Microns matter – generations of hard work pay off for Progress Precision Engineering

Installs first DMG MORI M1 vertical milling center in South Africa.

Currently based in Montague Gardens, Cape Town, precision, reliability and quality are key to the visions and values upheld by Progress Precision Engineering. The family-owned business can trace its metalworking routes back to before the Second World War where managing owner Reinhard Retter’s grandfather Kurt worked as a metalworker in Poland. His expertise was such that he was not actually sent to war but instead was used to weld and repair fuel tanks that were used for transport along the railways during the war. He was very well-known at the time and such was his skillset that he was able to weld tanks full of fuel, making him an invaluable cog in the reliable transport and supply of fuel to the front lines during the war.

Components being machined on a Bridgeport-type milling machine with an Acu-Rite MillPWR 3-axis CNC control

A Bridgeport-type milling machine with an Acu-Rite MillPWR 3-axis CNC control, in immaculate condition

Reinhard’s father, Siegfried, trained as a turner, toolmaker, designer and draughtsman. Based in Gdańsk (Danzig in German), located on the Baltic Sea, one of Poland’s oldest cities with a history going back a thousand years, his abilities quickly propelled him to success.

It was these skills – and his natural talent – that afforded him the knowledge to trust his designs and drawings and thus grow his reputation in the metalworking, and later the early CNC design industries. After spending time at German piston factory manufacturer MAHLE building special machines for them and further developing his unique design abilities, he also spent time at TRAUB – specialists in the manufacture, and one of the first companies in the world to manufacture, CNC sliding headstock lathes. His proficiency meant that he contributed greatly to their design.

A Tontec vertical machining center

A newly acquired US Wheeler EM 1000A vertical machining center

Siegfried’s talent wasn’t just metalworking though, and he was also an accomplished Polish motorcycle speedway champion. Sadly it was this sport – the coal ash laden tracks that they raced on in fact – that brought about an untimely death due to lung disease caused by the fine particles flung into the air and inhaled as they raced around the tracks.

At the age of six, after Reinhard’s mother had remarried another man, the family emigrated to South Africa. Reinhard then adopted the surname of Retter that was carried by his stepfather. The name Retter translates to saviour and it was this new beginning for Reinhard that gave him the chance to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him.

One of the lathes on the shop floor

One of the lathes on the shop floor

Finishing school at Oude Molen Technical High School, and beginning his trade as a toolmaker at Metal Box (SA) Ltd. located in Epping, Reinhard quickly achieved success in his own right completing his first trade test after only two and a half years, flying through it. Had it been up to him, he would have completed his N6 – after all, he needed just another six months to do it ¬– but it was not meant to be and not long after, Reinhard, at the age of 22, married his wife Lucrecia.

After some time at Metal Box, Reinhard found himself sitting in the canteen envisioning the future. It was one where he couldn’t see himself in the big factory environment long-term, and it was here where he set himself the goal that by the time he turned 40, he would have his own business. This was one of many goals he set himself, and has subsequently gone on to achieve.

After leaving Metal Box and joining Swartklip Products, now a division of Denel, Reinhard got his first taste of CNC machines. A TNC contouring machine to be exact. The fact that the machine was only designed to machine in straight lines or specific drill positions didn’t stop him thinking out of the box so to speak, and with a bit of clever draughtsmanship, Reinhard wowed colleagues by machining circles with the machine. Because this required linear interpolation, this took some patience on his behalf of course as the programming all had to be written by hand. A tedious but indispensable skill Reinhard can still use from time to time today when finding solutions and solving real-world machine limitations on the shop floor for clients.

Reinhard Retter at work on his beloved CNC lathe

Being of German descent, an organised shop floor is expected

From here Bob Maxwell of Maxwell’s Engineering (Pty) Ltd. decided that he required Reinhard’s skills, and it was this experience that got Reinhard really acquainted with CNCs en masse. After some time he progressed on to become foreman of the large CNC section of the business. Soon after this, he was offered an opportunity to acquire an unused lathe – an opportunity he grabbed with both hands. It was a Colchester round head lathe. From here Reinhard made his way to Coastal Engineering Supplies where he purchased a cut-off saw, and not long after that his first milling machine. Most of the machines on the shop floor today are supplied by Coastal and Reinhard continues to enjoy a great working relationship with Coastal.

Starting off in his three-quarter garage, which soon became a three quarter plus a double garage and eventually another quadruple garage on top of that, left him with 100m² of workshop space, and a further 70m² under roof of driveway space, all powered by three-phase electric power and fully soundproofed. This was around 1992 and Reinhard was now independent.

Components being machined

Microns matter

With such a rich manufacturing family history, current owner Marco Retter, and Reinhard’s son, is now the fourth generation member of the family to have the art of metalworking running through his blood. Marco was just seven at the time that his father got his business up and running, but he spent his time helping his father by starting at the bottom – sweeping the floors and cleaning the machines. By the time Marco was 10, he was being given little jobs to do on the machines after school and on weekends. It would take some years before Marco joined his father in the business full time, but metalworking was in his blood.

In 2004, Reinhard purchased his first CNC lathe after saving up to buy the machine outright – he was raised with the principle that if you cannot afford something, save up until you can. 17 years later, he still works on this machine to this day with it still operating to extremely close tolerances. This philosophy of care and maintenance is bestowed upon every machine on the shop floor, says Marco: “Even though our first large CNC milling machine is nearly 10-years-old now, it still looks like it is brand new – like we’ve done no work on it, but it’s got thousands of cutting hours on it, and it works every single day of its life.”

A newly installed DMG MORI M1 vertical milling center – the first of its kind in South Africa

Marco Retter gets to work on his newly installed DMG MORI M1 vertical milling center. The machine came complete with a Siemens 828D control, a chip conveyor and a Renishaw touch probe. The machine was supplied by Retecon

Family ties
After Marco finished school at Cape Town’s Milnerton High School, he initially pursued a career in IT and computing. But it wasn’t to be as he couldn’t envision a life of working in an office behind a computer all day, after all, he’d grown up in the workshop working with tools, on cars and motorbikes, building LEGO – with his hands as tools. The interest in computers was not lost though, and Reinhard jokes: “One day I said to Marco, I’ve got a new machine and it has a computer – why don’t you come and work in the shop with me?” It was a Bridgeport-type milling machine with an Acu-Rite MillPWR 3-axis CNC control. “Marco took to it like a duck to water,” says Reinhard. This was 2003 and not long after this, Marco attended Northlink College’s Wingfield Campus and after completing his trade, he took further technical courses to further his skillset and completed a CNC diploma.

Pulley-type components machined on the DMG MORI M1 vertical milling center

Pulley-type components are machined from large billets

This was where he found his real interests to be, and he has since spent many hours further upskilling himself by watching YouTube tutorials, reading widely and downloading and producing components from simulations – all self-taught and very practical workshop experience.

Progress Precision Engineering’s current facility in Montague Gardens was bought in 2005 and they can be regarded as specialists in the frameless glass domes and standoff industry, close tolerance component engineering, custom automated machinery manufacture and bag in box filling machines. Shop floor space currently equates to 200m² with a further 125m² of storage space and 100m² of office space. Many components are specialised components manufactured specifically for the food and beverage industries – comprising some 80% of the work done by Progress Precision Engineering.

The company will design, manufacture, assemble and commission any automated machine you are looking for, and all components are manufactured inhouse. The majority of components are manufactured from 316 stainless steel to customer specification with the capabilities of low to medium volume CNC runs, and are supplied with material certificates.

The Progress Precision Engineering team from left to right: Marco Retter, Enrique da Silva, Reinhard Retter, David Strauss, Reagan Abrahams, Jonas Mandala, Philip van der Westhuizen, Jeremy Mclaren, Chantel Retter and absent: Desire Wilson

Components machined by Progress Precision Engineering

Progress Precision Engineering have full CAD capabilities and will design with SolidWorks and HSMWorks and can machine from sample or drawing – knowledge that comes from hands-on machine experience. “Although most of our work is with stainless steel 316, we have come a long way with machining plastic and with the aid of the right tooling and the knowledge of how plastic ‘lives’ as it were, we are very good at machining plastics in all sorts of shapes and sizes,” continues Marco.

Breaking the stigma of the blue collar worker is something Reinhard recalls as being one of the motivating factors for setting up his own business. And this culture is transferred to the Progress Precision Engineering shop floor and assimilated by the staff – they know that they are part of something special and are given the opportunities to learn and grow.

The family tree – in the top right hand photograph is Reinhard Retter’s grandfather Kurt – he could weld and repair fuel tanks full of fuel, something he was very well-known for during the Second World War

Various components that can be machined by Progress Precision Engineering

Currently on the shop floor are seven CNC machines, of which six are VMCs and one a CNC lathe, as well as two Bridgeport-type 3-axis milling machines, and a further two lathes. Five of these VMCs and one of the milling machines have been acquired since the end of 2020 and so the time has come for more space. Included amongst these is a US Wheeler EM 1000A VMC.

New premises
Progress Precision Engineering has recently purchased a new premises in Killarney Gardens, Cape Town with a shop floor area of 650m² and it includes additional office space to meet their requirements. The move should be completed in the coming months and will afford the Retter’s the opportunity to further streamline operations.

Flagship DMG MORI M1 vertical milling center
2021 brought the Retter’s further success and they have just installed their Flagship DMG MORI M1 vertical milling center complete with a Siemens 828D control capable of a wide range of machining cycles, suited for any application, supplied by Retecon. It is the first of its kind to be commissioned and installed in South Africa. The M1 is a newly developed 3-axis vertical milling machine that covers all industries and applications for easy milling of parts up to 600kg to the highest accuracy and precision. The design is based on a monolithic bed, leading to maximum static and dynamic rigidity as well as perfect damping properties.

Over the years, Progress Precision Engineering have machined a variety of components from a number of materials

Progress Precision Engineering will work closely with clients on the design side, with 80% of components manufactured specifically for the food and beverage industries and out of 316 stainless steel

Additionally, the machine came equipped with a chip conveyor and Renishaw touch probe – something Marco is unquestionably excited about using and furthering his quest for knowledge about not just precision machining, but of quality control measures and coordinate measuring capabilities too.

3D Printing Skills
Not only has Marco been mostly self-taught when it comes to machining, but he has also adopted this process to growing his knowledge about 3D printing and the techniques involved with it. Marco can now offer a build volume of 250mm x 250mm x 400mm for quick turnaround prototyping.

The future
Clearly the future is bright for Progress Precision Engineering and it probably won’t be long before Marco’s own young son is wondering about on the shop floor getting stuck in where he can. Metal additive manufacturing is also something the Retter’s are learning about and of course there is always room for more specialised CMM operations. The new premises will definitely have space for more machines, the Retter’s say.

Precision Engineering will design, manufacture, assemble and commission any automated machine you are looking for. Featured is one of their own bag-in-box filling machines manufactured under the brand PRO-FILL

Progress Precision Engineering specialise in the manufacture of automated machinery. Featured is one of their own bag-in-box filling machines manufactured under the brand PRO-FILL

Progress Precision Engineering regard major industry role-players as clients and serve mostly the food and beverage industry. “We are able to make anything,” says Marco. “But we are obviously quite specialised within the food and beverage industry making shafts, pump houses, gearbox casings, meat processing machines, valves, transducer housings and so forth, and we work quite closely with clients on the design side of things. We bring ideas and designs to life making them capable of production on whatever scale the client desires. Essentially we carry out specialist precision CNC engineering.”

For further details contact Progress Precision Engineering on TEL: 021 551 9909 or visit https://www.ppeng.co.za