Comet clutch division a quiet giant in Edgerton

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Neil Johnson
Monday, October 21, 2013

EDGERTON—The company is seeing a resurgence as a recreational clutch manufacturer, 'but many in Edgerton still don't know Certified Parts Corp.'s Hoffco Comet clutch division is on the map.

After all, Comet is only housed in a 200,000-square-foot industrial building just a few blocks east of downtown. It's only been the leading name internationally for clutches used in pretty much any go-kart, minibike, ATV, UTV or snowmobile on the market. And it's only been located in Edgerton for three years now.

Still, Comet Division Vice President Jay Grafft recently had to call a local weekly newspaper with a reminder that the former Highway Trailer building at 415 Fulton Street is not vacant. Comet is in there.

“We're sort of under the radar a little, I guess,” Grafft said as he moved through the mammoth facility.

The building houses hundreds of pieces of equipment for producing clutches along with a huge arsenal of equipment for Janesville company Certified Parts' half-dozen other divisions. Eight full-time workers bustle at the plant, which quietly fills orders worldwide.

The workers churn out—of all things—monster-sized clutches for Tilt-A-Whirls and even hand lifts specifically designed to remove dead moose from dense forests in Sweden.

Those clutches are oddballs—outliers to usual parts orders, Grafft said. Yet it's proof that Hoffco Comet, which moved from Richmond, Ind., to Edgerton in 2010, after Certified Parts acquired it a year earlier, is starting to branch out.

The plant has added workers, and it may add more in coming months as it begins to pick up customer accounts that Comet had for years before it went offline during relocation to Edgerton.

More former products—such as clutches Comet makes exclusively for heavy concrete milling tools—are coming into production, and the plant has picked up production of 75 new design clutches this year, Grafft and a plant floor supervisor said.

“It's been exciting to go to recent shows like the Las Vegas World of Concrete Show. They were excited to hear Comet is back,” Grafft said.

Grafft said the company is doing more work in-house than ever to finish the customized clutches it makes for small gasoline engines used in recreational vehicles.

It's modified some of its Computer Numeric Controlled machines to cut and alter whole families of clutch components at one time. And it's handling more of the finishing processes used to modify, then fuse, snap, bolt and weld clutch parts together than ever before.

Some workers are even running two lathes at once. About all the plant doesn't do during its production runs of 500 to 2,000 finished parts is coating and specialized heat-treating.

“The whole idea is to decrease lead-time for these products. People need them right now. They can't wait three to six weeks,” Grafft said during a tour of the plant.

For a made-to-order clutch factory, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. That's one of the reasons why Certified Parts' ownership of warehouse space—think dozens of forklifts, hand-lifts and hundreds of tool and die rigs still in trucking shrink wrap—is important.

The company never knows when a lathe that's not been run in a year needs to be lifted, moved onto the production floor, and pressed back into service.

One manufacturer may need a small inventory, say, 30 of some oddball clutch to service a snowmobile model that's 40 years old, Grafft explained, but that same company might be Kawasaki.

Kawasaki later could need an inventory of thousands of another clutch for a brand-new line of machine. Grafft said the company's focus now, in tandem with producing made-to-order replacement clutches, is to sell itself as a new competitor in OEM, or Original Equipment Manufacturing.

That's industry jargon for “new stuff,” clutches that Comet would make that a company such as Kawasaki could use exclusively in new vehicles, or a purchasing company in turn could market under the Comet name or another brand name.

The uptick in production deals has kept the plant as busy as it's ever been since it moved to Edgerton. Some orders have doubled, Grafft said. That's pushed workers into a daily world of versatility. 

The company now is forming a partnership with Blackhawk Technical College and Edgerton High School for an internships-to-hire program. It is using three-dimensional imaging CNC machines in training rooms at the plant to teach students specific production methods used in the Comet division.

Last updated: 11:47 am Monday, October 21, 2013

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