Laser Technology

Changing times

By Tom Klemens

Above: Matt McAlpin (left), company founder Frank McAlpin, and sons Ken McAlpin and Mike McAlpin.

Evolution may still be open to debate, but in the world of metalworking, few would argue against the benefits of adaptation

May 2013 - In 1964, a young tool and die maker named Frank McAlpin joined forces with Ralph Derleth to set up a 900-sq.-ft. tool and die shop in Rochester, N.Y. “I was 28 when I realized I knew as much as the people I worked for and that I wanted to start my own business,” McAlpin says. McAlpin-Derleth Tool & Die was established with three employees. “Back then, the tools and equipment were like hammers and chisels compared to today’s technology,” he says.

The post-war era of the 1960s was an exciting time to come of age in Rochester, particularly as two hometown firms—the Eastman Kodak Co. and Xerox Corp.—were entering a boom period. Xerox, which adopted its new name in 1961 after more than half a century as the Haloid Co., was one of McAlpin’s earliest customers. “We were building stamping dies and fixtures for Xerox and soon realized there was a huge demand for parts that these dies produced,” McAlpin says. “We purchased some punch presses and by 1971 we occupied 24,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space.” The business grew as customers demanded more value-added services including progressive stampings, spot welding, plating and assembly.

In 1980, McAlpin acquired Derleth’s share of the company and founded McAlpin Industries. In that same year the second generation came to the firm when Ken McAlpin signed on. His brother, Mike, joined in 1985. With tremendous foresight and trust, Frank McAlpin began to transition ownership of the company, which the two brothers have owned and operated since 1991. With Ken McAlpin as president and Mike McAlpin as executive vice president, the company has grown into a diversified, vertically integrated total capabilities supplier. The firm serves an array of global markets including telecommunications, computer networking, automotive, medical, high-tech business machines, automated warehousing and alternative energy.

ffj-0513-laser-image1To stay competitive globally, it fell to Ken and Mike McAlpin to usher the company into the high-tech era with computers, automation and new business practices like lean manufacturing. “When Dad retired in 1992, we employed 140 associates with about $12 million in sales,” Mike McAlpin says. “Since then, we’ve doubled and in some years tripled that sales number, with today’s employment at approximately 160 associates—only 20 more people. How is that possible? Through ever-increasing investments in technology, and adding a lot more value.”

Value engineering

“We don’t really have our own product,” says Ken McAlpin. “Everything we build is to our customers’ specifications. We collaborate with our customers to improve a product’s design, at both the component and assembly levels, making everything more manufacturable and ultimately helping our customers become more competitive. This partnership model leads to reduced costs and lead times, streamlined production, better quality and hopefully being awarded with increased business. It’s a win-win situation.”

Another differentiator is McAlpin’s vertical integration, including one-off prototyping, CNC blanking, machining, laser cutting, high-volume stamping, robotic welding, metal plating, and turnkey assembly and fulfillment. “We can build a product in many different ways, depending on volume, product life cycle and tooling budget,” says Mike McAlpin. “We present the options and help the customer make the best business decision.”

Today, customers assume suppliers will provide perfect quality and on-time delivery; quality and delivery are no longer differentiators. “It’s the softer-type elements like lead time, flexibility, reduced costs and value engineering that help distinguish McAlpin Industries from the rest,” says Ken McAlpin. “Thus we began a deliberate, calculated process of upgrading our facilities and evaluating and acquiring the best equipment, technology, software and people available.”

Along the way, the company was reintroduced to Amada America. “It didn’t take long for us to realize Amada was ffj-0513-laser-image2not just selling equipment,” says Mike McAlpin. “They understood, as we understood, that anyone can sell machinery or parts. McAlpin and Amada shared these mutual business objectives, offering manufacturing solutions and not just products. We participated cautiously in Amada’s Virtual Prototype Simulation System (VPSS), learning about their integrated software solutions that enable Amada’s blanking and forming equipment to communicate offline, minimizing upfront engineering time and maximizing equipment and material utilization.” This process ultimately led McAlpin to purchase its first two Amada machines, an LC-2012C1 laser-punch combination machine and an HDS 1303NT press brake.

“The arrival and integration of the C1 cell and 1303NT press brake in 2010 changed the way we did business,” says Mike McAlpin. “From programming to material handling to part processing and quality, we made a quantum leap forward. There used to be a lot of at-the-workstation engineering. Now, most programming is done offline. The software enables us to load a customer’s 3-D model and simulate the manufacturing processes that yield a formed part. Programming the blanking and forming of a part now takes minutes compared to the former days and weeks.” 

In 2012, the company replaced three other non-Amada CNC blanking machines with what the McAlpins call, “the C1’s really big brother.” The EML 3610 NTP combination laser-punch has a 4,000 W laser (compared to the C1’s 2,500 W laser), a 58-station turret (compared to the C1’s 45 stations), and about 50 percent more press tonnage. Additionally, McAlpin opted for an automated tooling library that holds more than 200 punch tools, an integrated raw material warehouse and loading station, and computerized unloading options, including single-part removal and stacking capabilities. Ken McAlpin says, “With this lethal combination of work cell technology and automation, setup times and changeovers are now minimal and flexibility has become reality. This brings us to an all new level of lights-out manufacturing and competitiveness.”

Big lots and small lots

McAlpin produces a continuous mix of parts, lot sizes and delivery schedules. “We may need to produce 10 pieces or 10,000 pieces across common work centers,” says Mike McAlpin. “We may need to deliver the products daily, weekly or monthly. Having the right software, technology, equipment and people in place helps us achieve these often conflicting objectives.”

“Our investments in new equipment and technology help us be more competitive in the high-mix, low- to mid-volume marketplace,” says Ken McAlpin. “Minimizing the engineering development and setup times reduces cost and wins new business.”

Representing the family’s third generation in the business, sales and marketing manager Matt McAlpin joined the company three years ago. He says the recent advancements in production have been impressive and significant. “As ffj-0513-laser-image3recent as five years ago, we would manufacture products based on how many parts would fit onto a 4 ft. by 8 ft. sheet of material. This led to overproduction and excess inventory. Using Amada’s dynamic nesting software capability and minimal setup time, we can now produce the exact quantity of parts needed, using common material, eliminating production and inventory excess.” Matt McAlpin also is excited about how the company adapts to ever-changing market demands. “Four years ago, robotic welding did not exist at McAlpin Industries,” he says. “Today, we have five robotic weld cells with plans to add three more cells within the next two years.”

Looking forward

“Our workforce of the future is going to be cross-trained and multi-functional,” says Ken McAlpin. “We will continue to hire more and more technically skilled programmers and engineers to help manage and utilize our equipment and technology. We’re always looking for good people—we call them ‘associates,’ as they really define who we are as a company. Balancing technology, equipment, and human resource requirements, and redefining our workforce to meet these challenges, ensures ongoing competitiveness and a healthy business going forward.”

A lot has changed since Frank McAlpin opened his tool and die shop nearly 50 years ago, both at McAlpin Industries and in Rochester. For example, the city’s largest single employer today is the University of Rochester, which offers far fewer opportunities for local manufacturers than when Eastman Kodak topped the list. In 1982, Eastman Kodak employment in Rochester peaked at more than 60,000. Today fewer than 5,000 still work there.

“When I started in business, there were about 110 tool and die shops in greater Rochester,” says Frank McAlpin. “Today you can probably count the tool and die shops on one hand. I had a succession strategy that allowed Ken and Mike to take the business to whatever heights they could achieve. We evolved with changing markets, broadened our customer base and continually invested in our manufacturing capabilities to ensure competitiveness.”

“Many Rochester manufacturers were beholden to large local employers like Xerox, Kodak and IBM,” says Mike McAlpin. “But we always had an internal directive to not let one customer become too big of a player. We’re always looking for that new market, that new customer and that new piece of equipment or software that will ensure McAlpin Industries’ sustainability and viability.” Clearly this approach has served the company well. FFJ


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