With marketing prowess and Made-in-USA resolve, a husband and wife carry the Aluminum Case Co. into a new generation
February 2014 - One of the most intriguing pieces of luggage in the world is the football, the leather-bound aluminum case containing the U.S. nuclear launch codes that goes where the president goes. Aside from the omnipresent case-toting aide and the president’s mobile defense command housed within, the modified briefcase is a marvel on its own. Metal briefcases, especially aluminum ones, are the stuff of not only G.I. Joes and spy movies, but also musicians, bankers or vodka promoters—anyone with a reason to carry in style.
In reality, most people don’t need a metal briefcase for the daily commute or weekly business meeting. For those that do, there’s the Aluminum Case Co. in Chicago. It is one of the few manufacturers of aluminum-only cases in the United States, operating continuously since 1946. (Coincidentally, 1946 is same year Zero Halliburton, the famed maker of the nuclear football’s case, was founded.)
Ken McDonald and Linda Jamerson became ACC’s third generation owners when they purchased it in 2010 after leaving corporate jobs in search of something more entrepreneurial—in this instance, a manufacturing business to run. The company has always been family owned. Indications of generational differences greeted Ken and Linda on the first day.
“The prior owners were old school,” McDonald says. “If they owned a piece of equipment that performed a certain function, there was no need to ever look at that function again! So our production floor looks a bit like a time capsule.”
Producing blanks is one area in which previous owners were keen to invest new technology. They added a CNC router to cut blanks, replacing six small punch presses with proprietary dies.
“Before we purchased the business, case design, blank creation and programming for cutting the blanks was all done in the prior owner’s head,” McDonald adds. Once McDonald and Jamerson, his wife, took over, they brought on SolidWorks immediately. This expedited multiple steps, namely designing and programming blanks.
The beauty of ACC’s products lies in its fully-customizable line. Its smallest standard product measures 15 inches long by 10 inches wide and 4 inches deep. On the larger end, ACC makes wheeled footlockers, stodgy cubes for military transport and elaborate cosmetic training cases out of which multiple shelves unfurl.
“The largest product we ever produced was a series of shipping enclosure for satellite components and accompanying ground tracking devices,” McDonald says.
Case materials include aluminum alloys 5052H32, 6061-T6, 7075-T6 and 2024-T5. Thicknesses range, in inches, from 0.040, 0.050, 0.063, 0.090 and 0.125 for most of its cases. In many instances, a customer or government specification drives the choice of alloy.
Keeping work here
Founded by a WWII Army Air Corps veteran who also repaired airframes, ACC now runs a tight workflow that reflects the clean, blemish-free product going out the door. Chalk that up to the staff of seven, with more than four decades of experience of rendering raw aluminum into a flawless attache. Working with aluminum, part handling is a big issue. In the forming process, ACC uses many standard practices involving urethane tooling and tapes, for example. It also has a few products that are ideally made with an apron brake.
“We have a couple of tools that we have developed over the years that also assist in keeping the manufacturing marking on our case shells to a minimum,” McDonald says.
After blanks are cut and deburred, they get formed. Depending on the product, blanks get sent to either a riveting or welding station where the shells are assembled. The valance, or internal case form, is made at this point as well. Finally, the shells are adorned with hardware, handles and hinges at final assembly, after which it goes through a quality control check. It’s then cleaned, packed and shipped.
Aluminum cases weren’t necessarily the target for McDonald and Jamerson. They wanted to manufacture something in the U.S.
From their perspective, 2012 gave their market a boost.
“If we would try and stick solely with how the company had been operating prior to our purchase, the outlook would still be falling,” McDonald says. Instead, flexibility with their market jumping on new opportunities has resulted in steady progress.
One of the biggest improvements they brought to ACC is a focus on the marketing side of the case industry. When you call the company, either McDonald or Jamerson will answer. The previous ownership focused on industrial solutions, which generally don’t require a finish on the end product. From a branding perspective, McDonald and Jamerson saw a chance to produce versions with powder coating, anodizing, screen printing decals and more, all with shorter lead times and smaller minimum quantities than its competitors. The endeavor has earned ACC clients such as Boeing, Motorola, 3M and Grey Goose (which serves up posh bottles of vodka from the cases for promotions). As ACC’s client base grows, its case for manufacturing in the United States couldn’t be stronger. MM