When a company manufacturers products that go into life-saving medical equipment, there is always a propensity to go one step above what is often asked of them when it comes to quality and reliability.
That has always been the case with MPE Inc., an ISO certified contract manufacturer in Milwaukee that specializes in medium volume production for medical and technology companies..
“We exist to help OEMs commercialize life-enhancing technologies, and we do this by simplifying complex engineering challenges into scalable market-ready solutions,” says Hank Kohl, MPE’s President, and CEO. “Bottom line, from napkin sketch to market-ready product, we become an integral part of our customer business and commercial success.”
Aside from manufacturing, MPE also runs an FDA and EPA compliant continuous flow conveyor powder coating system at their large facility. They have a rapid changeover system that allows them to change colors with 20-line hooks and have over 500 medical-grade powders in their system.
Even in their coating line, attention to detail and exceeding expectations go hand-in-hand with their operations.
“We do not use reclaimed powder,” says Geoff Lefeber, MPE’s Vice President of Operations. “We only apply virgin grade powder to reduce the chance of contamination.”
So when MPE was asked early in 2020 by a blue-chip OEM in the construction and agriculture industry to achieve the OEM’s stringent internal specification — with a standard requirement of getting to Level III (High) — the MPE quality team decided to go one better.
“The target was to achieve Level III; however, we pushed for a more aggressive goal,” says Dave Bongard, MPE’s Vice President of Engineering. “We wanted to achieve a Superior Level IV benchmark.”
Getting to Level IV required a significant upgrade to MPE’s 5-stage wash system to a zirconium-based, phosphorous free technology pretreatment. In March, MPE began working with Brian Groubert from Chemetall-BASF on the project. Groubert outlined a plan that included two options:
After discussing the pros and cons of both technologies, MPE chose to move ahead with a program featuring Gardobond X 4548, a new generation APT that is considered a part of its “sustainable solutions” platform of emerging and future technologies
“It is designed for most metals and is a single package, phosphorus-free product,” Groubert says. “It contains no regulated metals and operates at energy-saving ambient temperature creating virtually no sludge.”
Groubert engineered scaled drawings (Figure 1) of the existing pretreatment system, and detailed specific upgrades recommended to ensure success in converting to the new technology. MPE and Chemetall partnered to plan out every level of the integration months in advance; in doing so, the plan came together smoothly.
The program was launched in July of 2020, only four months after initial meetings had begun. That month, testing was completed on the newly upgraded system, and parts were submitted for physical testing. By October, physical testing results demonstrated that the new program had passed both the Level III and Level IV requirements of the blue-chip customer’s standards.
While the new technology offers substantially improved cleaning and coating, Zanardo says it should be noted that the program at MPE features truly sustainable technology.
“This includes 100% phosphorous-free chemistry, which is a key initiative in today’s efforts to improve impact on the environment,” he says, adding that process control measures were implemented with the support of Chemetall that includes fully automated digital controls and data monitoring system.
“It has network communications that control, monitor, and alerts select individuals when critical process parameters are out of compliance,” says Jim Gartzke, MPE’s Director of Quality. “Proper chemical pretreatment is crucial to the success of any finishing system, and the improvements to the MPE system have been well documented.”
The newly improved program now allows MPE a better position to capture market share from clients interested in superior process performance. Medical is MPE’s primary industry segment, but Zanardo says the company also serves a broad set of industries they refer to as ‘Diversified Industrial,’ which consists of construction, energy, aviation, communications, and manufacturing industries.
MPE’s top processes include laser cutting, punching, forming, welding, mechanical fastening, powder coating, silk screening, high-level assembly, and complete systems assembly.
“This year, we also made a significant investment in capital equipment to expand the capacity of our metal fabrication operations and to create a new Quick Turn Prototype Cell,” Zanardo says.
MPE made a $6 million capital expenditure investment in developing the Quick Turn Prototype Cell to assist in its work with customers. For example, the process can go through Fiber Laser Turret Combo to a part separation, then to an ATC brake press and a MIG/TIF weld booth before being sent to the finishing area. Or, the process can start with a press brake, then a metrology table, and on to spot welding or a MIG/TIF weld booth before being sent to the finishing area
MPE was founded in 1978 by the former head of engineering at Marquette Electronics, which ultimately was acquired by GE Healthcare. He saw an unmet need in the medical industry to provide high-quality components and sub-assemblies that have a high degree of mechanical complexity and a high cosmetic requirement in low to medium production volumes.
The operation started as a sheet metal fabricator, and over the years, MPE has built a vertically integrated contract manufacturing model that provides end-to-end solutions they call ‘Concept to Completion,’ that includes engineering and design services to metal fabrication, powder coating, silkscreen, high-level sub-assemblies, complete system assembly, warehousing, and 3PL logistics services.
Besides Kohl serving as President and CEO, Dave Bongard as VP of Engineering, Geoff Lefeber as VP of Operations, Rick Zanardo as VP of Business Development, and Jim Gartzke as Director of Quality, other management executives include Chief Financial Officer Tom Groble, VP of Engineering Dave Bongard, VP of Strategic Accounts John Hart, and Director of Supply Chain Mark Morrison.
MPE has about 200 employees at their 160,000-square-foot factory in Milwaukee, running three shifts: two shifts run 10 hours per day Monday through Thursday, and a third shift runs 12 hours per day Friday through Sunday.
“Our company has a special niche,” Kohl says. “Being in healthcare, that business never goes away, and there will always be demand for the products we produce that improve life. Our plan is to keep growing in size, experience, customer base, and capacity.”
Looking forward, MPE is looking at adding robotic powder coating heads and upgrading their powder coat line to accommodate increased capacity. Kohl says the projected growth works well with all that they have to offer its customers.
“This is only possible through our vertical offering and over 40+ years of experience,” he says. “It goes from our engineering, supply chain management, and quality management to our medium volume manufacturing competence, as well as our warehousing with 3PL logistics services.”