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MILAN – Thomas W. Honsa remembers years ago when he was trying to sell his company’s ergonomic tools to a manufacturer. The tools are designed to let workers engage in repetitive motions more comfortably and cut down on the risk of injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. On this particular sales trip, the potential customer was not in a buying mood. “He told me, they didn’t need our tools because ‘If our workers get hurt, we just fire them.’ That’s where we started – ‘We just fire them,’” he recalled in an interview with the QCBJ. Attitudes have changed since his early years. Today, ergonomic tools can now be found in companies across the world and many are produced by Mr. Honsa’s company – Honsa Ergonomic Technologies Inc., located at 1300 11th St. West, Milan. The Quad Cities manufacturer designs and builds hundreds of types of tools for manufacturing industries and even offers a tool repair service. “We’re dedicated to quality and affordable ergonomic solutions,” said Mr. Honsa, the company’s president and CEO. That dedication has translated into a multi-million-dollar business. In fact, the first six months of this year has been the busiest, best era in the company’s history. Mr. Honsa said that’s due to industries, such as companies making electric cars and aerospace manufacturing, ramping up and needing more ergonomic tools. “We believe that due to the increase in electric car manufacturing and the various new car launches, as well as the strong aerospace manufacturing comeback, these are the two major factors affecting the growth of Honsa. We expect (that) to continue through the rest of this year and into next,” he said. The growth also is due to the continued progressive thinking of many industrial leaders. Mr. Honsa doesn’t run into many company bosses with that “we-just-fire-them” attitude these days. Most businesspeople recognize that workers being injured through the use of non- ergonomic pneumatic and electric-powered tools is bad for their employees, bad for business and ultimately very expensive for the company. In fact, according to Honsa’s website, there are 14.5 million U.S. users of vibrating tools, and 50% of them suffer from hand-arm vibration syndrome. That translates to billions of dollars spent on workers’ compensation. Mr. Honsa said the company’s ultimate goal is to produce tools that help workers get the job done and helps prevent injuries. The business owner has heard story after story of workers being injured from the repetitive use of tools on the job. For instance, he recalls a local worker whose hands were in horrible shape from using tools at work. The worker would wake up in the morning, sit on his hands for a few minutes to warm them up so he could use them to hold a fork and spoon to eat breakfast. And when it comes to using those tough-on-the-body tools, Mr. Honsa has personal experience. After graduating Moline High School in 1971, he took a job at J.I. Case working second shift with a chipping hammer at the company. He was on the job for just a few months, but it left a big impression on him: “I would go home every night and my arms were numb.” A major goal of Honsa Ergonomic Technologies is found in this statement from Mr. Honsa on the company’s website: “Together, we can end vibration-related injuries that cause work stoppages, perpetuate employee turnover, increase insurance claims and devastate company profits.” Here is a look at some of the Honsa company’s highlights since it began in the 1980s:
- The company has grown to 10 employees. Mr. Honsa said he is grateful to all his employees for helping the company grow and succeed. He added that his wife, Sue Honsa, and employee Brett Casper, have been central to the growth and both have 27 years with the company.
- The Milan company sells more than 200 different types of tools. Its tools and services are used in a wide variety of manufacturing industries including: aerospace, metal fabrication, automotive assembly, shipbuilding and repair, agricultural equipment, construction equipment, foundries, and engine and transmission assembly.
- The company’s best-selling tool is a medium-duty weld destruction gun called the HTP B-17E. (The “B-17” portion of the name was chosen to honor Mr. Honsa’s father, Thomas S. Honsa, who co-founded the company. He served during World War II and on B17 heavy bombers.)
- In addition, the U.S. military uses Honsa tools to reduce injuries in maintenance, repair and refit applications. A few years ago, Honsa was awarded a $300,000 contract to build tools for the U.S. Navy. That contract called for the manufacturing of 400 chipping hammers that, in this application, were primarily used to disassemble and for the recycling of Navy ships and submarines.
- Mr. Honsa said his “greatest accomplishment” with the company was having his tools used in helping dismantle Russian navy submarines and ships in late 1990s.
- Some of the company’s customers include: Deere & Co., General Motors, Ford, Boeing and many others.
- The company has 12 U.S. patents and four foreign patents on its inventions for reducing ergonomic injuries through the use of its unique tools.
Humble beginnings in the 1980sBut before the tool patents, the work with major companies and the military, and helping dismantle the Russian navy, the company began with a simple idea – make people more comfortable. Mr. Honsa said it was his father – Thomas S. Honsa, a longtime dentist in Moline, who had the goal of making life better and more comfortable for his patients with dentures. The elder Mr. Honsa developed a new material for dentures so patients could be more comfortable. By 1985, that idea of improving dentures spurred more and bigger ideas in making people comfortable. The elder Mr. Honsa developed a system to reduce vibration in pneumatic industrial tools, received a patent and had plans to launch a new company – Honsa Ergonomic Technologies Inc. – that had its first days in his home’s basement. The younger Mr. Honsa, who was working in Arizona in the research department of IBM at the time, was convinced to return to the Quad Cities and co-found the company with his father. Thomas S. Honda died 21 years ago. His son has continued to create, invent, patent and manufacture ergonomic products. Today, decades after those humble beginnings, the company’s products can be found in factories across the nation. It continues to adapt to the changing times and a changing economy – such as now making products for the electric car industry. And all this is coming with relatively little fanfare in the local community. Mr. Honsa says his company continues to be a “well kept secret” with many people. “We like to keep our heads down and keep on working.” Mr. Honsa, who now is 69, said he plans to continue to lead his company through those changing times for at least a few more years. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I probably got a few more years left,” he added.
Honsa Ergonomic Technologies: At A GlanceHonsa Ergonomic Technologies offers hundreds of tools and accessories including:
- Bucking bars: These are solid pieces of metal made in a multitude of different shapes and sizes. They are made from steel or tungsten and used in aircraft, truck, bus, boat and trailer manufacturing processes in conjunction with pneumatic riveting tools to set rivets.
- Chipping hammers: These are handheld pneumatic percussive hammers. It Is percussive in nature and delivers blows per minute (BPM) to a chisel or tooling which is inserted into the end of the tool.
- Pin driver: The metal shaped device is inserted into a pneumatic power tool used to dowel pins, roll pins and various cylindrical parts.
- Retrofit handles: These handles are used for converting your existing conventional air tools into low vibration tools.
- Riveters: They are used to set various size rivets in aircraft, truck trailers, aluminum boats, delivery van trucks and buses.