Patel Brass Works (PBW), founded in Rajkot in 1948 by the late Mr. Shri Patel, is a global leader in engine bearing manufacture. The company specialises in bi-metal and tri-metal bearings, bushes and thrust washers for engines, compressors, earthmovers, locomotives and a wide range of other reciprocating and rotating machinery. PBW is ISO 9001:2000 accredited, has more than 300 employees and exports to 20 countries.
By 1965, the company had gained significant experience in casting and finishing non-ferrous components, and had begun to develop critical components like bi-metal bearings to meet the demand driven by the local manufacture of slow-speed diesel engines.
Today, its customers are a mix of blue-chip OEMs and aftermarket spare parts stockists, and it currently enjoys a 75-percent share of the market for supplying Indian Railways with bearings and bushes.
“In my father’s day, no one would have expected to find a world-class manufacturing company in Rajkot,” says managing partner Mr. Mahesh Patel, who is responsible for production and quality. “Our town has always been most famous as the place where Mahatma Gandhi spent his school years.
Over the years, PBW has implemented a programme of investment that has progressively brought manufacture of its bearings in-house. Following the purchase of raw material, PBW makes its own alloys, undertakes its own casting, machines its own parts and conducts its own inspection and test routines. In such a busy environment, the machining function is key, which is why five years ago PBW undertook a project to re-assess its in-house machine shop capability.
Leap of Faith
Before investing in his first Haas CNC machine tool, Mahesh Patel says that the company had three CNC machining centres, all supplied by Indian machine tool companies. “We weren’t overly happy with their performance, and so when we required additional capacity, we decided to look at models manufactured by overseas machine tool firms.”
PBW considered various German and Japanese models of similar specification, but found these to be much more expensive. “The cost-effectiveness of the Haas machines is underlined by the fact that they were selected over local competition,” says Mr Patel, “despite the imposition of a 5-percent import duty by the Indian Government.”
The company now operates six Haas CNC machines. Indeed, its first two machines – both Haas Mini Mills – were purchased on the basis of the catalogue description alone.
“The local Haas representative had popped-in once or twice before, so when we were ready, I gave him a call. Haas had recently launched the machine, and from the specification and price, it looked very tempting – so much so that we placed an order for two without even seeing one. There weren’t any in our part of the country that we could view, so we had to make a leap of faith.”
Whilst tolerances are tight at 4 microns, batch sizes depend on the size of the bearing. Most runs are fairly short, so ease of changeover was one of the key factors in selecting Haas. The machines also produce one-off prototype bearings that have been reverse engineered from customer samples, so the simple programming offered by the Haas CNC system is a significant advantage.
“Four PBW operators are trained to program the Haas control,” says Mr. Patel. “I’ve never seen the Haas machines idle. I’ve seen all the other machines stopped, but never the Haas machines. They work 24 hours a day across two 12-hour shifts, six days a week. They never miss a beat.”
Mr. Patel remembers that when the machines arrived, they fulfilled everything the catalogue promised.
“Quality and accuracy was far better than our existing machines,” he says. “Moreover, the local Haas distributor proved it could give good technical support, and respond immediately if and when assistance was required.”
Since then, PBW has added four more Haas machines to its workshop armoury: a Super Mini Mill, a 5-axis VF-2 CNC vertical machining centre, a TM-1 CNC Toolroom Mill and an SL-20 CNC turning centre. The machines are part of a major investment programme that has seen the company spend the equivalent of almost $1.5 million over the past two and a half years.
Like many Indian companies competing overseas, PBW has the cost of labour on its side, and although the country is not as cheap as China, it can offer quality, skilled labour, reliability and on-schedule deliveries to match western engineering firms – at much lower prices.
It’s an advantage that Mr. Patel does not foresee changing significantly in the coming years, despite the pressures of wage inflation.
“Our country will always have a cost advantage,” he says. “I don’t think it will ever become like Europe or the U.S., at least not in my working lifetime. Of course, the gap will close, but I think India will have at least another 20 years of very favourable labour rates. Along with the best manufacturing technology available, we at PBW intend to make the most of them.”
Story and photos by Matt Bailey