The Wernette family’s legacy of innovation lives on at the manufacturer of portable machine tools.

Photos courtesy Tri Tool

George Wernette was good with his hands — he was, after all, a general surgeon, and dexterity is a prerequisite for the trade. But that wasn’t his greatest skill, says his son, George “Joe” Wernette III, the owner and chairman of Tri Tool in Rancho Cordova, California.

“Even more than his technical aptitude, he had this ability to identify creative people and bring them together to make something significant,” says Wernette. “He could do that better than anyone I’ve ever known. He liked to make magic happen.”

Indeed, the elder Wernette worked a little magic when he started Tri Tool with a machinist and a welder he knew back in 1972. The three men shared an idea for a product line — portable machine tools — and they were determined to bring that vision to fruition.

“Specifically, they wanted to develop a portable tool to prepare the ends of pipes and tubes for welding,” says Joe Wernette. “This was something new. At that time, these kinds of tools didn’t exist. What Tri Tool did was mobilize machine tools. Before we launched, people had to take their work pieces to the shop. Now, with this new tool, you could take the machine shop to the work piece.”

And that literally revolutionized the way large industrial and mechanical systems — power plants, aircraft, oil refineries — are made and maintained. In some cases, it vastly expanded the type of work that could be done — and the workforce who could do it.

“Could you take a machine shop to outer space or the bottom of the ocean to properly prepare a critical weld?” asks Wernette rhetorically. “You couldn’t. We changed that entire dynamic.”

It’s not that such meticulous on-site bevel grinding and ancillary weld preparation wasn’t possible prior to development of the tool, says Wernette — but it required exceptionally skilled labor.

“What the tool did was create extraordinary consistency,” says Wernette. “It essentially allowed the work of grinding and weld preparation to be done in a controlled environment rather than by hand and eye, allowing a greater range of workers to do the jobs.”

Tri Tool now makes a wide range of portable machining and welding equipment, and it services 10 essential industrial categories: chemical, critical infrastructure, defense industrial base, energy, food and agriculture, healthcare, information technology, nuclear reactors, transportation, and waste.

“For most of our clients, our tools ensure that whatever goes down a pipe stays in the pipe,” Wernette says. “Whether you’re talking about fluid in a hydraulic line or waste in a disposal system, leaks can’t be tolerated.”

The layperson may not think of pipe and tube welds as a critical component to all 10 client sectors, allows Wernette — but the work isn’t necessarily always about pipes. Take information technology, for example, where pipelines are exceedingly scarce.

“We had a client — a computer chip manufacturer — who had contamination issues,” says Wernette. “Impurities were getting into the chips during the manufacturing process, and it was determined that poor weld quality was the problem. They required better machined ends and better weld processes, and our tools were the remedy.”

Along with its established product line, Tri Tool also creates specialty solutions for customers with unique challenges. “We create custom tools for custom problems,” says Wernette. “We’re vertically oriented to a rigorous degree. We’ve always felt we had to do it all within our sector, from being an OEM to producing specialty products. And we’ve always felt we had to be the best. Our reputation is such that we don’t have any real competition in the normal sense. Some companies, notably from China, produce cheaper equipment, and many try to copy us. But cheaper isn’t acceptable when you need both absolutely failsafe welds and absolutely reliable, safe equipment — machine tools are powerful, and safety must always be paramount. Also, we’re constantly innovating, so you can’t copy what hasn’t been invented yet.”

Wernette acknowledges that Tri Tool is something of an industrial outlier, given it dominates its sector while operating in a country — and a state — with high labor and production costs. But he again emphasizes that quality trumps all in machine tools, and he insists the skilled American labor force remains unsurpassed in terms of both productivity and aptitude.

Tri Tool CEO Chris Belle observes the company has leveraged the staff’s technical expertise by heavy investment in IT. “That’s enabled us to train field machinists from remote locations in a matter of minutes instead of days,” he says. “This accelerates customer projects and enables us to virtually place our engineers on job sites from the safety of their offices.”

But the company does face one interesting staff challenge, Wernette allows. “With skilled machinists, you basically have two types of personalities: homebodies and nomads,” he says. “The homebodies want to work in a shop with a fixed address and go home every night. The nomads are the opposite. They just want to roam, from field site to field site. At Tri Tool, we really need both types — people who want to work in the shop and people who want to work in the field. It’s a mistake to assume one person will be happy in both positions. You can’t try to force them into a lifestyle that doesn’t suit them.”

Challenges: “Creating and maintaining the skilled technical force needed to meet customer requirements,” says Wernette.

Opportunities: “With COVID, a vacuum in the completion and full maintenance of critical infrastructure projects developed,” notes Wernette. “Much of the opportunity lies there — many projects must be completed, and others must be maintained.”

Needs: “It’s pretty simple — we need the world to get back to work,” says Wernette.