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Many Hands, One Vision. Valiant Celebrates 50 Years of Innovation September 27, 2009

The Windsor Star
Published: Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Valiant Machine & Tool's story stretches back to 1928 when 23-year-old immigrant Michael Solcz arrived in Canada from Czechoslovakia with just one suitcase. He took a job out west then made his way to Toronto where he laid rails for new streetcar lines. He moved north, settling on a plot of land offered by the Canadian government out 150 miles from James Bay, and brought his wife and two children over. One year later, son Mike was born. The family moved to Kapuskasing, then to Woodstock for better work opportunities. They then heard from friends about Windsor.

 

In fact, with the advent of World War II, Windsor was to become known as the "Arsenal of Democracy" for its numerous industrial-military factories, which provided armored equipment for the war effort. The pull was too strong to resist; the Solcz family found itself relocating yet again. Michael's father was quickly employed full-time at Dominion Forge.

 

The teenaged Mike Solcz (today referred to as Mike Sr. by his family and colleagues, as he too has a son named Michael) graduated from W. D. Lowe Technical School, a no-nonsense institution where he developed skills in an emerging trade: tool and die making. This knowledge would prove to be a catalyst for the ambitious son of a hardworking and risk-taking immigrant. He graduated from Lowe in 1949.

 

Fresh out of high school, Mike Sr. honed his skills at Windsor's Nickleson Tool and Die, staying until 1956. He moved across the river to Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, to work for Livernois Engineering. "I was always interested in drafting and one day, there was an ad in the classifieds that said if you can build tools and dies, come to Livernois and we'll show you how to put it on paper. The ad intrigued me and I was hired for more money than I was making in Windsor."

 

But there were layoffs in 1958 as the industry took a dive. Companies went out of business; the major stampers went bankrupt. "Consequently, Livernois lost all its die work and we went from 115 people to 15!"

 

Mike Sr. made the pivotal decision in 1959 to start his own business, purchasing a small machine shop by borrowing money from his parents and in-laws. It was nothing more than a large tool room, 600 square feet at most.

 

He christened the fledgling enterprise Avco Tool and Die - it was a modest beginning: one room with five primitive machines. When the building's owner decided to sell, Mike Sr. found it would cost $6000 to $8000 to relocate his machines to a new site.

 

His solution was to find a partner. Stanley Stepp, a toolmaker he had met at Nickleson. Stepp accepted the offer for a 50:50 partnership by putting in an equal amout that Mike Sr. had invested. This provided the needed capital to relocate the equipment.

 

The two ambitious entrepreneurs set up in a 1,250 square foot shop at 938 Walker Road. In a very tough economic environment, Mike Sr. began knocking on doors.

 

Early customers included Fleetwood Metal, Walkerville Lumber, Universal Button and Super Precision Tools. But the company's first major business came from Chrysler.

 

Now a widower, "I worked fourteen hours a day on the business in those early days," said Mike Sr. "I had to support my family and that really motivated me to keep going. The hard work eventually paid off and we continued to progress."

In 1963, the company acquired a third partner, Santo Piccinato, whom Mike Sr. had apprenticed under at Nickelson. The three-way partnership was incorporated under the name Valiant Machine & Tool Inc. after an innovative Chrysler car of the same name.

 

Having grown to more than 20 people, Valiant moved to a 6,000-square-foot facility with 15 acres of land on Tecumseh Road East. "Every two or three years, we'd add on another building, growing to over 70,000 square feet in a few short years,'' said Mike Sr.

 

Valiant was carving a niche in the precision tool industry, designing and building special purpose machines, fixtures and small assembly equipment, mostly for the Big Three's operations in Windsor and Detroit. The course plotted by the partners for Valiant stressed growth, expansion and diversification.

 

In 1965, a Valiant subsidiary, Valco Manufacturing, was established, housed in a 40,000-square-foot facility to service increased demand for in-house steel fabrication, material handling and machining capabilities, while positioning the company for contracts from a booming automotive sector.

 

Valiant's growth continued at a steady pace through the 70s and 80s.

 

In 1972, customer demand led Valiant into the emerging plastic injection mold manufacturing sector and the formation of the Valiant Mold Division, a natural offshoot of its die-making business, and led to further activity for the company in mold repair.

 

In 1979, Valiant manufactured its first automated production line for the new Ford Essex Engine Plant in Windsor.

Valiant Group of Companies had grown into three divisions: Valiant Machine & Tool, Valco Manufacturing and Valiant Mold. In late 1979, the original partners provided Mike Solcz Sr. with the option to acquire 100 per cent of Valiant shares.

In the early 1980s, Valiant purchased a 112,000-square-foot site, ideal for Valco Manufacturing's fabrication and machining operations, eventually expanding to 176,000 square feet.

 

It was becoming increasingly evident that automation and robotics were the way of the future in the manufacturing of automotive and heavy construction equipment. Valiant's automated production system unit expanded its capabilities, with secured contracts in automation and assembly systems for welding, assembly, and powertrain.

 

Valiant continued to diversify its complement of services, developing a controls department, with an emphasis on electronic, hydraulic and pneumatic systems. The company's client roster expanded to include companies from the agricultural, pharmaceutical, aircraft and office equipment supplier industries. The automotive industry remained the company's backbone, accounting for 60% or more of all sales.

 

One of Mike Sr.'s goals was for Valiant to become an international company. In 1987, Valiant expanded its Welding and Assembly Group into Troy, Michigan under the name of Valiant International Inc. This move strengthened Valiant's engineering capabilities; its location was ideal - in close proximity to the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) automotive decision-making hubs.

 

"We started in Troy with about 20 people and grew it to 100," said Mike Sr.. "It's where we do our process engineering."

In 1988, Valiant sold its facility and purchased the Lamb building down the street at Tecumseh and Jefferson. Mike Sr. was positioning Valiant as a full-service supplier to the automotive industry. With the ability to handle automated production systems for vehicle construction, metal sub-components, powertrain material handling, assembly and special machines, the company was looking for opportunities to expand its lineup of core competencies.

 

In 1988-1989 Valiant introduced a new technology into North America called "Preciflex Vehicle Framing." This is a process within the body shop of a vehicle manufacturer that ensures the dimensional integrity of the vehicle. This process appeared to be a natural fit for Valiant, as the company had produced numerous door assembly line projects for the Ford Motor Company for whom it was the preferred vendor in North America for these types of systems.

 

Vehicle framing seemed like the next logical expansion in technology advances for the company. Valiant quickly negotiated a significant technology transfer agreement with Renault Automation of France to enable the company to become specialists in the area of vehicle 'Body-in-White' framing in North America.

 

In 1989, Chrysler Corporation approached the company with a request to bid on a large framing line for its LH line of vehicles. If successful, the project would double Valiant's sales volume. With the assistance of Renault Automation Specialists (who transferred to Valiant in Canada) and a team of welding and assembly specialists from Valiant, the company was awarded its first significant Body-in-White project from the Chrysler Corporation in 1990, which placed the company squarely in the big leagues.

 

The early 1990s were also a crucial time for Chrysler. Its assembly line was the first of its kind to be built in North America and included interchangeable tooling to build several different models or styles in batch build or sequential build for the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, and Eagle Vision. This system was extremely flexible and allowed for quick and efficient conversion for new model introduction.

 

Valiant's new Tecumseh Road plant was the main manufacturing and assembly site for the final tryout and debug of these substantial production systems destined for the Chrysler Assembly Facility in Bramalea, Ontario. The length of two football fields, it was one of the largest and most extensive tooling projects ever undertaken in Windsor. This milestone resulted in Valiant becoming a key supplier to Chrysler.

 

Valiant continued to supply vehicle framing equipment for all large car platforms, including the LH and JA Platforms," said Marty Solcz, Valiant's current Chief Operating Officer.

 

Valiant continued to promote the sale of framing equipment and success-fully launched 69 variations of this system.

In the mid-1990s, Ford Motor Company launched a global procurement strategy. In 1995, Valiant received an invitation by the Ford Motor Company to participate in a worldwide competition in Europe for closure assembly lines for a future product dubbed the "DEW-98."

 

Valiant was the only Canadian supplier chosen to bid on the project, and it expended enormous resources to develop an extremely polished and thorough presentation to North American and European Operations Ford officials. In an evaluation process that included every Ford Global Supplier, Valiant was selected to be the supplier for all door assembly equipment, and all installation tooling for closures for all Ford plants globally.

 

At the time of this big win, Valiant had limited resources to handle this project as an independent company and realized it would need to form significant partnership alliances around the globe. A strategic alliance with Steelweld, in Breda, The Netherlands, was solidified to service the needs of Ford in Europe. Valiant remained the lead contractor for the global project and Valiant and Steelweld formed an alliance in Cologne, Germany so that it could maintain a high level of project coordination in close proximity to Ford's engineering offices.

 

At this time, Valiant and Steelweld acquired an interest in Aut-Tech GmbH, a mechanical engineering Company in Cologne, Valiant International N.V., a controls engineering and integration group in Belgium and Avco Tool & Die in Swinden, U.K. Joining forces with a British company named Avco reminded Mike Sr. of Valiant's own humble beginnings.

After approximately six years of successful projects with Ford, global vehicle programs were no longer being launched from Europe, and the European business dwindled. Valiant continued to maintain engineering offices in Belgium and Cologne, but the Valiant-Steelweld GmbH project office was closed.

 

Another significant project for Valiant in the 90s was the launch of the Ford Windsor Aluminum Plant in Windsor's west end. This fully automated facility assembled sand cores, and was not only the first of its kind in the world but also pioneered the "Cosworth" casting technology and process in a high-volume production facility. Seventy-seven robots built up sand core packages for five variations of cylinder heads and blocks in a high-volume production line. Industrial washers, automation, storage buffers and tooling were also supplied to compliment the installation. Valiant earned a reputation as the preeminent designer for these systems and garnered much experience from this project.

 

In 1996, Valiant management had an auspicious meeting with Anton Bauer, an entrepreneur/developer from Dillingen, Germany whose core competency was "hydroforming." Although hydroforming was a relatively recent arrival to the North American scene, Valiant management took a keen interest.

 

The ability to form complex tubular structures using water and high pressure, with one shot in the die set intrigued the Valiant team. Manufacturing and marketing automated production systems using the Hydroforming method would provide substantial cost savings and weight reduction to customers, versus the traditional methods of manufacturing these parts.

Valiant developed a strong relationship with Anton Bauer and next brought the technology to North America. Currently, Valiant can supply potential customers with fully automated production systems to provide full process hydroforming, press loading and unloading, shearing, laser cutting, inspection and material handling. The company also offers part feasibility and prototyping, die manufacturing and maintenance.

 

The company's full complement of services includes the manufacturing of hydroforming machines and hydraulic presses. This technology has proven so successful that it has been incorporated into presses that have shipped to the U.K. and Japan.

 

In 1998, Valiant moved into its newly built corporate headquarters in Twin Oaks Industrial Park to coincide with its 40th anniversary in 1999. The length of two football fields, the sleek, minimalist exterior cleverly downplays the fact that more than 240,000 square feet of floor space houses the most modern, state-of-the-art automotive assembly systems and specialty machines in the world.

 

Thousands of components are manufactured, fabricated, welded or machined annually at various Valiant facilities. These components are then assembled into an automated production system within its main assembly plants, run in test mode to ensure quality and integrity of the system, approved by the customer, disassembled and shipped to the customer's facility, which could be as close as Windsor - or as far away as Europe.

 

As the company moved into the new millennium, North American companies began to feel increased competitive pressures from the Asia-Pacific corridor. Increased diversification would play a significant role in ensuring the company's future success. This included expanding its customer base at both the tier one and tier two levels, diversification of its customer base as traditional original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and non-traditional OEMs, sector diversification, regional diversification and continued core competency diversification.

 

New clients were added and the company continued to pour significant resources into research and development to ensure that new high-performance niche products were continuously developed to enhance solutions for its customers.

Seeking to further align its business interests in Europe, Valiant aquired TMS Transport- und Montagesysteme GmbH in Linz, Austria in 2006. By acquiring TMS, Valiant achieved its goal of regional diversification, splitting almost equally the revenue source between Canada, United States of America, Mexico and Europe.

 

And what of the road ahead? "After achieving excellence in design and manufacturing, pricing is the key to growth in the global automotive industry," said Mike Sr.

 

"The company's continued success is based on the individual efforts of each and every member of the Valiant team. Slowly and methodically, Valiant has become a global leader in advanced engineering, design, fabrication, machining, assembly and installation for the automotive, aerospace and construction and forestry sectors."

 

"We've grown from a one-man operation to almost 1,300 workers. People ask me if I planned this. My objectives were all based on customer relationships."

 

Today the markets have drastically changed. The former Eastern Bloc countries have opened up now, as have Mexico, and especially Asia. We've accepted the competitive challenges faced by North American manufacturers, and we have diversified our business. We've got to continue to develop ventures with others. The Japanese companies are building here, but the engineering for those vehicles comes from their countries. We're eyeing China, India, Korea, as well."

"I feel there continues to be a need for designers. Things cannot be produced without design and tooling people. An aircraft cannot be built without design engineering and craftsmanship. It's a highly computerized environment today, whereas years ago it was hand skills."

 

"All we can do is continue to seek opportunities, to meet the challenges of our clients in the spirit of doing what we do best. That is how our journey led us to this point, and it has served us well since 1959."

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