A hand in reshaping metal

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Newest member David Nash operates a Greenlee screw machine which takes raw bar stock to a roughed punch or die.

Casted punches are the foundation for lighter weight, ergonomic improvements

February 2015 - Roper Whitney has been helping its customers change the shape of metal since 1910. The long-lived usefulness of its handheld punches have become legendary.

“We get inquiries online from individuals with stories about how these tools were passed down to them by their grandfathers. Some of these punches are close to 80 years old,” recounts Jeff Doty, director of operations for the Rockford, Illinois, toolmaker. “They want to know about the tool’s history and whether or not they can still get parts for it.” The answer is yes, he says.

Punching remains a fast, cost-effective method for achieving precise hole size and smoothness in metal products while producing minimal burr. For some manufactured items today, the adage, “They don’t make them like they used to,” is true. Roper Whitney has resisted the temptation to update tools that have worked so effectively for so long.

Although “we’ve used customer feedback to help perfect our design for optimal, repeatable and reliable performance, we have stuck with what has been popular with our customers,” Doty says. “Sales data show us that customers like the power they can exert with our casted punches to bite through thicker steel. Quality is also important. Customers don’t want to get a tool home or on the job and have it break down.” 


Early American roots

Applications for the punches are as diverse as the market base, from small tools for jewelry making and light-duty portable punches strung on utility belts to medium- and heavy-duty hand punches and bench models for prototyping and short production runs. Fabricators of sheet metal for roofing, architectural and HVAC products make particular use of punches. Hand tools comprise approximately 20 percent of Roper Whitney’s business. Despite the maturity of the products, demand for power and hand tools is expected to increase nearly three percent annually through 2018 in the United States. Gains in housing starts are credited with increasing growth in the construction industry, a primary end user for hand tools. Renewed interest in do-it-yourself projects among consumers is also fueling the market. As a result, competition from imported products is lively. 

“At one time a large number of hand tools were made in the U.S.,” Roper Whitney Sales Vice President Jason Smoak says. “To cut costs, tool production in many cases has been moved overseas. We’ve remained committed to manufacturing an American-made product.” 

The company has strengthened and expanded by acquiring suppliers like sheet metal tool manufacturer Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co., which began life—during the very dawn of the industrial age—as a Southington, Connecticut, maker of tinsmithing machinery in 1797. 

Roper Whitney has brought production of other fabrication equipment, such as powered shears, to the U.S. Such steps have made it one of only two companies manufacturing CNC folding machines in America today. That’s become a selling point, says Doty. “We FFJ-0215-punching-image2continue to see a trend among users who are focusing their purchase decisions on machines and tools that are made in the U.S.”

For Roper Whitney, its tool production begins with American-made steel bar stock fed through CNC screw machines that are able to machine, finish and cut the products to precise tolerances. Once tools are heat treated, product is quality checked and prepared for shipping and delivery. “We can produce and ship a standard tool in two to three days,” says Kim Rickelman, supervisor for the punch floor. “Custom punches or specials can take two to three weeks. We buy a lot of casting material at one time. This allows us to produce high volumes which help reduce cost per part.”

While its hand punches remain the company’s bedrock, a customer-first culture and lean manufacturing initiatives help guide internal improvements and new product development. Capital equipment investments like new machining centers keep manufacturing processes efficient. Since 2011, about $500,000 has been pumped into equipment and upgrades, according to a Rockford Register Star article.

Looking ahead

Air-driven punches are a next natural step for the manufacturer. “If you are a carpenter up on a roof and you need to punch flashing after hammering all day, it can be tiring work,” says Smoak.

“Most carpenters use pneumatic nail guns to fasten shingles. Hammering force is generated by an air compressor. Our concept is to engineer a small, ergonomic tool that would act as a snap-in to an air compressor. This configuration would help alleviate crimping and other hand work.”

Roper Whitney plans to implement a similar design for its medium-sized hand punches and bench models. Bench punches are available in a variety of throat depths and sizes up to 8 tons. Foot- and lever-operated options help fabricators that produce short part runs.

“We’re looking at updating the appearance and weight,” says Smoak.”We have a big following for our casted products but other customers are looking for something a little more lightweight. We are continually listening to customer needs.”

Feedback continues to drive 2015 tool improvements for hand tools built to tackle thicker material. Input from a skilled workforce also plays a role in guiding process and product improvements. New hires are matched with experienced personnel for mentoring. “One operator recently celebrated 40 years in our punch and die department,” says Doty. “He knows how to make a quality product. New individuals bring a fresh perspective to the work. Mixing that element with our legacy employees’ knowledge gives us a good FFJ-0215-punching-image3outcome.”


A recent hire himself, Doty is using his education in electronic systems technology and industrial technology and experience in lean practices to help position Roper Whitney for continued growth. 

“I came out of a tier one Toyota [supplier] plant entrenched in lean manufacturing and saw the impact those practices can have on a business. The goal for Roper Whitney over the next few years from a productivity and quality standpoint is to reduce cost through waste elimination, along with carefully selected new product development and standard product improvements,” he says.

Longstanding customers aren’t the only ones sold on Roper Whitney tools. After listing its product line in the Grainger Industrial Supply Catalog, the company caught the attention of Inc. The toolmaker’s plans for a leaner business model could position it to support an e-commerce sales model. Price point and product size make hand tools an attractive choice for home-grown do-it-yourselfers. Accurate forecasting, high inventory turnover and the ability to quickly adjust productivity to match demand could make industrial online sales sites the size of Amazon possible, according to Doty.

But Roper Whitney isn’t letting the potential for broader exposure distract it from what is most important. “A customer-first culture will sustain and grow this company,” Doty explains. “Our primary focus remains on solving their problems.” FFJ



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