Adapted from an article in Manufacturing in Focus.
Midwest-based machined parts manufacturer, Allis Roller, LLC, doesn’t see foreign competition as a problem. Why? Because the exceptional quality of its complex welded assemblies and precision machined components is difficult for overseas manufacturers to replicate. With each finished product proudly made in the USA, Allis Roller has established itself as a trusted custom parts provider for international brands in the original equipment manufacturing (OEM) market.
“We are specializing in complex weldment and machine parts, and because they are complex, it makes it more difficult for someone offshore to engage with the customer, figure out how everything needs to be done, and to stay engaged,” says President and Chief Executive Officer, Dave Dull.
Allis Roller’s highly skilled welders, machinists, assembly workers, and other specialists provide uniquely superior products and services from their 111,000-square-foot facility in Franklin, Wisconsin. The machine shop’s sizeable bench of product, process, and quality engineers also sets it apart from other operations of similar size.
The company’s hands-on approach allows its engineering team to suggest design changes that result in improved performance, peak efficiency, and lower costs. Dealing with a local expert like Allis Roller is much easier than working with a company overseas. Dave Dull explains, “To understand what is required and how to improve it through time is difficult to do if a company is offshore, and so those relationships are what I think really sets us apart from other machine shops.”
Almost a century ago, the original company, A. Lakin & Sons, transformed reclaimed rubber from used car tires into automotive and agricultural machinery products. Over the decades, the business expanded to produce rollers created with International Harvester to improve hay processing. Later in the 1960s, Allis Roller’s predecessor purchased a steel fabricating business to create the metal cores used for TICOR conditioner rollers.
The company continued to diversify into the 1980s, producing other types of machined components. In 2004, assets of the roller division were sold to the current ownership of Allis Roller, which began operations in Franklin, Wisconsin.
“Until 2012, we made rubber rollers out of recycled tire rubber, and that’s how we got familiar with what a rubber roller would do,” says Dull. “But we weren’t using original rubber. We were using pieces from tires that were cut into shapes and then pressing them over a steel core.”
Allis Roller added in-house rubber roller vulcanization in 2012 and submerged arc welding in 2013. The company views the introduction of these previously outsourced processes as an extension of the work it had already been doing. Today, Allis Roller makes tens of thousands of rubber rollers of varying thicknesses which are wrapped around steel tubes, placed into an autoclave, and cured for several hours. The finished product is used to drive belts on agricultural equipment, such as combines.
“That [addition] made our customers very happy because we became a one-stop shop for rubber rollers,” states Dull, “and now that has branched into all sizes and shapes of rollers and is really one of our niche areas that we specialize in.” Customers include John Deere, Case New Holland, Putzmeister, Oerlikon, and others.
The people, processes, and technology moving Allis Roller forward
Producing exceptional products requires exceptional people. Steve Kessler, Allis Roller’s contracted CFO, notes what makes Allis Roller and Dave Dull stand out. Kessler was part of the process when Allis Roller was looking for a new CEO. “We were looking for someone with a technical background, lean manufacturing experience, general management experience, and firsthand extensive sales experience managing large international OEM accounts. Dave scored very high on our criteria.”
According to Kessler, Dave Dull is the most effective general manager he has ever worked with, from his incredible energy to the sheer number of issues, initiatives, and objectives he can advance simultaneously. “He has a flair for making things happen. Dave is good at evaluating risk and determining the best path forward, and he can do it quickly when necessary.”
Dull’s impact, says Kessler, will continue to lead to “steady sales growth, new product offerings, new customers, and even to an international presence.” Kessler also credits much of Allis Roller’s success to its machinists, welders, tool makers, and middle managers, all of them highly innovative people. With exceptional people working at every level, Kessler is optimistic about the future of the company and manufacturing in Wisconsin.
Those exceptional people are also very invested in continuously improving manufacturing processes at Allis Roller. With the help of in-house lean manufacturing experts, the operation can adapt and reorganize as needed. The use of cellular manufacturing, Kaizen events, and strategic manufacturing partnerships allows Allis Roller to produce complex parts exactly when and how its customers need them.
“Process improvement and cost reduction is part of their culture,” Kessler says of Allis Roller. “They provide contract manufacturing solutions to very demanding OEMs. The continued growth of the company is a testament to the quality, delivery performance, and value that has been provided.”
Meeting the expectations of these major league OEMs also requires continuous technological upgrades. Allis Roller regularly reinvests in the company to improve its capacity and meet new demands. The operation’s range of precision equipment includes CNC turning and milling machinery, robotic welding and drilling equipment, and an SBR roller processing line. Allis Roller also boasts both state-of-the-art engineering software and a well-equipped tool room filled with manual lathes, mills, grinders, and more.
This combination of traditional and cutting-edge manufacturing technology allows Allis Roller to configure the best equipment, processes, and methods for a given project.
Manufacturing components. Building communities. Closing skills gaps.
As founder and president of The Franklin Business Park Consortium (FBPC), Dave Dull created the organization “as a means of helping Franklin businesses collaborate, pool resources, and thrive.” The consortium provides member businesses with valuable business opportunities and nurtures local talent.
President Dull came up with the idea for the consortium after Allis Roller moved into its current facility in 2014. He quickly realized that the company’s new home in the Franklin Business Park had much more office space than was needed for its operation. He decided the extra rooms could be used for educational programs, and not just for his own employees.
The Park is home to dozens of businesses ranging from small area machine shops to Fortune 500 corporations, giving Dull plenty of opportunities to start collaborating. Talking with neighboring businesses soon led to regular meetings, with Franklin companies discussing what they could do to benefit the area and address the manufacturing skills gap affecting them locally. Out of those early FBPC meetings, several educational partnerships were born.
Like many other manufacturers, Allis Roller struggles to find young people to enter the trades. However, Dull is optimistic about talent pipeline building and programs that promote manufacturing work and education. “It’s an issue everywhere, and I think communities that are going to do a better job of solving it will continue to grow, and those that don’t will have a problem,” he says.
Dull says one of the company’s conference rooms is currently being used by twenty-five junior and senior high school students enrolled in a trade skills learning program through GPS Education Partners. Participating students attend classes two hours a day in addition to working in plants for a more hands-on learning experience. Some are developing valuable future work skills at Allis Roller specifically, while others are busy training at other companies.
As Chairman and Board Member at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), Dull was also able to create a new continuing education program, staffed by MATC instructors. Classes typically take place at Allis Roller, but are open to all the FBPC members. For some classes, like lean manufacturing, blueprint reading, spreadsheet, supervisory training, and English as a second language, employees can receive earned credit through MATC.
“We’ve had hundreds of employees attend these classes, and that has really been the highlight of how we’ve come together and helped each other,” he says proudly. “We now have fifteen companies in the consortium representing over two thousand employees here in the park.”
Dull is honored to be recognized by his peers and others in the community as he works at “being out there trying to make a difference helping people, promoting skilled trades, and working with all these local companies and the City of Franklin to collaborate our efforts so we can do bigger things.”
He is a long-time proponent of giving back whenever possible and encourages others to do the same. “I do these things as far as reaching out to the community because it is in my heart and soul to give back and do something to help the community, not just run our company here, so that alone is a reward for me, to see things happening as a result of what I am trying to do,” he says.
With Allis Roller’s pattern of adaptability and innovation, it’s no surprise that this Midwest machine shop is looking to the future. In the short term alone, the company expects to increase by ten to fifteen percent a year. That’s an aggressive growth goal, but its eleven-acre lot leaves plenty of room to accommodate expansion if necessary.
The company’s plans include bringing in more staff and incorporating automation, including robotic equipment to perform assembly work. “If the work is very long and repetitive, with hundreds or thousands of parts, then we automate that and use our employees to do the more complex short-run products.” However, as much as Dull wants to expand the facility, he also seeks to strengthen Allis Roller’s relationships with area manufacturers.
“When we quote a package of parts or products, some of the work we can’t do, but we are surrounded by the best metalworking companies in the country here in Milwaukee,” says Dull. And he may be right about the area. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Area is second in the nation for manufacturing and home to six Fortune 500 companies, including Johnson Controls, Rockwell Automation, and Harley-Davidson, meaning Allis Roller is in very good company.
“We are continuing to establish stronger and stronger relationships and have about twenty main suppliers to do the processes we can’t, and that expands our ability to expand and to grow, so that’s another very significant growth strategy.” This manufacturing network is also key in keeping Allis Roller lean and globally competitive.
According to Dave Dull’s vision, growth doesn’t stop at a border. Allis Roller has now began an exciting joint venture in Brazil, where it will be producing many of the same products it already makes in the U.S. Brazil has a substantial agricultural economy, and Allis Roller will meet the South American nation’s need for equipment parts used in farming and other industries.
Dull’s success beyond the United States is no surprise, because companies like Allis Roller are shining a spotlight on the power of continuous improvement. Beyond its community involvement, reputation for excellence, and aggressive growth goals, this machine shop is leading by example of what American manufacturing has the potential to become.