Automation and Innovation for the Tube and Pipe Industry
For more than 20 years, Proto-1 has provided innovative tube and pipe manufacturing solutions for a variety of industries. Based in Winneconne, Wisconsin, Proto-1 delivers custom tube end forming and deburring machines made in the United States.
Proto-1 was founded in 1997 by John and Valerie Schwochert, who opened a small machine shop specializing in automation and tube and pipe deburring equipment. “The company started as a niche shop serving customers in the Fox Valley,” says Marc Jankowski, Business Development and Marketing Manager. “Tube Deburring used to be a manual process done with a belt sander by hand operation.” Proto-1 created a machine and a deburring head, patented as the Roto-D-Bur® head that automated the tube deburring process, which the company still uses today.
Recognizing a unique opportunity to fulfill customers’ unmet needs, the Schwocherts expanded Proto-1’s product line to include other types of tube forming equipment. Today, the company’s offerings include rotary tube end forming, ram tube end forming, segmented tube end forming, and more. Proto-1’s rotary tube end forming (RFM) machine is the leading technology for tube cutoff after-bending. “Right now, our competitors don’t have anything close to the technology we have in the [Proto-1 RFM] machine,” Jankowski says.
Through constant innovation and customized manufacturing solutions, Proto-1 continues to lead the tube and pipe manufacturing sector. “Our products are a solution to help our customers increase their production, hold tighter tolerances, and increase their bottom line.” Manufacturers in automotive, heavy truck, military, HVAC, agriculture, water, aerospace, and several other industries choose Proto-1 for their tube and pipe manufacturing needs.
Proto-1 has grown from a small, local machine shop into a market leader with a global reach. “We’re a small company of about 80 people located in Wisconsin, but we have a global market presence. Our machines are all over the world; they’re in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Europe, the U.K., Australia, Ecuador, China, Ireland, India, and New Zealand. We view this as a big accomplishment, that we’ve been able to create that kind of brand recognition and sell our machines all over the world,” says Seth Johnson, Digital Media and Marketing Coordinator.
Throughout 20 years of growth and expansion, Proto-1 has remained a close-knit family company. “It’s a very family-oriented culture here. We all work as a team and contribute as much as we can,” says Johnson.
“Open communication is important to us as well,” says Jankowski. “We always keep an open line of communication, so that if someone sees something we can improve or has an idea, they can talk to anyone on the senior leadership team about it.”
At the heart of Proto-1’s culture is a commitment to proactive problem solving. “Our biggest advantage is our unmatched ‘can-do’ attitude,” says Jankowski. “When I bring in a new sales opportunity and it’s something outside the box or something we haven’t done before, no one says, ‘we can’t do that.’ Instead, everyone thinks, ‘how can we do this?’ and ‘what’s the best way to do this?’ Our company was founded to help customers who couldn’t find a solution to their manufacturing needs. For the past 21 years, we’ve been coming up with solutions to help our customers. We have a lot of integrity in our problem solving process, so people trust us when we say that we can do something.”
Problem solving capabilities
Proto-1’s in-house engineering staff offers problem solving capabilities to meet any manufacturing challenge. “Our engineering staff is working on developing new solutions almost every day. They’re designing new tools and new machines, and thinking of new processes to improve our current machines. They also develop new ideas that haven’t been done in the market before,” Jankowski says. The company employs a total of 11 mechanical and electrical engineers.
“Several of our mechanical engineers are focusing specifically on new machines and new processes. Customers come to us because they can’t find a solution for how to manufacture their product, so we have engineers who specialize in this area to create a solution for them, whether it’s designing a custom machine or a custom tool for one of our standard machines to manufacture their product.”
The Proto-1 team is unmatched in their in-house capability to integrate automation into nearly any project. “Our customers come to us wanting automation on our products, and they’re looking for our expertise on the best way to do it. Our electrical engineers will integrate robots, and they will customize the PLC screens to make it as easy as possible for our customers,” Jankowski says.
Proto-1 strives to stay ahead of the competition by offering leading-edge innovations for its customers. “Right now, in our industry, there’s a race for technology. We’re always asking how technology can improve our current machines and the manufacturing processes that we offer to our customers. We like to know what our competition is doing so that we can offer better solutions to our customers,” Jankowski says. Proto-1 is committed to offering these solutions at a competitive price. “Sometimes overseas options may be cheaper than our products, so we’re finding ways to engineer and design cost out of our machines, to stay competitive in a global market.”
Creating a workforce for the future
As the manufacturing industry faces a shortage of skilled workers, Proto-1 is working to build a pipeline of future employees. The company partners with local schools to build interest in manufacturing careers. Proto-1’s team speaks with students at the local elementary school and high school to educate them about careers in manufacturing, and also has a close relationship with the local technical college.
Each summer, the company hosts several interns in its machine shop, engineering, and quality departments, in hopes that these students will become full-time employees upon graduation. “We’re always talking with our local high schools, and if they have a student interested in manufacturing we will take them on as an intern or apprentice. We even offer tuition reimbursement opportunities so that they can learn a skilled trade and hopefully work with us in the future,” says Jankowski.
In 2016, Proto-1 President John Schwochert founded a nonprofit car club called the Winneconne Road Runners. Through its annual car show, the Winneconne Road Runners club raises money to support scholarships for high school students interested in pursuing a career in a skilled trade. The first Winneconne Road Runners scholarship recipient interned in Proto-1’s quality department while pursuing an Associate’s Degree in machining at Fox Valley Technical College. “We hope that as the car show grows every year, we’ll be able to support more scholarships,” Jankowski says. Proto-1 is confident that these investments in new talent will pay off for years to come, attracting talented workers to meet the company’s needs as it continues to grow.
Building on success
“For years Proto-1 has been growing, so we want to continue that success,” Jankowski says. “The way we plan to do that is by getting into more growth markets.” Proto-1 has identified opportunities for growth in the aerospace industry, which it recently began serving. The company is focused on growing its business in this sector over the next five to ten years.
Through creative marketing, Proto-1 is also pursuing new regional markets. Jankowski and Johnson are tasked with developing “new, creative marketing strategies to increase brand awareness in parts of the U.S. where Proto-1 currently doesn’t do business, and in other parts of the world.” Innovation is also a focus of Proto-1’s growth strategy. “We want to develop new technology, machines, and processes to offer in the industries we serve. Proto-1 is never complacent; we’re always looking for the next innovative thing we can do, whether it’s creating a new machine or using technology to improve a process.”