courses that expose the students to the major disciplines within engineering—such as mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, and more. During the summer between their junior and senior year, the students are placed in a company internship so they can start to get an idea of what an engineer really does.

     “To me it all fits,” concludes Haffner. “The good jobs of the future will be technology driven, so education is one of the most important focus points that we can do for the next generation as industry mentors for students. It’s all about what we can leave behind and share with our kids and our neighbors’ kids.

     “Industry involvement and support for these focused Academy programs in education have exceptional success and graduation statistics. Each Academy has an industry-chaired Advisory Board to support and mentor students and teachers.

     “Industry is stepping forward as they recognize that planning is important for an earlier grasp of a skilled work force. We still have one of the best education systems (including technology) in the world and industry support is making a difference.”

 

Jim Froneberger is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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