Early Automobile Parts Supplier Going Strong 100-plus Years Down the Road
By Mark Langlois, Senior Editor
One of today’s leading automotive parts companies pulled out of the starting gate when cars nudged horses off the streets more than 100 years ago. Strattec Security Corp., founded as Briggs & Stratton, was making automotive car locks before cars had locks.
John Bailen, engineering and project manager of Strattec Security Corp., and Warner L. Jackson, sales manager for Strattec, were interviewed by telephone and through an email survey by Design-2-Part.
“We make a wide range of parts, ignition system components, the starting system, door latches, door locking components, keys, of course, and then just additional interior components and other mechanical components,” said Jackson. “We’re fully integrated [with regard to] anything to do with starting the car, the security of the car, the sliding door mechanisms, the lift gate mechanisms. Add to that there is no traditional key. What if it’s a push button electronic key? We do that.”
Stephen Briggs and Harold Stratton founded Briggs & Stratton in 1910. The pair showed off their first gas engine ignition switch in 1910 at the New York Auto Show. The company always had two basic business tracks—automotive locks and small engines. They were the world’s largest supplier of automobile door locks by 1930. World War II meant fewer automobiles, so the company started supplying war materiel to the defense department. The firm sold its 1 billionth automotive door lock in 1980.
The small engine piece started early, but didn’t thrive until after World War II, when people left the cities and farms, moved to the suburbs, and mowed their lawns. Briggs & Stratton engines power lawn mowers and numerous other commercial and residential products.
At Age 85, Strattec is Launched
In 1995, Briggs & Stratton divided itself in half by spinning off the automotive parts as Strattec Security Corp.
The original firm, Briggs & Stratton, remains one of the nation’s largest small engine manufacturing firms, making engines used in lawnmowers, snow blowers, compressors, generators, power washers, and other devices for such brands as John Deere, Toro, Snapper, Troy-Bilt, and Husqvarna.
“B&S went one direction. Strattec went down another,” Jackson said. In addition to automotive, Strattec works in other fields. “We’ve worked in the appliance industry, in the electrical industry, in home and hardware.”
Almost every automobile manufacturer uses Strattec parts or parts made by Strattec’s Vehicle Access Systems Technology (VAST) subsidiary, including Volvo, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Bentley, Audi, Honda, Toyota, BMW, Mazda, Nissan, Chevy, Dodge, Fiat, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, and many more, according to Strattec’s website.
Die Casting, Metal Plating, and Metal Stamping
In addition to sticking to its roots in automobiles, Strattec also works in contract manufacturing of parts from customer specifications. Strattec Component Solutions offers contract manufacturing services for customers interested in zinc die casting, precision metal stamping, deep drawn stamping, and progressive die stamping.
The company works with cold roll steel, brass aluminum, stainless steel, and high strength low alloy steel, shipping products to customers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, China, South America and Korea. Strattec also provides full-service aftermarket support.
Strattec’s zinc die casting production equipment includes 27 four-slide pneumatic clamping machines. It also includes 25 four-slide hydraulic clamping machines and 20 multi-slide conventional machines, ranging in size from 40 tons to 315 tons. With this equipment, Strattec has earned ISO 9000/TS 16949 certification and the environmental ISO 14001 certification.
In metal plating, Strattec’s barrel plating process includes semi-bright and bright nickel, zinc plating, and trivalent chromium. Its two-wash processes include a rotary basket washer for batch process and a continuous flow auger washer for a high volume continuous wash. Strattec offers seven different burnishing and/or finishing processes, including high energy centrifugal burnishing, batch vibratory burnishing, flow-through vibratory burnishing, magnetic centrifugal burnishing, batch tumblast, continuous tumblast, and thermal deburr.
Turning a Notion into a Part
Sometimes a client has a notion and wants design help, and sometimes a customer wants help with the choice of materials.
“The company is shifting into alloys and other materials to meet future needs” for light-weighting and electrical qualities, Bailen said. “It could be to meet CAFE standards. One way to do that is with lightweight alloys. A customer comes to us with an idea. We can help with the design and we can also come to them with the end-product. Some companies come to us with drawings 30 or 40 years old and we assist them in making the updates.”
Strattec’s auto parts include mechanical locks and keys, electronic keys and locks, steering column ignition lock housings, latches, power sliding side door systems, power lift gate systems, power deck lid systems, door handles, and related products.
One challenge the company must overcome for each part is its environmental test. Will the part survive and continue to function after a lifetime of dust and wind in Arizona, for example? Will that same part survive and continue to function after a lifetime in the salt, snow, and freezing weather found in upstate New York? What if it’s never garaged?
“It has to keep going,” Bailen said.
Bailen said Strattec can reach tolerances of 0.001 inch, but listening to the customer is an important part of the relationship. He said many customers have room to play with on tolerances, and what is more important for a given part is price. Listening to a customer means more than being a ‘make it and ship it’ company. Sometimes a “full service provider” helps with the design and part creation first, and, in many cases, that leads to manufacture.
“We have to be responsive,” Bailen said.
Strattec employs 3,500 people worldwide, including 200 engineers. The firm operates out of 375,000-square-feet of office and factory space. Strattec’s component manufacturing takes place in Milwaukee, where its headquarters, purchasing, engineering, and administration are also located. The assembly takes place around the world, as required.
Electronics Replace Mechanical Switches
“We’ve seen the transition from mechanical to now the electronics,” Bailen said. “We had the foresight to know where we had to be. We had to change and we’ve changed. We’re successful since we made the changes. Now electronics is the footprint. They’re looking for the next transition. If you look at vehicles now, there are fewer and fewer mechanical locks.”
One ignition system challenge Strattec faced was known as the California test.
Most drivers are familiar with this car key-challenge, the one that starts when you turn the wheel too hard to one side when you park. The problem first appears when the key won’t turn. Car OEMs call that the California test: A car is facing downhill, all its weight pressed against the ignition lock bolt.
Just as drivers learned to solve that problem by turning the steering wheel a bit to ease the pressure, modern electronic car starters also learned to solve that problem.
“That was very challenging,” said Bailen. “You can’t turn the key because the wheels are turned and jammed.”
Strattec electronic ignition systems meet the California test.