Apprenticeship, North Carolina-style

Charlotte manufacturer helps bring European-style apprenticeships stateside

The FABRICATOR April 2014
March 31, 2014
By: Tim Heston

Max Daetwyler Corp., a Huntersville, N.C.-based contract manufacturer, has evolved significantly to serve the changing business needs in the custom machinery arena. Its approach to employee skill development has evolved as well, with a growing regional partnership founded on the concepts behind European-style apprenticeships.

Figure 1
A Daetwyler employee in the fabrication area works with an apprentice who after four years is guaranteed a job at the company.
Photo courtesy of Daetwyler Industries.

On a hillside in Burgdorf in the Swiss canton of Bern sits Rondo, a manufacturer of dough processing equipment. It’s part of the Swiss klein und mittelunternehmen, or KMU—small and medium-sized businesses that dot the country. “KMUs make up the backbone of the Swiss economy,” said David Gibson, Rondo’s area sales manager, during a company tour in 2011.

Rondo uses laser cutting, bending, welding, machining, grinding, and numerous other metal manufacturing technologies to make its varied product lines. All this requires a steady supply of technical talent, hence the youthful faces on the floor and in the office.

The faces represent the modern iteration of the centuries-old European tradition of apprenticeships that connect education and business communities, ensuring students graduate with the skills that the Swiss economy needs. The country has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world, at 3.5 percent. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), youth unemployment (people 15 to 24 years old) now stands at less than 8 percent, less than half the international average.

Another Swiss, Peter Daetwyler, knew how important his apprenticeship was to his own success, and his experience led him to work with a network of manufacturers and educators to form what has become a thriving apprenticeship program—not in Europe, but in North Carolina (see Figure 1).

Daetwyler and the U.S. Market

Peter’s father Max Daetwyler launched Max Daetwyler Corp. in 1943 and moved its headquarters to Bleienbach in 1951, not far from Rondo’s hometown. Part of Switzerland’s KMU economic backbone, Daetwyler Corp. carved its niche making machinery for flexographic and rotogravure printing, the kind used for high-volume press runs. Daetwyler’s machines today mainly print packaging for candy wrappers, wallpaper, vinyl flooring, and other products that most don’t think of as a “print” medium.

As a teenager, Peter apprenticed at ABB, where he learned the basics of manufacturing technology and gained the foundational knowledge he would use one day to run the family business. In 1974 Peter and his wife moved to the U.S. to set up a distributorship on Long Island, and in 1990 they moved to Huntersville, N.C., just north of Charlotte, to open a machine shop that would support the company’s growing North American business. The location also began to build proprietary grinding machines used to make one of Daetwyler’s key products: Doctor Blades, a consumable in rotogravure printing that scrapes excess ink off of press cylinders.

By the mid-1990s company leaders saw European competitors in the printing equipment business expand their U.S. operations. “We then started building [machines] in America because customers wanted it. And we took another leap and got into assembly and fabrication, which took on a life of their own.”

So said Ralph Daetwyler (see Figure 2), Peter’s son and president of Daetwyler’s U.S. operations, an organization that has since grown to become a diversified high-mix, low-volume contract manufacturer, custom machine builder, and product line manufacturer.

In 2009 the printing and graphics operations of Daetwyler merged with several other companies to form Heliograph Holding GmbH. And just this year, that organization purchased the remaining capital equipment lines from Daetwyler. “We are no longer in the business of capital equipment building for the graphics industry,” Ralph said.

The U.S. operation, which today employs 84 people, has come full circle. It was launched to support and eventually to build and remanufacture machines and supply parts for Daetwyler’s North American customer base in the printing sector. Now the facility acts as a contract manufacturer, both for external customers as well as internal ones, and internal customers can be anywhere in the world. Daetwyler has factories in India, China, and Europe, all producing Doctor Blades and other printing consumables. If a machine producing Doctor Blades in India needs a spare part, the North Carolina operation obliges.

Figure 2
Ralph Daetwyler, president of Max Daetwyler Corp. in North Carolina, stands by a machine frame that will eventually become part of a proprietary grinding machine for manufacturing Doctor Blades, a consumable used by the printing industry.

The other half of the work comes from external customers, and the company markets all this work under several divisions. Max Daetwyler Corp. produces consumable pressroom products, including Doctor Blades. Daetwyler Industries handles custom fabrication and machine design. Daetwyler Cleaning Technologies builds solvent-recovery and parts-washing systems for the printing industry. Daetwyler Clean Energy fabricates solar racking systems (see Figure 3). On top of all this, the company houses a joint venture, a contract manufacturing and machine distributorship operation called Micro Waterjet LLC (see sidebar).

The Search for Skill

Daetwyler’s North Carolina facility is about as far away from high-volume production as you can get. The shop is awash with nondisclosure agreements; customers call on Daetwyler to build custom equipment that gives them a competitive edge. But all this couldn’t have happened without the right people, and when Peter Daetwyler arrived in North Carolina in 1990, he soon discovered a harsh reality: When it came to technical talent, he wasn’t in Switzerland anymore.

In nearby Stanley, N.C., Karl Ruedisser, president and CEO of furniture hardware maker Blum, was feeling the same way. In his native Austria, Ruedisser too grew up under an apprenticeship system, and both Daetwyler and Ruedisser realized a need. Like the rest of the country, North Carolina lacked technically skilled people, and both executives knew that they wouldn’t just appear out of nowhere. So the two approached Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). What if they could create a regional apprenticeship program of their own?

“CPCC agreed as long as we could fill 10 seats,” Ralph recalled. “In the beginning, there wasn’t enough interest, so we had to actually buy a few seats.”

Despite the slow start, the initiative launched successfully in 1996, with the first class slated to graduate in 2000—hence the program’s name, Apprenticeship 2000 ( Today Apprenticeship 2000 has eight partner companies, including Timken and Siemens, and together the firms offer several dozen apprenticeship openings a year.

The qualification process starts in high school, when students entering their senior year must meet certain requirements pertaining to GPA, attendance, and hands-on courses. “Once they meet these requirements, the next step would be to come in to an open house with their parents.”

So said Bob Romanelli, Daetwyler’s apprenticeship coordinator. “They all get an understanding about what the program is about, and then of course they hear about a free education opportunity, and their ears perk up.”

After the open house, students attend orientation events during which they review math skills, basic conversion factors, and some hands-on training and then undergo some testing. Then Romanelli invites certain students to a six-week summer internship program, during which they attend CPCC two days and work in the shop three days a week. “After this process, we probably have a folder on them that’s about a half inch thick,” Romanelli said.

Based on the contents of this folder and a student’s performance over the internship, Daetwyler chooses one or two apprentices to participate in the four-year program. The first day these students graduate high school, they are hired on as a full-time Daetwyler employee, and they’re offered the same health benefits as full-time employees (though many still are covered by their parents’ health plans).

Like other partner companies, Daetwyler pays apprentices to work a five-day week, even though they work four days and attend classes the fifth. It also pays their way to earn their associate’s degree in mechatronics engineering technology. There’s also no contract requiring students to stay on a certain amount of time after graduation. “If we have to twist their arm in order to stay, we don’t want them to stay here,” Romanelli said. “But most want to stay because of the culture here.”

Figure 3
A solar racking support system is preassembled and tested behind Daetwyler’s North Carolina facility.

Connecting Education With Business Needs

Apprentices are given time to build foundational skills, and depending on the situation, they may not work on specific products to be sold until several years into the program. Once apprentices get a taste of the various technologies and processes at the company, Romanelli guides them to areas that interest them, be it welding, machining, electronics assembly, or anything else.

“Market conditions sometimes don’t allow for us to be completely flexible,” he said. Being a high-product-mix operation, Daetwyler’s demand continually ebbs and flows in various areas of the shop. “But they’re guaranteed a job after graduation, and they’ve been trained in many areas within the company.” He added that this fact alone pays for the expense of the apprenticeship program and then some. Considering Daetwyler’s diverse products and services, it needs to foster and grow a cross-trained workforce.

Most important, apprentices experience various aspects of modern manufacturing—so different from the stereotype of monotonous high-volume production work. Romanelli added that, yes, some apprentices leave after so many years at the company, simply because young people often decide to take their career path in other directions. One apprentice this year is leaving to enter the military—something he feels called to do—so Romanelli is making sure he gets experience in machining and welding (see Figure 4), two skills sure to come in handy in the service.

But a core group of apprentices, including one from the first graduating class of 2000, remain. By the time the company’s older machinists and welders retire, Daetwyler will have a strong group of technical experts to take the reins.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Romanelli said. “We’re growing our technical workforce from within.”

Abrasive Waterjet Cutting, Downsized

Daetwyler’s North Carolina facility has a separate section dedicated to an unusual fabrication process: abrasive microwaterjet cutting. The company works closely with Walter Maurer, CEO of Switzerland-based Waterjet AG, a waterjet job shop of gigantic proportions that touts more than two dozen abrasive waterjet cutting systems. Maurer, who invented the microwaterjet system, began a joint venture with Daetwyler to market the machines in the U.S. and, at the same time, offer contract manufacturing services.

This is precise work, and much of it goes to the electronics sector. Many parts are small, but they don’t have to be. What differentiates abrasive microwaterjet from its conventional cousin is the stream diameter and achievable accuracy. The machines have glass scales that help them obtain a cutting accuracy of ±10 microns depending on the material and thickness. Typical jet streams are 0.5 mm or less.

The machines don’t compete with conventional abrasive waterjet. Instead, they fabricate parts that may have previously been cut using wire electrical discharge machining (EDM). Microwaterjet broadens the engineer’s options because, unlike wire EDM, it doesn’t require that the material be electrically conductive.

The joint venture didn’t launch at the most opportune time—in April 2009. That year the venture, called Micro Waterjet LLC, processed only about $6,000 a month. “Last month we processed about $72,000 worth of work,” said Steve Parette, Micro Waterjet’s managing director. “Our budget this year is $60,000 a month. We’ve grown quite a bit.”

Parette added that when choosing a technician to run such a machine, he looks for a person who thinks in microns, not thousandths of an inch. “I wouldn’t want a guy who’s operated a conventional waterjet,” he said. “Our staff here used to run milling machines and wire EDMs.”

Parette pointed to seemingly insignificant 16-gauge strip, an inch wide and several inches long. It was fixtured with several microsized stops, each probably worth a few cents each. The small part they held, though, cost more than $1,000.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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