The latest "Hidden Gem" of Elkhart County's economy started out as leftovers and now has a global reach.
ELKHART — You’ve encountered them thousands of times but have probably given them no thought: Washers, the little pieces of metal that accompany bolts and sometimes screws in, holding things together.
One Elkhart business thinks about them constantly, though, making sure the washers and related springs they produce meet exacting standards for critical roles in complex machinery.
FOUNDED/WHY THEY’RE HERE
“It started in 1993. David Andre started it. He was working with some steel and had some excess and found a way to start producing washers,” said Tammy Eggbeer, director of sales. “He started running washers primarily through distribution networks.”
WHAT THEY DO
“We classify ourselves as blueprint washers,” said Greg Lucchese, director of administration. They don’t make the hardware store type of washers, which vary in dimensions. “We have to hold a tolerance ... very tight tolerance, small stampings is what we do,” Lucchese said.
Eggbeer shared Pam Andre’s description, saying, “I think of it like cookie making. We roll out the steel and cut it to length, then we punch out the cookies and then we send them out for heat treating, which is baking them, and then we plate them, which is frosting them.”
Andre is vertically integrated, buying master coils of steel and cutting them to the size they need and making their own tools and dies.
WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU KNEW
“The parts go in automotive applications, we’ve got parts in Toyota, we’ve got parts in Nissan. We have a lot of appliance industry, like Whirlpool dishwashers, GE refrigerators,” Eggbeer said. “Lawnmowers like MTD, lawnmowers that you get at Lowe’s, places like that, a lot of that type of stuff. It’s amazing how many washers go into things. You don’t think about it, but it’s a lot.” They’re also in the heavy truck industry, military applications and agricultural equipment.
WHERE THEY REACH
They reach across the U.S., but also ship spacer washers to Japan for use in Infiniti hybrid SUV transmissions. Most customers aren’t local, though they do some RV business and Dexter Axle is one of their customers.
They have broad competition, though not like the mass washers available through hardware retailers, many of which are shipped in from China.
Heavy trucks are held together with bolts and washers, not welds. “The job of our washers is to make sure the nut and bolt work,” said Lucchese.
“We get pictures back from some applications. We got one back from the military on a Humvee that our washer was holding on armor plating. That’s about all that was left of the Humvee was the armor plating. It had gone through an IED,” Lucchese said. Eggbeer said, “someone had written down, ‘Thank you for saving our troops.’”
The process for making washers is similar to the way the U.S. Mint facilities make coins. In fact, some of the steel Andre uses is not allowed to be made in a certain diameter because the steel is the same thickness as quarters.
“The level of sophistication we have is really surprising to people,” said Lucchese. “We have an apprentice program for tooling, we have our own in-house tool-and-die manufacturing, our own slitting. Even people when we have potential new employees come in that come out of stamping businesses across Elkhart County, what we do is vastly different from what they do.”
The utility of washers and the fact that supplying the RV industry is only a small part of Andre’s business helped them weather the recession, Eggbeer said. “We were able to still do pretty well.”
Of their 75 employees, they’ve hired 15 within the last few months and are hiring again.
They make parts from 1/8 inch to 6 inches.
They bring in 120,000 to 160,000 pounds of steel each day.
The leftover steel is sent for scrap, and in some sizes it has to be cut to avoid the pieces snagging on each other like the old “Barrel of Monkeys” toys.
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