As an off-highway brake assembly boutique for some of the world’s biggest names in original equipment manufacturing, Ausco Products, Inc.’s scope of design, fabrication capabilities, and level of design innovation remains unmatched.
Known for the best in enclosed multi-disc wet and dry brakes, mechanical and hydraulic calipers, and more, the company, based in Benton Harbor, Michigan, is also known for its high level of customer engagement. As a result, Ausco’s domestic and international clientele knows that as a private equity-owned family firm, the company does not entertain ideas of merging with any big conglomerates any time soon. That also means nobody is in danger of ever becoming just another number.
The company also takes good care of all its team members, who share in its profits annually, and handpicks its suppliers based on capabilities, quality, and service.
Thanks to its precision engineering and penchant for developing unexpected concepts that turn first-time customers into lifelong partners, there is nothing ordinary about this team or its work, as Kyle Harbison, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, points out. After more than three decades focusing on designing and fabricating some of the most specialized off-highway brake assemblies around the globe, Ausco’s range is expanding at the same rate as its innovation—fast.
As the team develops custom solutions for most clients, even its standard products can be adapted. With around 90 percent of its work based in customization, this is a team that courts challenges, figuring out solutions as a matter of course.
The off-highway vehicle industry moves comparatively slower than other vehicle industries. As full electrification of abnormally sized off-highway vehicles used in areas like mining and construction is still some way off, Ausco’s custom brake and clutch engineering continues to be popular amongst companies in possession of such heavy-duty fleets. This is why Ausco’s customers often return for more than unique brake assemblies; once the team has installed what customers originally purchased, it is not uncommon for them to continue onto other issues customers may be experiencing on their vehicles, investigating possibilities to optimize them.
Naturally, ensuring that its installations work optimally is also part of the service. “We test to some of the worst conditions these vehicles might see,” says Harbison, “and we do a lot of that testing in-house. We have a testing laboratory with three full-time engineers and a research and development technician,” he says. One product currently being tested is run for 1 million cycles to ensure absolute safety. In addition, as customers enhance the size of their vehicles, Ausco has even tested competitors’ brakes on their behalf to support the development process of new components as vehicles evolve.
This type of work can include modifying brakes to include other hydraulic components within the assembly, such as actuation components or oil tanks, with one such case becoming a years-long collaboration on a brand-new, unique product that is soon to be introduced to the market. “The more we learn about the customer’s application, the more we try to help them solve their problem. In the off-highway industry, there’s very little standardization, [contrary to] the automotive industry,” says Harbison. “In our world, nobody makes the same mounts, the same setup. There is some repetition in some of the more commoditized product lines, but mostly our industry is custom.”
One of the company’s new star products is spring-applied hydraulic caliper brakes. These fail-safe brakes release when a vehicle operator starts the engine or hydraulic system and apply when it stops—keeping tremendously heavy vehicles perfectly stationary no matter how rough the terrain or what degree of slope they are parked on. “We have extensive experience doing this with multi-disc brakes, but we are now including fail-safe calipers in our focus. We are releasing several new series of caliper brakes with the focus on them being fail-safe, alongside a few other products,” Harbison shares. “I always like to say that our volumes are between 10 and 10,000 [for complex components]. But that is not a limitation for us. On our mechanical calipers, we make 350,000 a year for a select group of customers,” he adds.
With innovation being a core value, the company has come up with a novel way of keeping its entire staff of 150 meaningfully employed. For the past year, it has been testing what it calls its 3-1-3-7 shift rotation, which has proven to be a tremendous success, allowing for more continuity and removing the frustration of machinists having to adjust equipment to suit their preferences every few hours. That allows for machines to remain in the same setup for seven days at a time, making for improved comfort and efficiency. Shifts are typically arranged to have one group working 12-hour shifts over two rounds of three days broken by a single-day weekend. This 3-1-3 loop then runs into a seven-day break. While Group 1 is hard at work, Group 2 is enjoying their seven-day break.
“Across all departments, we have great people who go above and beyond to support our customers. As we have introduced many new processes, equipment, people, products, and more over the last few years, the constant around Ausco has truly been ‘change,’” says Harbison, praising staff for their commitment to the company’s healthy future. To show its appreciation, the company goes all out to ensure that people have the training and certification opportunities they need to excel.
Opening its doors in California circa 1908 as Automotive Specialties Company, Ausco has been serving south Michigan for over 115 years, focusing on brakes since 1938. With its heavy focus on using North American-manufactured materials and components, the team is proud to do all its design, engineering, and fabrication on-site. Officially owned by The Cypress Companies, a group of industrial and manufacturing firms, Ausco is proud to have several sister companies, some of which it collaborates with at times. These include UP&R, a polymer and rubber expert; Tredit, a tire and wheel assembly fabricator; Riker, a custom tube fabricator; and Paragon, a tempered glass fabricator. Harbison is proud to be a part of the group. “It is really refreshing [how] our management company handles all of their companies, not just Ausco,” he says.
Comfortably set up in its 450,000-square-foot facility, ideal for optimal engineering and manufacturing efficiency, Ausco is ready to consider customer challenges beyond braking assemblies. While it has already actively catered to such situations in recent times, the company is upping the amps on its capabilities to improve this side of its operation even further.
“Nothing’s off the table here. If a customer has an issue and it’s not a brake, let’s talk about it anyway. We may not be able to offer something, but it may be something we are interested in getting into,” Harbison says of the boundary-shifting approach that has led to some exciting new offerings.
The $10 million in investments Ausco has made in facility and equipment upgrades over the past few years of course go a long way to supporting its capabilities. Its expanding portfolio includes exploring friction markets, with an interesting focus on NAO (non-asbestos organic) dry friction products like brake pads and paper-based wet friction products like clutches plates. It has also invested generously in 3D printing and scanning capabilities to improve and speed up prototyping and quality control. For the most recent CONEXPO, Ausco 3D printed its entire selection of display models, showcasing construction, dimension, and function. The approach proved very popular amongst visitors.
As I was recently reminded (yet again), the deciding difference between simplicity and simpleness is studied, accomplished sophistication. Ausco Products Inc. is a company that has harnessed that high level of sophistication, providing clients with outcomes so advanced it appears like pure simplicity in the end. The only way to achieve this is by giving free rein to the pioneering spirit and industry expertise its team is so well-known for. If there is one thing this team knows for sure, it is that there is always a solution. It just needs finding.