Near the foothills of one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world lies a family-owned machine tool builder specializing in Swiss machines. The story may sound familiar, but there’s a twist, as KSI Swiss is nowhere near the Alps. In Westminster, Colorado, just outside of Denver, the McBride family can walk outside their KSI Swiss headquarters and see the Rocky Mountains in all their splendor. Maybe there’s something magical that the mountainous environment brings, or maybe it’s the experience of having started out as a job shop, but KSI has found success in being a rare U.S.-owned builder of CNC Swiss automatics.
The Family Business
In the 1970s, Marvin McBride started a job shop in his garage. He incorporated as Intrex Corporation in 1977, doing general machining with a Bridgeport Boss 4 and some manual mills and lathes. The work continued for several years, but with basically only one customer, who ended up with financial problems in the early 1980s. Marvin knew then he needed to expand the business, so he started diversifying his customer base and adding more sophisticated equipment, including Mazak and Okuma vertical machining centers and turning centers. In 1987, he passed away, leaving Intrex to his wife and three sons, David, Mike and Tom. The boys, only in their early 20s, had machining experience thanks to working with their father, but had little knowledge of business management.
Mike McBride led the family team in running the company and continued on his father’s path of expanding the business. By the 1990s, they were running a large number of small-diameter, Swiss-type parts on the big machines they had acquired. Restrategizing, he bought the company’s first CNC Swiss-type machine in 1992. Fourteen more machines quickly followed, and the company’s commitment to Swiss machining was firmly established.
With the success it was realizing in the market, the company decided to go almost exclusively Swiss and started selling off its other machines. It held onto a select few to be able to handle ongoing requirements for established customers.
The demands on Intrex’s capacity continued to increase, placing premiums on machine efficiency, uptimes and throughput. To maximize machine utilization and efficiencies, one area that required rethinking was the use of water-soluble coolant versus cutting oils. Water-soluble coolants, which Intrex used in its traditional contract jobs, actually detracted from the CNC Swiss process. Current KSI company president Tom McBride likens it to running a high-performance race car on regular gas. Once the company switched to cutting oil, the advantages (extended tool life, less operator intervention) became evident in its manufacturing, and its process control improved. However, along with the improvements came increased amounts of business and new demands. The McBrides knew they needed to find new ways to maximize their capital equipment investments.
After briefly trying the used machinery market, the company began to get more creative. Under the direction of lead engineer Eun Park, it purchased a few new machines that could produce more sophisticated parts. However, the company still needed more, requiring more live-axis driven tools on standard platforms. It sought out another builder who worked with them in assembling a machine that fit their exact requirements.
The machine met the requirements and the company ran the order out for the customer. Soon, four of these machines were running similar orders. The business was growing, and it appeared the family had found its niche.
As users of the equipment, the McBrides knew what they wanted, and they believed they had a handle on what the industry needed. Leveraging their experience in the field, they decided to begin importing these machines made to their specifications. They formed KSI Swiss, Inc. and were quickly successful in selling the product in the U.S. marketplace. One effective sales method was to bring potential buyers to the Intrex facility to show them the KSI machines in production. This gave the buyers confidence that if they purchased a KSI machine, the company would be able to get them up and running quickly.
The KSI philosophy was, and still is, to load the machines up with as much standard capability as possible and keep them competitively priced. The consistency leads to higher productivity for the CNC Swiss owner who one day may be running simple dowel pins and the next day is running complicated lock or medical parts. The goal was to find a more economical way of doing Swiss turning.
From Shop To Builder
Intrex continued to find success, even through the tough times immediately following 9/11. With 30 Swiss-type machines in service and the business doing so well, the family realized the significance of the market for the machines they were using. A few years earlier, the McBrides had kicked around the idea of building their own Swiss machine, but the timing wasn’t right. At this point, however, with their heavy involvement in production machining at Intrex and importing the KSI Swiss line, they decided to try their hand at it.
The family sold Intrex to focus on the building and selling of Swiss machines through the KSI name. Along with Mr. Park, they formed McBride Machine Tool Company (MMTC). Headed by David McBride, president, this U.S.-owned manufacturer of the KSI Swiss line has manufacturing facilities in Seoul, Korea, and Westminster, Colorado. KSI Swiss, Inc. acts as the sales and marketing corporation that distributes and sells MMTC products.
KSI’s first manufactured offerings—the SQC (Swss Quality Center) series—include the 20-, 32- and 38-mm machines. The next offering in development is the 12/16 mm, scheduled to be available in the first quarter of 2006.
Know What Customers Want
For KSI, standardization is important so operators can move from simple to complex parts and not have an adjustment curve to deal with in the transition. It’s this reason exactly that KSI has chosen to standardize on GE Fanuc for their controls.
KSI can use most standard bar feeders on the market. The choice is often customer-driven. According to Tom, “All the bar feed manufacturers make a good product. It’s helpful in resolving customer issues if they’re very familiar with the particular bar feeder and other equipment being used and can easily go from one machine to the next.”
During manufacturing, KSI uses the platform model found in automotive manufacturing. The 20-mm machine is built on the same platform as the SQC 32 and 38.
However, it’s impossible to completely standardize on only one configuration fitting all. The 12/16 will have a single, smaller platform, but will have two or three tooling variations. “This series is KSI’s solution for many parts that require simple turning with limited requirements for cross milling, but do not justify a large capital expenditure,” Tom says.
Based on its research, the company plans to be able to span about 75 percent of the Swiss marketplace with the lines from 12/16 through the SQC 20, 32 and 38. The 12/16 can make a nice introduction into the Swiss market because it’s sophisticated, but not complex. KSI sees a lot of first-time users, but according to Mr. McBride, “Any shop that is doing turning operations needs a Swiss machine.”
Breaking Into The Market
When KSI started selling into the Swiss market, it knew it needed to offer a complete Swiss solution at a competitive price. As part of the marketing strategy, it advertises in some trade publications and participates in specific trade shows. Initially, one of the company’s most successful sales tools was to invite potential buyers to the Intrex facility to see the products running in a production environment. Tom says, “Customers saw us using what we were selling. It was a real credibility builder.”
KSI believes that Swiss is one of the fastest growing segments in the turning industry. The type of work that can be done on these machines (bone screws, sophisticated fasteners for the computer industry, lock tumblers) is not as vulnerable to overseas competition because it has less to do with direct labor. It is also attracting shops outside the traditional screw machine industry. KSI has been there. They’ve seen how a company can grow and what can be done with Swiss turning.