Made (it) In Taiwan

MPC Co Ltd is based on a side street of the city of Taichung, around an hour south of Taipei on Taiwan’s west coast. There’s little about the exterior of the business to reveal its history or the hard work behind its success. Inside, a number of CNC machine tools, including a Haas VF-2SS Super Speed vertical machining center, are busily producing parts for a variety of customers around the world.

Two decades ago, TMPC owner Mr. Hardus Coetzee arrived in Taiwan from his homeland of South Africa as part of a government-sponsored educational initiative.

“I was one of 23 people who came to Taiwan to learn how to be instructors – teaching locals with no prior education,” he says. “I thought it would allow me to use my skills as a trained fitter and turner in the South African Air Force, which I had joined after leaving school.”

Embarking on the three-month instructor course, little did Mr. Coetzee know that one of the school’s English-speaking Taiwanese translators would later become his wife and the mother of his two children!

“Unfortunately, she was fired once the school discovered she was seeing a student,” he says. “I finished the course and returned to South Africa for a short while. I came back to Taiwan a month or so later, and Frannie came to visit me. We were married within four months!”

At first, finding a steady job proved easier said than done. Mr. Coetzee initially tried his hand as an English teacher, but that only lasted a month. He longed to get back to machining, but two subsequent spells as an employee at local CNC companies lasted seven and eight months respectively. Mr. Coetzee even tried to start his own CNC business, but the venture limped to a halt after 18 months due, he remembers, to a lack of knowledge of local business customs and practices. The same thing also counted against him in his next venture, which was buying and selling goods. His age (25, at the time) meant others, speaking a language alien to him, often took advantage of him.

“It was then that I went to a second-hand machine tool dealer in an attempt to resume cutting metal for a living,” he says. “I asked the owner if I could use the machines to make parts, in return for which I would pay a piece rate. This meant that whenever they had a potential customer come along to look at machines, they would see them working. The owner was skeptical at first, but eventually agreed. He started to sell more machines as a result of the agreement. Unfortunately, he then got greedy and wanted to charge me more, so I stopped.”

Almost at the end of his tether, Mr. Coetzee pooled all the money he and his wife could lay their hands on, around US 20,000, and borrowed a little more from friends. It was enough to buy his first “modern” machine: a Taiwanese-built mill. With the aid of a helpful Frenchman who spoke fluent Mandarin and made his living sourcing parts in Taiwan for overseas companies, Mr. Coetzee secured his first customer, a go-kart specialist in North Carolina, USA. TMPC Co Ltd was properly on its feet, and the Coetzees finally had a future ahead of them.

In time, orders came, and Mr. Coetzee added two turning machines. The shop was operating 24 hours a day – he’d work 16 hours before his wife took over, while he slept in an adjacent room. Soon after, an acquaintance asked the husband and wife team if they could make large, roller components for the woodworking industry. They could, they said, and promptly machined around 600 parts in the first month! However, the ongoing “finder’s fee” he had to pay his acquaintance meant the job was proving unprofitable, so once again, he stopped production.

“The end customer asked why I’d stopped,” he says. “I didn’t want to land my acquaintance in trouble, so they did the traditional thing and took me out and got me drunk. Then I told them everything. Afterwards, we worked around the issue, and I’m happy to say we continue to make rollers for them to this day. That was my very first encounter with ‘corruption,’ and in a way, it was a good thing; I began to wise-up in business and be a little more cautious in my dealings.”

Mr. Coetzee had accumulated an armory of 20 machine tools, and was working harder than ever. New orders came from the optical lens industry, as well as makers of electric cars – in the case of the latter, to produce as many as 12,000 gearboxes a month. With more and more orders also arriving from the roller customer, TMPC clearly needed a bigger facility and better machines. The moment had arrived to expand again, and fortuitously, he discovered Haas CNC machine tools.

“My first Haas was a DT-1 Drill/Tap Center,” he says. “Now that I’m a Haas user, I believe all shops, wherever they are in the world, should use Haas. For what you pay, they are the best production machines in the world! Now, because of me, I know at least two other companies near here who have invested in Haas machines in the past six months. I now have three Haas

machines, a DT-1, a VF-2SS Super Speed vertical machining center, and a VF-4 VMC, which was bought to machine the rollers. We are now planning to buy a 5th-axis unit for the VF-4.

“On the VF-2SS, I do a lot of prototyping, because it is so fast – it machines wonderfully in 3D,” says Mr. Coetzee. “The machine is easy to set up, and ideal for short batch production. I make around 100 different 3D machined parts on the VF-2SS, which runs 17 hours a day, every day.

“My operators insist they only want to use the Haas machines,” he says. “For example, they discovered that if they worked our other machines hard, they became inaccurate. We push the Haas machines to the limit, and they show no such problems.”

Other parts he makes on the VF-2SS are carburetors for racing lawnmowers, for a U.S. customer, which feature many small tack holes, with each part produced in less than two hours. “The same part takes five hours on one of our Taiwanese machines,” says Mr. Coetzee.

Despite the high-volume output at TMPC, nothing is rushed to the detriment of quality.

“Many people are wary of Made in Taiwan,” Mr. Coetzee says. “I suggested to one particular UK customer that I make him some molds free of charge, to see if they were happy with the finished product. Of course, they were, and they’ve never looked back. Just because we are based in Taiwan does not mean our customers get poor quality. For new customers, I don’t charge; I let them try us, first. That’s how we get a lot of our business.”

In May 2012, Mr. Coetzee’s hard-won success allowed him to pay off his US 2 million bank debt in its entirety. He also began working fewer hours, and allowing others to take some of the day-to-day responsibility of running the business. These days, the only job he does himself on the shop floor is machine programming; he employs others to do the tool setting and machine operating. In total, the company has a staff of 14, which allows Mr. Coetzee to take time off and enjoy evenings and weekends with his wife and daughters, or on extended fishing adventures in the South China Sea.

TMPC is poised once again to move to bigger premises, as well as achieve ISO certification. After so many years of trial and error – so many trials and tribulations – Mr. Coetzee is adamant he now knows the secret to running a successful machine shop.

“When we move to a new facility, we will not take any of our old machines,” he says. “They will all be Haas!”

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