By Jim D'Addario
In the very early years of this iteration of our company – 1973 -1981, we bought machinery from two companies that made machines for the string industry. We purchased about 12 winding machines. Being mechanically inclined, I assumed the responsibility of keeping these machines running. By spending 80% of my time on the factory floor, I quickly learned how inadequately designed and manufactured these machines were. I also quickly learned that there are key variables in the manufacture of music strings that need to be controlled to maintain product quality and consistency; I was also concerned about the safety of our employees as these machines did not have features that would stop a machine quickly if a string had broken during winding.
One variable, for instance, is the tension that is applied to the wrap wire during winding; this is crucial to the tone and life of a string. The methods for applying tension were primitive and varied greatly as a spool of wire ran and slowly emptied itself. Maintaining the perfect wire feed angle pitch in relationship to the core was also impossible on the machines we purchased.
At the time, my mother, Mary D’Addario, was running the Packaging Department and one of her employees, saw that I was always trying to improve the machines. She told me that her son-in-law, Gino, had a machine shop right in our backyard; it was literally behind our factory’s parking lot. It was a small shop and he and his partner Luigi were old world craftsmen from Northern Italy. I had no engineering skills or education, but I had ideas on how I could improve things like the control of tension on the wrap wire on our machines. I would sketch things out and take them to Gino’s shop and he would make parts for me. Quickly, I began to improve and modify the machines, so much so that I would not let the makers of the machines in our shop from that point on. I did not want them seeing the competitive advantages we were developing; this way, they could not incorporate them into machines they might make for our competitors.
Around that time, my father-in-law, Robert Carbone, was out of work and he had some background in engineering and drafting. I hired him to draft my ideas for various machine improvements. I would sketch, he would detail, then Gino’s shop would make the parts. I would then assemble the parts and test them on the machines. Slowly, our knowledge and skill level increased and increased, and our machines became more and more reliable and more sophisticated than our competitors. Most of all, our strings became more consistent than any of our competitors. To this day, when we survey the consumer base for our guitar strings, the one adjective that is used most often to describe our strings over and over again is consistency!
As we needed more machines, I would order them from one of the suppliers; and then when they came in, I would rip sections apart and modify them with our trade secrets. We purchased about 8 more machines before this vendor realized we were growing fast and began to jack up the prices to ridiculous levels. The revelation came that we simply needed to design our own machines. We used ideas from both vendors, the new ideas I was developing and many other new innovations to design our own winding machine in 1976. This was a major breakthrough for us. We were paying as much as $18,000 for a winding machine back then, and I was able to build a better machine for under $4,000. Gino’s shop made all of the parts and I assembled them, wired the control panels, debugged and installed the machines. Gino is now retired and we have an extensive machine building shop of our own with over 15 full-time employees building and rebuilding production equipment. Gino’s successors still make parts for us as we do not have the capacity to build all of them in house. Gino’s mother-in-law has since passed away as has my mother, but his daughter Nadia works as an executive assistant in our office.
By 1980, my father-in-law had left our employ and I had acquired enough drafting skill to design the parts and assemblies for the machines I was building. Doing this along with marketing and other business management activities was a bit of a challenge, so I decided to hire engineering help. Jim Rickard, who was the original engineer under Charlie Kaman at Ovation, joined our company for about 10 years. Jimmy is credited with bringing the Ovation guitar into production and for developing the first commercially-successful piezo electric pick up system to the acoustic guitar. His achievements were countless at Ovation. Amplifying the Ovation acoustic made it the choice of Glen Campbell, Cat Stevens and many others over the years.
Jim worked directly under me and helped design and build equipment. We now had two engineering people and we significantly expanded our expertise. There wasn’t a subject that Ricky (as he was nicknamed in the industry) didn’t have in-depth knowledge about. He drew everything with paper and pencil as did I. My geometry and math skills were limited, so he was a big help, as was the Mechanical Engineers Handbook and a small trigonometry pamphlet I still have in my desk today.
Then the personal computer arrived. In December 1982, I saw a demonstration of AutoCAD on an IBM personal computer and I knew instantly that this was a tool that would change my work life. I was one of the first 100 in the world to buy a copy of this program and an IBM XT computer, with a 10 meg hard drive (imagine all that storage), a 360K floppy for backing up (wow!) and a green monochrome screen that required a Hercules graphics card adaptor to double the screen resolution so you could draw.
It was slow, limited, but accurate! I could draw what I wanted to scale and it would calculate the dimensions for me. All the time wasted with the trigonometry manual was history. Suddenly, I could design things I never dreamed of. Also, if I needed to move something or make major changes, it was no different than editing a word processing document.
In 1981, we acquired Kaplan Music Strings. Otto Kaplan and his father Ladislav were machine designing geniuses. In fact, I have some Ladislav’s colored pen and ink machine assembly drawings framed in my office. Their business was tiny and in the back of their Norwalk, Connecticut home, just like my granddad’s was. In 1949, the year I was born, Otto designed a machine he called the Kaplamatic. He only built one of these machines in his life. It was an elaborate machine, for the time. It was designed to make violin and viola strings with one layer of winding and then polish that string with three different polishing mediums, all without taking the string off the machine.
This machine was the mainstay of the company we purchased. Otto had passed away, and the machine was worn out and not really running reliably anymore. With the mechanics, we tried to keep the machine running for about a year or so, then I realized that I needed to bite the bullet, rip this thing apart, redesign it and make the Kaplamatic II. This coincided perfectly with my purchase of ACAD in 1982. I bought a second PC, with only two floppy drives because I couldn’t afford $5,400 for another XT with a hard drive. I had the PC on a table behind the couch in our TV room; and as the family watched TV each night, I sat there learning ACAD and designed KII. The program was on five floppy disks and since there was no hard disk, if I called for a command that was on a different disk, it would prompt me to insert Disk 2 or 3 or whatever. But to me, compared to a pencil, and vellum, and erasers, and math errors, it was a marvel of modern technology.
As I completed sections of this machine, I detailed the parts drawings, printed them on an HP laser printer that cost about $4,000 at the time, and Ed Vincent, our only machinist back then, made the parts. From start to finish, we designed and built the KII in only three months!
It’s now 2011 and Matt, one of our engineers, is nearly finished with the Kaplamatic VII. We have one of the KVIIs in the shop nearing completion; and after it is tested, 5 more will be built to respond to the increased demand for our bowed strings. More significantly, this new KVII is full of the most modern technology ever built into a string machine and will allow us to make more complicated string designs with less labor and higher quality.
In 1983, I realized that ACAD was the way to go, but it took me over a year to get Ricky to use it. He just wouldn’t put his pencil down. Finally, after using it for several years, he actually left the company and returned to Connecticut to became and AutoCAD dealer and trainer (imagine!). He unfortunately passed away prematurely at the age of 54.
Over the years, as our company grew and we added products, brands and capacity, our need for engineering and machine building continued to increase each year. I began hiring engineers. At this point, our Engineering Department in New York is run by Steve Murray (who was hired, I believe, 25 years ago). Steve supervises 6 other engineers and the entire machine building staff. We also have one full-time product designing engineer, Bob Miller, who started as a machinist with us, learned ACAD, ProE and MasterCam and is now a senior design engineer.
At Rico in Sun Valley, California, we have a team of 5 engineers who design and build reed making machinery. Since the 2004 acquisition of Rico, we have essentially duplicated the innovation and engineering model we created at D’Addario, but in a very, very short time (7 years). Our work is not finished, but the science of growing and harvesting cane, cutting poles, sorting tubes, splitting, blanking and machining reeds has seen more innovation in 7 years than in the last 100 at Rico and all of our competitors combined. By 2014, we will have reinvented every aspect of reed making and we will then cycle back through each process with continuous improvement in mind.
After the AutoCAD awakening in 1982, I was still actively designing and assembling machinery. Slowly, as we grew and my staff grew along with me, I did not have the time to be as hands on; I have now evolved into creating the vision for the projects with our engineering teams and then helping them realize that vision. Many times, it will start with me sketching ideas in ACAD and kindling the idea with our team. On other occasions, our engineers will conceive and complete the entire project on their own. It is a far cry from the days when I would be assembling machines all day, in between taking calls, designing marketing campaigns and doing artist relations work. In those days, I had a shop in my basement where I wired all the control panels after dinner at night. I would take all of the components home and assemble and wire them so I could do the work without interruption.
There were times when we assembled 20 winding machines at one time. We usually built Kaplamatics in lots of 4 or 6. The last lot of Kaplamatics was built in 1995 to 1997 when we moved into our present headquarters. Guitar winding machines have had many, many more iterations, so many that I have lost count. Our team also does elaborate rebuilds of existing machinery. We just finished a huge rebuild of guitar winding machines that I assembled 30 years ago. After rebuilding, they are essentially as good as a machine we would design today.
The budgets for 2011 and 2012 have the largest capital expenditure budgets in our history. In New York, we are building 13 double winders, 6 Kaplamatic VIIs, many molds for Evans, 4 ball coiling machines, to mention just a couple of the main projects. Rico is designing a completely digital reed vamp cutting technology that will replace the original Rico vamping machinery and the French/Franke type machinery that is used at Rico and Vandoren today. We will essentially be able to digitally change the model and cut of a reed on the fly. The quality, precision and consistency of this new technology will be unparalleled. The first prototype is being assembled right now.
Rico is also in the process of fully automating the cane pole processing from field to finished product. We have already installed 4 automatic pole cutting machines at our French plantation location, Hyeres, and now automated splitting sawing and sorting machinery is being developed.
At Pro-Mark, in just 9 months, we have installed 6 new centerless grinding machines and water filtration equipment. This was over a $1 million investment in Pro-Mark's infrastructure. The first, new 5A PM sticks off this process are already in production. The improvement in quality from this move will be ground breaking for Pro-Mark.
While it is essential to design 90+%of our machinery in-house because of its specialized nature, we do integrate stock, available machinery where possible. A perfect example is the new Planet Waves – American Stage cable line we are ramping up in production right now. A combination of stock wire feeding, stripping and coiling machinery, along with custom designed robotic soldering equipment, have created a production work cell that will enable us to market an American-made cable competitively against imported products.
Our philosophy of continuously investing in our companies will never change. It is a formula that has been our success and we will continue to nurture the culture of innovation and continuous improvement in all our factories.