How do you go from studying art in Switzerland to making and selling a one of a kind screwdriver in Ashcroft?
Rob Suter knows. He and his wife, Angela Bandelli are the driving force behind Rolgear Manufacturing, Inc., makers of precision racheting screwdrivers. Their offices and plant are located next to the car wash on Railway Ave.
Suter says it was an idea that stuck in his head after being involved in another venture with screwdrivers just after arriving in Canada with Angela in 1985.
In 2008, he was asked by a friend to do some design for screwdriver handles. That gave him more ideas, which led to the product that he now makes.
Suter’s slim single blade ratcheting screwdriver isn’t available anywhere else. Multi-bit ratcheting screwdrivers are, but not single blades.
The other difference is that Rolgear’s product uses a cam and ball bearing mechanism rather than gears.
The more he tinkered with his ideas, the more Suter realized that he needed to be more precise in his plans.
He bought a CAD (Computer Automated Design) program and taught himself how to use it. The program helped him visualize his creation and provided more possibilities. All he had to do was find a way to create it on his work bench.
For two years he worked on it at their ranch on Back Valley Rd. Then in 2011/12 their friend Al Alberts invited them to work out of his building next to the car wash, and the rest is history.
Suter studied art for three and a half years in Zurich and apprenticed with a painter before taking over his family’s paint and wallpaper store. He even went to business school for two years. He sold the store after 10 years and they moved to Canada.
“But I was always interested in mechanics,” he says.
He pulls out a basic slotted block of plastic and describes how this prototype will look by the time he’s finished with it and how it will sort the bits to make attaching them to the shanks faster.
“Anything you want to do is possible,” he says.
He taught himself how to run his CAD system, how to program his equipment and how to run everything in his shop.
“You spend a lot of time but you find out how to do it,” he says. “You work at it until you’ve got it. Not always does everything go smoothly.”
Eventually he bought a CNC turning machine for the company.
“Never used one before,” he said. “Didn’t even know how to turn it on. You have to make programs for it, so I had to learn how to make G-code programs.”
He used the basic knowledge from his other experiences with screwdrivers, but new challenges constantly send him looking for what equipment he needs to solve them.
“Now we’re at the point where basically we can make all parts,” he says. “- some in cumbersome ways. That could be improved, of course, with equipment.”
More equipment means more investment. Suter says the comany finances itself from its operations. It’s a slow process, but it seems to be working.
They started equipping their shop in 2012. Right after a trade show in 2012 they packed their truck and hitched up the horse trailer and headed for Montreal. There they bought the CNC turning machine and brought it home in the trailer.
He found found a Taiwanese supplier for quarter inch hex material because he couldn’t find a closer supply. The catch was, he said, that it comes in 2,000 kilo coils, so he had to find a way to straighten the steel.
He found an old piece of equipment on the internet that looked like it would work, but it was in Cincinnati. He was driving in that direction anyway to purchase an automatic screw machine in nearby Rockford so he went to have a look.
It had been sitting outside for perhaps years and was covered in grease and dirt. But it was cheap.
“We loaded that thing up, then I went back to Rockford, loaded up the screw machine and home I went.”
It cleaned it up nicely. Then he had to build a rotating spool to feed the coil into his new straightener.
Rolgear is doing well in the industrial markets. The professionals like them. They also sell to small independents like Ashcroft Building Centre, KMS in Kamloops and other hardware stores. Lee Valley Tools also carries their line.
“I think we experienced in the last few months a really nice growth,” he says.
He’s hoping to branch out onto the Prairies soon. Getting larger is in their plans, but more efficient ways of making their screwdriver is key to that.
“Right now we’re spending 40 seconds to fill one handle with bits,” he says. “With this” – he points at the bit sorting prototype) – “I think we can do it in four seconds.”
“I would like to get it to the point where I don’t have to be in operations constantly, so I can tinker and invent,” he says.
“I was asked just yesterday ‘why don’t you retire?’ I said I’ll never retire, I like what I do – why would I retire?”