By: CHUCK CHIANG on January 23, 2007
Original Article: BULLETIN, THE (BEND, OR)

Bend, Ore. Area Engineer Devises Machine Solutions

Jan. 23–For someone who has worked with machines all his life, Wes Hoekstra’s hobby isn’t surprising.

Hoekstra, owner of S & W Engineering Co. located about 10 miles northwest of Bend, recently acquired a 2007 Saleen/Parnelli Jones Limited Edition Mustang, one of only 500 produced by the sports car customizing company.

“That seems to be the weakness for us engineers,” he said regarding his Mustang, the newest in his collection of eight cars.

Hoekstra’s affinity to moving metal is understandable. For 30 years, he has designed and produced intricate machines — some as large as a cube 7 feet tall and 7 feet wide — capable of producing anything from firearms engravings to airplane brakes.

The machines take roughly three months for Hoestra’s permanent staff of three to complete

from scratch, and are used by manufacturers mainly for cutting material into specific shapes, which would then be combined with other components for an end product.

Last year, S & W produced 21 machines for Beaverton-based Nike Inc. at roughly $200,000 each. The machines produce the nitrogen air-bubble soles used in the company’s new Air Max 360 line of shoes.

“We had to make sure we can make parts for shoes that would fit (Miami Heat all-star basketball center) Shaquille O’Neal, whose shoe size is 24,” said Hoekstra, 69.

The machines, which helped Nike streamline its manufacturing operations, have garnered attention for Hoekstra and his company. Industry news source Sporting Goods Intelligence ran an article on S & W in December, and Hoekstra is now talking with The Boeing Co. about making machines for the Chicago-based aerospace giant.

Hoekstra, a native of Minnesota, credits his father for the career path, which led to S & W Engineering and the products, which have been nicknamed “incredible machines.”

“My dad was a master machinist,” he said. “I guess I’m just in that image.”

QUESTION: How did you start working with Nike?

ANSWER: What happened was, Nike found me. They said they’ve been looking for about a year for someone who can work on a concept of a new shoe that they are about to do, and the parts involved cutting out materials ultrasonically.

When Nike came to me, I gave them a lecture on the machine design I had in mind, and they called me two days later, saying that I won (the contract). It was a big job to get, and these machines are the most state-of-the-art, sophisticated ones Nike now owns.

Q: You started S & W 30 years ago. Why?

A: At the time, I was in the aerospace industry, and the (sector) was on a downswing. I had a lot of ideas (about manufacturing machines) that I wanted to develop, so I began making them.

Someone started calling them “incredible machines,” and that’s where the name came from.

I’ve done this for 50 years.

It’s my niche. It would take hours for me to get through all the processes involved in making machines with such high levels of precision, and for operations as complex as this, it usually takes a large team (to develop these machines). The advantage I have is that I can do it all.

Q: What’s driving you to produce these machines, besides your expertise for electronics and mechanical engineering?

A: My whole emphasis is that I am a big proponent of keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States. Had Nike not have ordered these machines, the job (of making these components) would have gone overseas to China, and it would have taken 150 Chinese workers to replicate the work being done by one of my machines, operated by one person.

To me, (keeping manufacturing in the United States) is extremely important. It’s imperative that American manufacturing increases its efficiency, because we’ll lose it if we don’t. We have to be competitive in the global market, and if we don’t take some labor-intensity out of the jobs, they’ll go overseas where labor is cheaper.

Q: Is Central Oregon’s location a problem, since many of your clients are not local?

A: I personally drive the machines over to Beaverton, so it isn’t a problem. We can go anywhere (with the machines).

When we lived in Santa Barbara, (Calif.), 15 years ago, (Central Oregon) was where we vacationed, and we knew that Bend was going to get discovered one day. Everything’s here. You have the rivers and the lakes for fishing and white-water rafting, and you have the mountains for hiking, biking and skiing. That’s why we bought 49 acres of land out here 15 years ago.

Q: What’s next in S & W’s plans?

A: Right now, we’re in the process of getting the certifications done for Boeing, because we’re getting ready to make some machines for them. The machines will make components for their 787 Dreamliners, and that’s huge. They already have 500 planes sold, and their manufacturing has to get up to 10 planes a month.

But what we’re really trying to get into is in-factory automation. It’s heavy in specific designs because every step of a manufacturing process is different, depending on the application.

I don’t care to get (S & W) huge, but we may have to.

And if we that happens, we may have to move to a larger commercial space, probably something in the area’s three cities (Bend, Redmond or Sisters).