Based in Milwaukee, STRATTEC Security Corp. has grown into one of the world’s largest producers of automotive locks and keys. Once a part of Briggs & Stratton, STRATTEC has a corporate history that extends back for more than a century. Now it is adapting to changes within its primary industry and looking for ways to diversify its customer base.
STRATTEC is primarily known as a designer, developer, manufacturer and marketer of mechanical and electronically enhanced access control products – locks and keys and ignition lock housings. It also produces latches, power sliding door systems, power lift gate systems, power deck lid systems and door handles for North American and global automotive customers.
“We have our corporate headquarters along with our main component manufacturing, zinc die casting and stamping here in Milwaukee,” says Kathy Scherbarth, vice president of Milwaukee operations, aftermarket and commercial sales. “We also have two facilities in Juarez, Mexico, and our main warehouse is in El Paso, Texas. We have a product engineering and sales presence in Detroit, too.”
The company ships products to customers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, South America, Korea and China. It also supplies products for the heavy truck and recreational vehicle markets and provides full-service aftermarket support.
STRATTEC has been an independent company since Briggs & Stratton spun off its technologies division into a separate entity in 1995. It has also been part of what is now known as the Vehicle Access Systems Technology (VAST) Alliance since 2001. The Alliance includes STRATTEC, Witte Automotive and ADAC Automotive Inc., allowing each member to have a global presence.
“The start of the VAST Alliance first formed around 13 years ago because automotive customers were looking for a global supply base as they went global,” Scherbarth says. “The alliance supports the OEMs on a global level and allows us to quote on global programs.”
Throughout its history, STRATTEC’s primary business has been serving as a direct supplier to OEM auto and light truck manufacturers, as well as other transportation-related manufacturers. It has been providing locks and keys to the automotive industry for more than 90 years, and its current array of products includes everything from latches, locksets and keys, to ignition housing assemblies and accessory locks.
One of the major recent trends that impacted STRATTEC’s business is the ongoing transition of vehicle access systems from purely mechanical components to integrated electro-mechanical systems. The company has worked to stay on top of new technology and worked with OEM product development, engineering and purchasing groups to devise cost-effective, innovative solutions. STRATTEC can take advantage of its full-service product development, design and engineering capabilities, as well as its physical footprint, to provide each individual customer with the solution it needs.
Not only has this trend caused the company to look for innovative ways to serve its core customers, it has also led the company to pursue diversification in adjacent markets. In 2008, STRATTEC launched a line of consumer direct locks called BOLT, which utilize a patented technology that allows the consumer to use their vehicle key to program the lock. Once the lock learns the vehicle key, the consumer has one key convenience for locks associated with their vehicle. In 2012, STRATTEC created STRATTEC Component Solutions in an effort to find diverse customers outside of the auto OEM market in need of zinc die cast services.
“Several years ago, we were at a crossroads because electronic components were replacing some traditional mechanical keys,” Scherbarth says. “With machines sitting idle and less zinc die casting required in our traditional market, we looked for other segments and markets that would benefit from our services. We have had some traction with smaller and larger customers, including some that are looking for sources to bring work back from China.”
STRATTEC Component Solutions can manufacture metal parts in compliance with customer designs, offering quick development, responsive support and on-time delivery. It designs and builds production die cast tools with automated high-speed machining/EDM cell capability that helps preserve a competitive advantage in terms of timing and cost. In addition, it can handle metal plating production runs of different sizes. Its zinc, nickel and trivalent chrome plating processes give the company the ability to plate large and small parts.
“On the component solutions end, we can be a one-stop shop, and we can leverage our physical footprint in the U.S. and Mexico,” Scherbarth says. “Diversification is also helping our core business by helping our cost-reduction efforts. For our work serving the automotive OEMs, we have a cost-reduction team that has been successful getting participation in our cost-reduction efforts across our sites and teams.”
Making the right investments and ensuring strong supplier relationships have been key parts of STRATTEC’s strategy in recent years. On the investment side, the company has invested around $5 million in the last five years in robotic casting cells in Milwaukee. It has also invested in closed-loop die-casting process monitoring, which helps with quality and weight control of parts.
“As for our suppliers, we have strong relationships with our zinc and brass suppliers,” Scherbarth says. “We work with them to foster their willingness to give us advice, which has been critical to us. On the electronics end, we often work with suppliers chosen by the automotive OEMs.”
As the automotive customers moved toward electronics, it led to growth opportunities in electronics for STRATTEC. An example of that is NEXTLOCK, a joint venture formed in 2013 that is launching an innovative biometric door lock with residential and commercial potential.
STRATTEC is working now to grow its components business and diversify while it is also working to adapt to issues such as rising healthcare costs and the skilled labor shortage. “We’re working with an organization called GPS that reaches out to high school students to get them interested in manufacturing,” she says. “We are the physical site for the GPS classroom, and our support of that program helps us feed the pipeline of the next generation of workers.”
In the years ahead, STRATTEC will continue to pursue operational excellence and process improvement. It says it will strive to provide its automotive OEM customers with the best mechanical, electro-mechanical and electronic security/access control products possible. It will also put its zinc die cast and stamping capabilities to work in an ongoing effort to diversify the business. Ultimately, STRATTEC expects its long tradition of innovation, adaptation and customer service will help it continue to devise cost-effective solutions for its customers.