Simmons Machine Tool Corp. among the N.Y. Companies that Benefit from Buy American

By Jeffrey Bonior
Simmons Machine Tool Corp.’s Albany facility, seen above, employs about 100 people. The company also has a location in Michigan and owns facilities in Germany and China. | Photo by Brian Lombardozzi

New York’s legislature is expected to wrap up work on Buy American legislation by April 1.

When President Donald Trump gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, he made sure to reiterate his “Buy American, Hire American” mantra.

But more than one month earlier, on Jan. 11, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo beat Trump to the punch, unveiling his own Buy American proposal during his 2017 State of the State address in Syracuse.

And while few details of Trump’s Buy American plan have yet to be revealed, strong bipartisan support is building for Buy American in New York’s budget proposal, with legislative work expected to wrap up by April 1.

The New York Buy American proposal would apply to all new state procurements of more than $100,000, with the governor aspiring to assure New York has the strongest mandate for the purchase of American-made products of any state. And that’s good news for New York companies like Simmons Machine Tool Corp., which has been manufacturing large rail transit repair and replace machines since 1910.

Simmons Machine Tool Corp. President and COO David Davis

Located just 2 ½ miles from the state capitol building in Albany, Simmons designs, manufactures, installs and services machines for rail vehicle wheel-set maintenance. These machines, many of which are the size of a car or truck, help keep wheel components safe while saving customers money. It is less expensive and more efficient to maintain the wheel sets by extending their life cycle rather than replacing them.

While Simmons and its two sister companies manufacture and sell worldwide, you will most likely find them in use in almost every major American rail transit authority.  Simmons customers include transit systems of all size, including streetcars, light rail, subways, heavy commuter and heavy-haul freight companies. 

Many public transit authorities use Simmons’ machines on their rail line wheels, including Amtrak and subway systems in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Toronto.

Frequent maintenance of rail wheels is essential because of the amount of friction created as the wheel sets roll on the track. Over time, the wheels wear down, and if they are not serviced, they will eventually climb off the rails, resulting in a disastrous derailment.

“What you generally want to do is keep the wheels in very good shape, and for a passenger transit, that means reprofiling them frequently, almost like you would reprofile a brake disc in your car,” said Simmons President and COO David Davis.

“It’s a metal removal process but there is excess metal designed into the wheels so that they can be reprofiled frequently. There is a complete shop that is a couple hundred-thousand square-feet with lots of automated machines that are doing that kind of work, and those machines and automation is what we design and manufacture here in Albany.”

“Part of the cool thing is every day I am making something tangible working with my hands. At the end of the day, when I walk away, I can see the results of my labor and know it’s going on to something greater as well.” Robert Fornasiero, Simmons Machine Tool Corp. employee 

Simmons employs about 100 people in Albany, including Robert Fornasiero.

The 31-year-old was thrilled to get his job at Simmons in August 2016. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2008, just as the U.S. economy began to spiral downward. He worked a variety of jobs since his graduation, taking anything from office work and internships to standing on assembly lines.

But Fornasiero discovered manufacturing work was in his blood, just like his father who worked his entire career in manufacturing in Western New York before becoming an engineer.

“I’ve still got a lot to learn and everything. I’m doing that as we kind of go along on the job,” said Fornasiero. “That’s one of the cool things about working in manufacturing. It’s a lifelong learning process. It’s great to continue to learn, otherwise, you would get bored. I never come to work looking at the clock waiting to get out. It’s a big change from jobs I’ve had in the past.

“Part of the cool thing is every day I am making something tangible working with my hands. At the end of the day, when I walk away, I can see the results of my labor and know it’s going on to something greater as well. I might be making one part or component that day but it’s going into a larger machine that serves a larger purpose.”

Fornasiero also attended Hudson Valley Community College, where he took part in the advanced manufacturing-technology program. While Fornasiero has experience in many fields of work, he has become a vociferous advocate of American manufacturing and hopes to see Cuomo’s Buy American proposal come to fruition. 

“I’m certainly hopeful that it passes and I’m hopeful that it keeps the conversation going,” said Fornasiero. “It’s going to take a lot to rebuild the manufacturing base in the United States and in New York State as well. Buy America is something people should be talking about and thinking about along with the other components that are tied to American manufacturing, like workforce development and making sure we have people to fill these jobs.”

To qualify as “American-made” under Cuomo’s proposal, the end manufacturing processes must take place in the U.S. and more than 60 percent of the components of the manufactured good should be of domestic origin. There are exceptions for available quantity of a product, a significant increase of the cost of the contract and emergency and health needs of the public.

Photo courtesy Simmons

According to the governor’s office, manufacturing represents one in nine jobs in upstate New York – amounting to more than 5 percent of the state’s total workforce. Cuomo’s Buy American proposal is expected to attract new businesses, strengthen existing manufacturing companies and create additional well-paying, benefit-friendly jobs.

Simmons Machine Tool Corp. is part of the The NSH Group (Niles-Simmons-Hegenscheidt), which was founded in 2000 and serves a wide variety of industries in more than 150 countries throughout the world.

While Simmons is based in New York, its partner company Hegenscheidt has a facility in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Hegenscheidt, a German manufacturer of railway wheel set maintenance machines, was acquired in 2000 by Simmons Chairman Prof. Dr. Hans J. Naumann. He founded German manufacturer Niles-Simmons in 1992 to service the European, Middle East and African markets.

There are close to 1,100 workers at Hegenscheidt and Niles-Simmons' machine tool manufacturing facilities in Germany. NSH-CTI was founded in 2006 to service Chinese customers, because Chinese national law requires that a supplier have a specific amount of content that is manufactured in China.

“We formed the NSH Group and it’s all owned by private U.S. investors,” said Davis. “The group is owned by private U.S. investors and then the group owns 100 percent of all of the companies in the group. This is an all American-owned company. If the New York budget proposal to Buy American increases our demand, we would love to be able to create more jobs for the people of upstate New York.”

Davis doesn’t expect to see a flood of new business developing for Simmons with a stringent Buy America policy in New York. But he is aware of how important Buy America is to American companies and the workforce.

“Frankly, we’re kind of set up already for this anyway,” he said. “The problem we have – the policy is OK – but the problem is there really is no way to enforce it other than to sue somebody. There’s not like Buy America police. Some other countries are not going to comply with Buy America and the labor rates in their country are so cheap and they don’t have to comply with environmental regulations and labor regulations. Their machines might be so cheap there is no way we can compete with them anyways.”

But Davis sees other benefits to the Buy American proposal.

“One of the biggest problems we have is that there is a high level of support that is required when one of our machines goes in,” he said. “You can imagine, a lot of training has to go out to the customers and personnel. And once the machine is operational, there is a lot of support the customer requires. We can usually win on those terms because we are right here in the U.S. We’re close by and we can get to the customer’s site very quickly to help them out. This has become very important because setting up a facility for a customer can cost as much as $15, $20, $25 million.”

This niche, rail wheel-set market has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, and most surveys show Americans feel the U.S. deserves a larger slice of the pie. In New York, 82 percent of residents support giving a preference to American-made products in state procurement, according to the Siena Research Institute.

“I am not surprised because I think a lot of people are fed up,” Davis said. “They wonder why are we paying property taxes and we are not really putting that money to use for American companies.”