By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | May 08, 2023
Linear motion products and technology
Schroeder's father, Robert Schroeder, was running a job shop that served John Deere and other agricultural machinery manufacturers in the early 1980s when a recession obliterated the company's sales.
"Ninety-five percent of their business dried up overnight," says the younger Schroeder. "The Rockford area had an unemployment rate of roughly 25 percent."
The strategy was to get into manufacturing a standard product. PBC Linear subsequently launched to take a PTFE-lined bearing to market in 1983, inspired by a part the shop was manufacturing at the time, "a flat plate with a Teflon liner," says Schroeder. "They took that concept, and they started bonding it to steel rings and steel saddles that are used in hydraulic pumps. From there, we took the concept a step further and made a Teflon-lined bearing that was size interchangeable with a linear ball bearing. That's how the Simplicity line of little red bearings was born."
That core bearing has mushroomed into a wide-ranging catalog of linear motion components and devices. "All we used to do was make imperial-size bearings, then we grew into metric, and then we grew into the components that go along with the bearings," says Schroeder. "We went from components to component accessories to other products that used the components. Then we went into mechanical actuators and components for mechanical actuators. All through that process of developing our product lines, you have to develop the manufacturing know-how in order to do it, especially since our products hold tolerances in aluminum extrusions that are a fraction of the industry standard."
He adds, "In developing that manufacturing know-how, automation technology -- literally building our own manufacturing equipment for some of these products -- came with it."
Dieter says the evolution of the product line and the underlying manufacturing logistics has fostered a culture of invention. "I've been on board for about a year now," he explains. "Innovation is everywhere in this company, not only innovation in product, but in the processes that we've had to develop in order to build the products that we want to build. We rarely rely on outside sources or subject matter experts to help us in our ability to be self-sufficient. We figure it out ourselves. That's one thing that's been true and a piece of the PBC Linear DNA from day one, and it still is very evident today."
The end result? High quality, says Dieter. "We do build things that work in some of the most severe applications, environmentally speaking, as far as duty cycle and things like that."
Schroeder points to PBC Linear's patent portfolio, including one for a sledging process for the company's Integral-V Technology (IVT) products. "We developed a manufacturing process and design methodology to take a steel or stainless steel shaft or raceway, design aluminum it mates into, and how to push that steel into that aluminum so that it gets sledged and has the aluminum deform around it. It is mechanically held in place. There's no adhesive, there's no screws, et cetera. It's a permanent structure at that point."
He adds, "The machines that sledge the steel into the aluminum -- we've got three of them -- all of them were designed and built in-house."
This expertise led to the spinoff of 3D printer manufacturer 3D Platform and the establishment of Applied Cobotics as an internal division to help clients with automation. "At PBC, we have over 150 manufacturing machines, most of them are CNC," says Dieter. "We're vertically integrated for almost everything that we make, except for some outside processes and some components that we buy instead of make. But at the end of the day, there are challenges getting experienced operators, so he saw the cobot trend coming, so he invested in 30 cobots and brought them into the organization and challenged the organization to put them to use. So, they did."
Partnering with Universal Robots to launch Applied Cobotics was the next natural step, Dieter says, and PBC began with a cobot feeder that can underpin a lights-out operation. "We made it for ourselves, and then we said, 'Why aren't we commercializing it?' Again, it's the wash, rinse, and repeat of innovation at PBC Linear. We figure it out ourselves, then we say, 'This might have value in the marketplace, let's commercialize it.'"
PBC Linear invested more $5.6 million into a flexible manufacturing system from Italy-based MCM with multiple CNC workstations in 2023. "When all is said and done, it's easily going to be a $10 million investment for the business in total," says Schroeder, forecasting at least a quadrupling in productivity.
"I have not been part of a company or an ownership that has invested so much back into the business," adds Dieter. "From a budget standpoint, what is invested back into the business is about four times what I'm used to seeing."
Sales grew by 15 percent in 2022, and the trajectory could even get steeper in 2023 and beyond. "We do see tremendous growth heading our way over the next five years," says Dieter. "PBC Linear is sitting on a keg of dry powder, and we've just got to light the fuse in the right way and with the right timing."
Challenges: "Competitive pressures are getting a little bit higher right now," says Dieter. "The challenge, more externally speaking, would be about competition dropping prices." After competitors' prices rose in 2021 and 2022, they're coming back down to Earth in 2023.
He also says the company is seeking to improve its internal "blocking and tackling" of manufacturing with in-depth analyses of product development and supply chain. "The challenges are pretty good in those areas. We're doing pretty good in those areas, and if we improve that, we can only get better."
The electronics supply chain is still a challenge for PBC Linear's customers, and Schroeder says that some orders have been put on hold while they wait for critical components.
Opportunities: "We're well-served to source into the industrial automation megatrend that's upon us, because workforce shortages aren't going anywhere," says Dieter. "We're always going to have that struggle -- not just us, but everybody that's in the industry. Automation is going to be the savior."
"If you look at a lot of machine shops out there, they don't have an automation engineer on staff," he adds. "They're waiting for the industry to give them a turnkey solution."
Reshoring is the second big overarching opportunity, says Dieter. "I do think that made in America, manufactured in America, that ring sounds more true than it has in the past, and we're proud of that."
Dieter says he sees sales to medical instrumentation manufacturers increasing, along with companies involved in warehouse automation. He also highlights a potential home run in a new product: miniature ball screws that are due to hit the market in summer 2023. "Longevity, the life of the product, has been exceptional with the design of the product we have, both cylindrical and flange nuts."
Needs: Based in 216,000 square feet, PBC Linear needs more room. "More space would definitely help," says Schroeder. "Capital is always a need in building additional space."
Automation is also needed, but Dieter is quick to note that it's not a be-all, end-all: "You can't solve it all with automation."