Pittsburg, California

Owner and President Pamela Kan’s linear and rotary systems manufacturer is investing heavily in automation — much like its clientele.

Bishop-Wisecarver was founded by Kan’s father, Bud Wisecarver, to manufacture metal wire bread trays — but its product offerings quickly expanded.

“My dad was a natural engineer,” Kan says. “He naturally had the ability to be inventive and create.” His early inventions included the company’s DualVee Original Guide Wheels, which he patented in 1972 and expanded into a line of linear guide bearings used in food processing, food packaging, and cosmetic production machinery, as well as pharmaceutical and form-fill-seal machinery to this day.

Photos Jonathan Castner

“Our core DualVee component offering still drives a large portion of our business,” says Kan, who joined the vertically-integrated company in 1991, was named president in 2000, and gained 100 percent ownership in 2020. She notes that while Bishop-Wisecarver serves customers in every industry from “aerospace to agriculture,” the segments currently driving the most revenue are “machine builders of various types, food processing equipment, lab and medical equipment, and paper converting equipment.”

Within the company’s 100,000-square-foot facility, the Bishop-Wisecarver team manufactures linear motion system parts sold under trade names including SlickStick, LoPro, and UtiliTrak, in addition to the aforementioned DualVee. The parts are sold direct to OEM customers as well as through a worldwide network of distributors. “We’ve had partnerships with many of these distributors for decades,” Kan says, “so we have a global reach beyond the state and beyond the country.”

Over the 73 years the company has been in business, it has amassed a database of 14,000 clients. “In any given year, we normally service 1,000 to 2,000 customers,” Kan adds. “Many of our customers go through distribution, so it would be much higher if we only sold direct.”

To keep up with demand — Bishop-Wisecarver enjoyed record growth in 2022 and is forecasting growth over 15 percent this year — the company has added more automation to its factory floor. “We have UR robots on the floor,” Kan says. “We’re doing machine tending and even more cell-based production on the floor. And we’re looking to rebuild our whole drilling line to get that automated.”

This focus on technology to increase efficiency is a trend Kan is seeing in her customer base as well. “They want more flexibility in the machinery they’re building,” she continues. “For example, on our floor, we have dedicated machines by the size of the product that they’re making. But that’s really not the way you want to build a machine anymore.”

Instead, Kan says that the need is to build machines that can handle multiple sizes or products with little changeover time. “That’s what automation is starting to build,” she says, “so that you don’t have production lines by the size of product but can have one machine that can handle whatever needs to go through it.”

While she says that workforce — and specifically the growing issue of attracting and retaining a workforce that is willing to work on a production floor — is at least partially driving this evolution for both Bishop-Wisecarver and the customers it serves, it’s a development that has also been good for business.

“Everybody has had to look at how they automate certain jobs away from people,” Kan continues. “There’s just fewer people that want to do certain levels of jobs anymore, especially after the pandemic. I think people who were looking at capital improvements and automation projects and maybe had 10- or 15-year plans did it in three. You’re just forced to. You have to leverage technology, robots, machines, and all that where you can.”

Challenges: In addition to workforce, Kan says that the supply chain continues to present challenges. “Some of the supply chain shortages actually started to hit our customers harder at the end of last year and start of this year than earlier in the pandemic,” she explains. “We’re feeling the impact around those, like the chip shortage. It’s affecting the motors, controllers, sensors, all of that. If they’re building a piece of equipment, we can ship our part. But if they can’t actually put a motor and controller on it and finish the machine, then they can’t get paid. And if they can’t actually finish the machine, they don’t want the parts from us yet.”

Opportunities: “What I’m hearing from my peer group is that everybody is sitting on fat inventories,” Kan says. “You’ve got the orders, but people just don’t want them shipped quite yet because they can’t get all the parts. When the supply chain gets solved, a lot of money will start to flow back in as people feel confident in taking all the parts. There’s still a lot of cautiousness out there, but we have some really big projects that look like they’re going to start to come in, so I’m bullish on this year.”

Kan notes that Bishop-Wisecarver is also seeing more use of their products in the field robotics space. “You’re out in the environment,” she says. “It’s hot, or it’s cold, and it’s dirty. It’s a great space for our technologies and also driven by the tight labor market. You have to have people out in the field. If you can’t get people out in the field, then you have to figure out how to farm without them. That’s driving a lot of innovation in field robotics, and we have a growing group of customers that are taking on that challenge.”

Additionally, a redesign of the company’s building to better operate in the event of another pandemic as well better accommodate an increasingly hybrid workforce has freed up space on the facility’s top floor for an in-house customer training program. “We can comfortably train 80 people at a time in Bishop-Wisecarver University,” Kan says. “We’re going to be providing factory training for our customers, and we’re excited to use that space more and more.”

Needs: Kan believes that her company’s home state of California needs to better balance its desire to lead the world on environmental regulation and policies with the need for a healthy, growing economy. “A lot of manufacturers are fleeing the state,” she says. “And they’re not necessarily going far, maybe to Idaho, Montana, Utah, Arizona, or Texas. They’re going to lower regulation, lower tax, and lower cost of living states.”

She continues, “I get the sense that [the legislators] cheer when some of these people leave. But if you really care about the economy, you shouldn’t be cheering that you made it so punitive. And is it better for a manufacturer to leave the state and go somewhere else where they can actually pollute more? Instead, we should be creating an environment as a state where we lead and show the world how to manufacture in the greenest way and make it a success.”


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