Where Better Manufacturing Processes are Always in the Pipeline

Proto-1 Manufacturing
Written by Pauline Müller

After more than two decades developing and manufacturing the most innovative industrial tube and pipe machinery, Proto-1 Manufacturing is set to go even higher through its great service, quality, and remarkable solutions.

With its flair for custom tube-end forming solutions, this global leader in industrial tube and pipe machinery has been engineering bespoke solutions, quality parts, and automation controls since 1997.

Proto-1 was started off by John and Valerie Schwochert as a niche machine shop specializing in automation and tube de-burring equipment. A quarter of a century later, this Winneconne, Wisconsin-based company has a record of innovations and advances that should really be named a heritage rather than just called history.

Home to the ever-green Roto-D-Bur®, Proto-1 Manufacturing serves the global automotive, aerospace, agricultural, water, food, and medical industries.

But at the heart of this global cover is a single 100,000 square-feet plant where the Proto-1 laser focus on quality holds sway.

Proto-1 Manufacturing’s multifunctional, top-quality machines are exceptional performers. As well as cell automation and robotics, the company’s machines handle ram-end forming, rotary-end forming, segmented-end forming, slotting, notching, and punching.

Another highlight of its production is what the company calls the industry’s fastest rotary cut-off machines, in favor with manufacturers for its clean cutting of titanium and Inconel – a hard, patented superalloy of nickel-chromium used in the aerospace industry.

Proto-1 is also well-known for its automated three-axis machines. All have proven reliability and are capable of turning out three to five million completed units per year. Smaller customers can significantly optimize floor space with the sturdy multi-functionality of all these machines.

Problem-solving is another superpower, here. Proto-1 Manufacturing has shown itself as a company that never runs out of plans, a trait that’s evident in the way it employs its Industry 4.0 technology to improve lives and protect people’s livelihoods during a time of global economic pressure.

Rather than putting staff and clients’ safety at risk by sending technicians out to job sites, the team accesses its clients’ equipment by remotely logging, through internal routers and ethernet ports, into operating systems. Machines are hooked up to the main computer database in much the same way that early high-tech automotive diagnostics worked – but much more effectively.

The diagnostics software is programmed to identify anything out of the ordinary, whether predictive of a future problem or indicative of existing issues, allowing the team to remedy problems remotely most of the time.

It doesn’t appear for a moment that this remote approach has affected service quality. Quite the opposite. “Our clients come to us for our response time, our knowledge, and the quality of our machines. We hear time and again from our customers that we offer the best service out of any of the companies that they deal with,” says Pat Arens, Director of Administration.

Add to this that Proto-1 Manufacturing’s machines are manufactured to withstand the most extreme conditions. This is why many of its very first machines still operate daily in the workshops of their original owners around the country. This has secured an incredible level of trust from its clients, despite machines from Proto-1 necessarily not being the cheapest.

Legendary quality also means that clients feel comfortable collaborating with the Proto-1 team on machine improvements and technological advancement, enhancing the company’s research and development capabilities. The halo effect of this goodwill often results in professionals who, on leaving a position at an existing Proto-1 customer to move to a new company, wholeheartedly recommend Proto-1 to their new employers.

Nevertheless, while the firm builds what it considers the best machines around, technology remains man-made, which means that things can, even if rarely, go wrong. True to Proto-1’s service philosophy, customers have immediate access to multiple people.

Since so many of the company’s clients operate 24/7, they must always have someone to speak to when they experience technical issues, Arens says. “Word of mouth is a huge thing for us. We want to make sure that people have a great experience with us. Our guys are willing to take calls at eight o’clock at night. This sets us apart from others who don’t have the staff to do that and can’t offer that service.”

The curve balls that came in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis became opportunities to innovate and generate fresh new plans on how to use the situation to its advantage. The first thing that the team did was shut down for three weeks to give itself an overhaul. In the process, Proto-1 went entirely paperless, helping the planet and itself at the same time.

It started replacing all old computers with new and set up a cloud-based storage network that allowed its management team to operate from home.

After about a month, the company re-opened its doors and implemented its new paperless system. After another three weeks, it welcomed its employees back to the facility. “It was challenging working remotely. But everybody did a great job and now we have a great paperless system,” says Arens.

Staff members were incredible during this time, Arens says. “Throughout the past year and a half, everyone has been shifting to answer phones and clean bathrooms before we got re-staffed. Everybody’s done a great job.”

In return, workshop staff could choose whether they would prefer to work a four-day week with Fridays chalked up as overtime when they did not take a three-day weekend. Office staff enjoyed working half-days on Fridays.

The effect of all this hard and innovative work during the health storm soon became evident. In August 2020, the team was honored with a Congressional Award for outstanding service during the pandemic.

With the firm generally enjoying a long median staff tenure, it is great to see that it managed to retain most, although not all, of its great people. And, with at least two engineers who have been with the firm since its opening, it firmly holds a wealth of industry information in its mental banks.

“Not many people leave. A lot of our guys, even tool technicians, have been here for quite a while. [Our staff’s] knowledge sets us apart,” says Pat Arens, Director of Administration. The result of its solid staff base is that within the company they know the equipment, their capabilities, and their field exceptionally well. This makes the Proto-1 Manufacturing team superb solution developers.

The team doesn’t only work for their own gain, however; they work to support local communities, too.

“Every year we partner with a local non-profit, The Children’s Cancer Family Foundation, that raises funds at a gala event to give back to families who are battling pediatric cancer in the area,” says Seth Johnson, Digital Media and Marketing Coordinator. The charity awards three youngsters, who committed themselves to the cause throughout the year, with fabulous recognition – the three Big Heart awards, presented to the students together with a $1 000 scholarship each.

“It’s quite a humbling cause. Especially hearing some of the stories at the gala about what the families go through,” Johnson says. The team concurs that it’s great to work for a firm that makes doing good a priority.

Proto-1 Manufacturing has by now realized some of the benefits of the digitalization that was originally the result of its 2019 standardization process, spurred on by its International Organization for Standardization’s ISO9001:2015 certification.

The process was significantly accelerated by the shelter-in-place situation occasioned by COVID-19. Implementing these new systems has proven a wonderful way to engage every team member and to motivate them to contribute ideas on how systems can improve.

As bigger manufacturers take over smaller companies, Proto-1 Manufacturing is actually seeing a rise in smaller companies needing machinery as they go in search of personalized service and attention to detail. “This has helped us stand out. We have our finger on the pulse with our customers. And we don’t lose it with huge companies. If you lose your customer service, you’re done,” says Arens.

What lies ahead for the company? The management team says that Proto-1 Manufacturing’s current investing in robotics and more advanced automation will continue. And that in the remaining months of 2021, Proto-1 Manufacturing will end the year with the flourish it deserves.



Recycled Rubber and Plastic Bottles

Read Our Current Issue


Daisy Chains and Golden Gates

April 2024

The World in a Grain of Sand

March 2024

Harvesting the Sun

February 2024

More Past Editions

Featured Articles