Agility and flexibility in responding to customers’ needs have driven steady growth for Madison Company over six decades of manufacturing in America.
By Mark Shortt
Madison Company, in coastal Branford, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, has earned a reputation for deep expertise in the design and manufacture of liquid level sensors. Madison has grown steadily over the six decades of its existence, building a team of 65 employees while keeping its manufacturing in the USA and serving as a model for what’s possible by doing so.
“We started out 60 years ago, and we’ve pretty much added all of our capabilities here in the U.S., mostly in Connecticut,” said Madison Company President Steven Schickler, in an interview at the firm’s facility. “We’ve kept it ‘Made in the USA’ for a lot of reasons—the appeal, our ability to be flexible, and to move quickly.”
The company started in 1959 in Madison, Connecticut, in a small rented garage in the back of a lumber yard. Owner Dennison “Denny” MacDonald ran a small three-person job shop, manufacturing items like reed switches, floats, and current sensors. “They really made everything, and would take on any business they could,” Schickler said.
In 1977, Schickler’s late father, William Schickler, a chemical engineer with a process control background, bought the business. Under William Schickler’s leadership, the firm began focusing more on manufacturing liquid level switches and sensors.
“My father saw this as a way to get into business himself, in an area that he was familiar with and saw the potential for where it could go,” Steve Schickler said. Madison Company has grown steadily since, reportedly doubling its sales every five years since 1976 while establishing a strong national and international market presence with U.S.-made products.
Madison manufactures point level sensors and continuous level sensors that can be used in any type of fluid-holding vessel where measurement of the fluid level is critical to a system.
A point level sensor is an “on-off” measurement device that typically uses a float and a magnetically actuated reed switch, Schickler said. When fluid reaches a designated level (high or low), the float closes the switch to turn on a light, an alarm, or open a valve.
A continuous level sensor, on the other hand, measures fluid level over a whole range, from high to low, rather than at just one point. An example is a sensor in a gas tank. Continuous level sensors can work in the same way as point level sensors, using a float, or they can use ultrasonic sound waves or radar to provide continuous, non-contact measurement of fluid levels.
Both types of sensors—point level and continuous level—can be used to measure levels of virtually any type of fluid, from beverages to paints and coatings; fuels and oils; chemicals; and potable and non-potable water. These fluids are housed in all types of vessels, tanks, and containers that run the gamut of commercial and industrial applications. Depending on the application, the sensors could indicate when the fluid is about to run out or when the tank is close to overflowing.
“That vessel could be a potable water tank, a hydraulic reservoir, or a condensate from an air conditioner where you don’t want it to overflow,” Schickler said. “It could be a bilge of a ship, where you’d want to know when there’s too much water in it. Or it could be machine coolant that you don’t want to run out.”
By manufacturing sensors that are essential to liquid level measurement in so many different applications, Madison is somewhat insulated from the potential ill effects of market dips in any one or two industries. If demand from one industry falters, the company can absorb the impact.
“We’re so diverse in customers and applications, we’re not stuck rising and falling with one industry,” Schickler said.
An Agile Custom Manufacturing Partner
Another way Madison is diversified is by product type. Not only does the company make various types of point level and continuous level sensors, it makes them in stock and custom varieties as well. But although Madison manufactures a wide array of stock liquid level sensors, the firm’s core strength is its design and manufacturing expertise for OEMs that need a customized, application-specific product.
“We’re really strong at being able to maneuver very quickly and customize products for people,” said Madison Company Vice President of Operations David Dering. “We can make thousands of things for the OEMs, but we’ve impressed a lot of people over the years with how fast we can react, and make a customized switch that gets someone out of a production jam.”
Dering said the key to being able to manufacture such customized parts begins with the knowledge acquired by Madison’s team members, including some who’ve been with the company for decades and have seen all manner of work requests. That knowledge base, combined with the firm’s internal process capabilities and strong relationships with other specialty manufacturers, gives the company a strong foundation for solving unique, application-specific challenges.
“When you take that knowledge, and then add to it the fact that we can do our own CNC machining here, we do our own welding—it allows us to basically put all those pieces together. We also know who to call if we have to, in order to get something done,” Dering said.
“We have a lot of capability and knowledge here,” Schickler affirmed, agreeing that some of Madison’s knowledge involves knowing which suppliers to call when outside work is needed, and how to work with them. “We have a lot of people we’ve worked with in the past, fabricators and other people in the area,” he said.
By applying its collective experience to a design or manufacturing project, Madison can often make a customer’s part less complicated while also saving money for the customer.
“That’s one of our goals,” Dering said. “We can just custom manufacture what someone says they want, but we’re trying to give them a better solution, be more of a partner, so that the next time they have an application or a problem, they see us as someone who can help them solve it.”
Various manufacturing processes are used to manufacture the sensors, such as injection molding, CNC machining, brazing, TIG welding, potting with low- and high-temperature materials, ultra-sonic welding, heat staking, soldering, and crimping. Also employed are bending and metal forming, PCB board assembly, and various electrical, pressure, and leak testing methods.
Dering said about 90 percent of those processes are performed in house, and the rest subcontracted.
“We don’t injection mold, per se, on site, but we design our tooling and we outsource locally,” he said. “But almost all the machining, welding, fabricating, and even some of the PCB board work is done here. The major large-volume boards we’ll outsource. But if we have to change resistors or transistors, that’s done here, and we have certified people for crimping and soldering.”
Madison Company (https://www.madisonco.com) employs state-of-the-art technologies, such as laser marking, closed loop ultrasonic welding, and late-model CNC machining equipment that, when combined, provide repeatable tolerances and high-quality parts.
“We also use rapid design and prototyping techniques to help the customer get to market faster,” said Madison Company Marketing Manager Janice Despotakis, in an emailed response. “With our design expertise and manufacturing capabilities, we can custom engineer precise resolutions, operating levels, and lengths, and produce operating prototypes on a quick-turn basis if required.”
Recent additions to Madison’s manufacturing capacity include a state-of-the-art CNC lathe, a cut-off saw, and a shrink tube oven, as well as capabilities for laser marking, ultrasonic welding, military-spec wire marking, and rapid-cure potting.
“One of Steve’s driving missions is to grow and mature the company more and more,” Dering said. “We’ve added more capabilities to the company so we could keep servicing people and do more and more for them. Madison has been able and willing to invest where it makes sense, so we can turn parts faster.
“Having the CNCs here has been one of the biggest benefits because we can design a part and make it within hours,” Dering continued. “Other things, like military-level marking, were add-ons. We were chemical etching parts before; now we can laser etch them—cleaner, better, faster. Everybody keeps enhancing their products, and we need to go along with that as well.”
Schickler said the acquisitions weren’t driven by a single factor.
“Some of the machining we added to be more flexible, partly because some of our suppliers were slowing us down, and we decided to take control of it. In other cases, we had been doing things one way, and we’re doing it differently now because it’s faster, better quality, and more flexible. And in some cases, we’re just responding to [higher] volume needs. We knew we couldn’t keep up the way we were doing it, or with the equipment we had, so we added more.”
Crafting a Dual-Use Liquid Level and Temperature Sensor for OEMs
In one example of Madison’s ability to create a technical solution, the company developed a combination liquid level and temperature sensor designed to operate in harsh or corrosive environments with high resolution capability. The multi-level sensor was designed for OEMs that use multiple sensors to maintain critical oil levels and oil temperatures in power generators, compressors, gearboxes, and hydraulic systems. Made of stainless steel and Buna-N (nitrile rubber), the sensor is reported to provide consistent, repeatable results at a level of 2.2 mm of resolution and can be manufactured to include a rating of IP69K, if required.
Madison’s goal was to develop a single sensor that would reliably and repeatedly measure petroleum-based liquid levels and temperatures with a high degree of accuracy, and also withstand extreme shock and vibration. One of the engineering challenges was the difficulty of achieving high-resolution liquid level and temperature sensing in a single device. Another was the need to maintain a high level of repeatable outputs under conditions of extreme shock and vibration, Schickler said.
By applying its engineering expertise in mechanical and electrical disciplines, Madison was able to meet the requirements for component size, operating environment, and control outputs, including temperature. The design of the sensor includes a custom-engineered PCB board and magnet design with resistance temperature detector (RTD), special earth grounding, custom-machined IP69K connections, and military grade glass-filled connectors.
Welding, machining, molding, PCB assembly, and wire harness assembly were among the manufacturing processes used. Schickler said fast-track development was facilitated by close coordination and communication with the customer, enabling Madison to meet a demanding schedule.
Customer Relationships Are Key to Growth
Madison’s relationships with its customers are essential to understanding their needs and have been a major driver of the company’s growth over the years. Schickler said these relationships are built by spending time with customers, learning what they’re trying to accomplish and what’s important to them. Once those needs are understood, Madison can often help its customers in ways the customer hadn’t thought possible.
“We’re attuned to listening to what our customers really want to do,” Schickler said. “A lot of times, they say they want ‘X.’ We’ll ask a few questions, and ask a few more, and we often find that we can improve on what they wanted by executing with the capability and knowledge that we have here.”
Customers come to Madison with a variety of needs that are unique to their applications, but if there’s a common denominator to most of them, it’s that they need help with a problem they’ve encountered. Maybe they have an idea for a product, but don’t know how to manufacture it.
“They may have an existing solution that they’re not satisfied with,” Dering said. “It could be delivery, or it could be quality. They’re looking for better alternatives, and they look to us for some ideas.”
“It could be that they’re late in their development cycle and need prototypes fast,” Schickler said. “Or they’ve discovered a problem and they need a fast solution, so we respond quickly. Or maybe when they’re further into the production stage, they need some flexibility on delivery and inventory. There are a lot of different points along the way where we’re able to respond to a customer’s needs.”
Dering has been with Madison for five years. He said one of the reasons Madison appealed to him was the company’s commitment to manufacturing products in the United States.
“I’m frustrated that as a country, we gave up so much manufacturing,” he said. “The fact that we can still manufacture here and be responsive is really important to me personally, and I think a lot of our customers appreciate it, too. The ability to react fast is key. A lot of companies are onshoring now, but we don’t have to onshore; we’re already here!”
Schickler agreed that Madison’s fast response times, as a U.S.-based manufacturer, are a key advantage for customers that are doing business with Madison at a time when things are happening fast in the world of product development and production.
“When you get right down to it, it’s almost by the hour—things are happening that fast,” he said. “And if you factor in the time differences [of overseas manufacturing] and the logistics and shipping, it really hasn’t worked for us and our customers to have those delays imposed into the whole process.”