Bob Douglas &
Former General Manager Reflects On One of Janesville's Longstanding Manufacturing Companies
Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen
"We installed 1,500 robots worldwide at a time when that probably equaled about 50% of the robots in the entire world! " ~ Bob Douglas
Bob Douglas - photo by Teresa Nguyen
Author's Note: What an honor to sit down with Bob and Virginia Douglas in their beautiful east side home in Janesville. Bob spoke with a passion and enthusiasm about the work he and his fellow teammates had accomplished at Gilman Engineering. One could see the pride in his twinkling eyes and those big smiles as he recalled the company's ingenuity and progress over the years.
But, even more impressive to me was that Bob, well into his eighth decade, is still pursuing hobbies of the mind like creating beautiful watercolor paintings and crunching numbers, working alongside his son to find mathematical solutions to global warming. He noted, "I dig deeply into the mathematics of solar energy and wind energy." Bob Douglas' sense of purpose truly inspires. He is living proof that a brilliant mind and a caring heart never rests!
Robert (Bob) Douglas
U.S. Army Veteran
Retired Controls Engineer and Inventor
Former General Manager of Gilman Engineering, Janesville, WI
Former President of Engineering Systems Division for Litton Industries, KY
Former President of Triple A - Advanced Assembly Automation, OH
Former Cedar Crest Board Chairman
Former Sustainable Committee Member for Janesville City Council
Former Janesville Historic Commission Member
Service Years and Education
After graduating from high school, I served two years in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957. In the Army, I was assigned to what later became the Huntsville, Alabama NASA Center, and I was there when they brought over numerous German scientists. 92 German families came to live in northern Alabama.
That was an interesting experience. It was only less than ten years after WWII, so the Germans were not well received.
After my service, I returned home and attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison, with a specialty in Nuclear Physics. I worked on accelerators in graduate school, using the kind of equipment that SHINE is using today.
Bob Douglas - Serving in the US Army in the 1950s
(As Told by Virginia Douglas)
I was going to a school attached to a teacher’s college, where they had student teachers all the time. They decided that they would let us out an hour early on Wednesday afternoon.
I went over to a church and he was there, fooling around. And I thought to myself, “What a character. I got such a kick out of him.”
My friends convinced me to go to City High School in Whitewater, because it was “a lot more fun”. I told my parents about it and they agreed. They were very supportive. Then, I met him again in one of my classes.
We went out for the first time on New Year’s Eve to a dance at the Armory in Whitewater. My folks brought me to the place and dropped me off. When we left the dance, we took a long walk. I still remember that. Then my folks came out and picked me up when it was over. From 1949 up to now, we have gone out every New Year’s Eve!
We went to college together for the first two years, then he entered the U.S. Army. He wrote to me all the time from where he was stationed down south.
My dad drove me down, one time, with my engagement ring in hand. After Bob returned, we were married in 1957.
By then, I had my degree in Elementary Education. I taught in Whitewater, Madison and Fort Atkinson. When we came to Janesville, I was pregnant and stayed home.
Jan Graper had Graper’s Preschool in the Harmony Circle area and she asked me if I’d like to come work there. I taught there part-time and it was a beautiful job.
Bob’s First Janesville Job
During college, I was a co-op student at Parker Pen and was hired by the company in 1962. I worked for Parker Pen for seven years.
In 1969, I joined Gilman Engineering and my first job there was as a Controls Engineer. At the time, there were only about 40 people employed there.
History of Gilman Engineering
The Beginning - Lathes and Four-in-One Tool Room Machines
Bob & Virginia Douglas
An employee badge from the 1940s
belonging to Ross Knox
Courtesy of Jim Schultz
A page from a Gilman Engineering Works catalogue
1936 - Gilman Engineering Works was founded by George Gilman and his 16-year-old son, Russell T. Gilman. The company began in Janesville, WI, as a manufacturer of small lathes.
1939 - A four-in-one tool room machine was introduced.
1941 - At the beginning of World War II, Russell ran the company with a mostly female staff in support of the war, producing products used by the U.S. Navy. Gilman's tool room machine was selected by the U. S. Government for ships essential to the war effort.
During the war, Janesville’s Parker Pen created fuses to be used by the U.S. military. George Gilman had been chief engineer at Parker Pen. In a kind of partnership, they joined forces creating the Gilman Engineering Company.
1946 - The firm changed names to Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing Co. The same year, Gilman Engineering moved into its new building.
1948 - George and Russell Gilman, father and son, sold their interest in Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing Corporation to three Parker Pen executives: Kenneth Parker, Bruce Jeffris and P.J.E. Wood of Janesville. They then changed its product line to automatic assembly machinery.
1950 - Russell Gilman moved to Milwaukee and started Taylor Corp, partnering with George Gilman and W.J. Allen. In 1952, the Milwaukee company became Russell T. Gilman Inc.
The former Gilman building, now ANGI Energy Systems LLC at 305 W. Delavan Drive, Janesville, WI
New Era of Growth
1955 - John Draeger joined Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing Co. in Janesville, Wisconsin, as a design engineer.
1963 - Janesville’s Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing was sold by Parker Pen and purchased by Gisholt Machine Co. of Madison, WI. Gisholt paid very little for the company, as there was no way to predict how successful the company would become.
1966 - Gisholt was bought by and became a division of Giddings & Lewis of Fond du Lac, WI.
1969 - John Draeger was promoted to Vice President of Operations. Gilman had grown to around 40 employees. Bob Douglas joined Gilman Engineering as a Controls Engineer.
1973 - John Draeger was appointed Vice President and General Manager of the division. Mr. Draeger invested much of his life in Gilman and the co-workers alongside him.
1970s – Bob Douglas became Chief Controls Engineer.
An early Gilman Robot designed by Bob Douglas.
The drawing and robot photo hang in a frame in his home office.
1970 - Gilman makes the cover of the Automotive Industries magazine
Soon Douglas became Vice President of Engineering.
The expertise at that time was in creating machines to make automotive air conditioning compressors, brakes and a lot of different automotive products. At one point, it was estimated that Gilman was engineering and adapting the most robots in the world!
Testing was one of the company’s strengths, making sure the machines and robots worked as they should.
Prosperity and Expansion
The Janesville company prospered and expanded for the next two decades and, at its peak, had just over 600 employees. Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing was the second largest employer in Janesville, just behind General Motors and ahead of Mercy.
1987 - Mr. John Draeger retired from Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing. After he passed away in 2010, his obituary stated, “He loved his work and valued and supported those with whom he worked.”
"I loved my work (at Gilman) and valued and supported those with whom I worked."
~ The late John Draeger, former Vice President and General Manager
An engineering scholarship was set up in Mr. Draeger’s name, benefiting countless Janesville students entering the field of engineering.
1980s through early 2000s - The Gilman company held annual events the whole family could enjoy, such as Gilman Children's Christmas parties at the Jefferis Theater in the earlier days and at Kandu Industries in later years. The adults would often attend a holiday dinner & dance outing, as well.
In summers, there were annual Gilman Company Picnics with fun for the whole family.
Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing split into two divisions: Gilman Engineering division focused on machinery for transportation and NothelferGilman, Inc., focused on the bodies of vehicles.
1999 - Gillman Engineering & Manufacturing Co. LLC in Janesville was integrated into the Tyssenkrupp group of companies known as Johann A. Krause, (out of Dusseldorf, Germany). In spite of some layoffs, the company continued to supply high-quality products, such as machine automation robots.
The name was changed to Thyssenkrupp Systems Engineering, Inc. (TKSE), supplying Janesville engineered robots around the globe, across North America, Europe, Asia and South America.
2004 - In June, Thyssenkrupp shockingly announced it was closing its shop assembly area, letting go of around 95 shop employees.
An excited child of a Gilman employee
at the Gilman Family Christmas event
2008 - Janesville’s General Motors plant was shut down. During the recession, like many companies of Janesville, the Thyssenkrupp company (formerly Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing) downsized even further.
2009 - New Thyssenkrupp layoffs whittled the company to about a dozen employees, mostly engineers, leaving little need for the larger building on Delavan Drive. The company was relocated to Capital Circle on Janesville’s east side.
The Thyssenkrupp company continued to supply manufacturers with automation assembly programmed by Janesville engineers, installed in locations far and wide.
A Thyssenkrupp (formerly Gilman) programmed robot
used for automotive manufacturing
2017 - At the end of 2017, Thyssenkrupp closed down the Janesville engineering branch.
A New Start
2018 - A new, separate company, Gilman Engineered Solutions, LLC, was formed under David Nehlsen and others, which included all former employees of the original Gilman Engineering and Manufacturing. The company has continuously grown since its inception.
2022 - Gilman Engineered Solutions, located on Capital Circle in Janesville, Wisconsin, currently provides integrated automated assembly systems, service and support to the customers. The company is comprised of a leadership team, a variety of experienced engineers, and a customer service team. Gilman Engineered Solutions of Janesville continues to provide specialty products, mainly to the automotive industry.
Over the years Gilman has provided countless custom-built automated assembly machines for various industries around the world.
The Gilman name continues to represent a quality business model committed to leading-edge engineering and an unwavering dedication to the customers.
Gilman Engineered Solutions
Interview with Bob Douglas Continued
Computer Controlled Machines and PLC
During the 1970s, Gilman wanted to use computer control on their machines. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. After working as a Controls Engineer, I then became Chief Controls Engineer and then Vice President of Engineering.
Giddings & Louis was interested in using computer controls, also. It was good publicity for this business and the marketing departments were all over it. At that time, there was no such thing as a microcomputer or a PC (personal computer).
Then, a division of General Motors, the old Hydro-Matic division, wrote the specifications for something called PLC (Programmable Logic Control). Gilman pushed us into that area, so we became the #1 user of PLCs. Allan Bradley did not have any PLCs and came to us.
They said, “Will you come to us and meet a company in Detroit and tell us about this product and how it’s of value. We want to get into the PLC business.”
So, they flew a couple of us over there. We put more PLCs into the auto industry than any other company!
We made the cover of a lot of automation magazines. I kept some of them. The one cover is an artist’s rendition of me sitting at a desk at Gilman. We became recognized as experienced in using PLCs.
Robotics of Gilman
That took us into the robotics area in the early 1970s. Robotics became programmable and we were the first to put a body welding robot system into the Ford Motor Company out of Kansas City. We were under some restrictions regarding what we could discuss.
Protests started to come out of a General Motors plant in Ohio, against using robots of any kind. Our end of it wasn’t exposed in the newspapers or anything, so we didn’t have to deal with the hassle too much.
An artist's rendition of Bob Douglas programming at Gilman Engineering
The robots we were programming were not replacing people at that time. They were doing the kind of work that the people could not do.
We installed a lot of equipment for General Motors all over the place, but not here in Janesville. We did work for American Motors in Racine-Kenosha, for GM and then for Ford. We also did a fair amount of work for non-automotive companies, like General Electric.
An early Radio Shack personal computer (PC) - 1977
The first robot we programmed for a foreign country was for Volvo in Sweden. We designed and installed about 10 robot systems for Volvo. They were body welding, which was how robots were being used at the time.
We put in 1500 robots worldwide at a time when that probably equaled about 50% of the robots in the entire world! Gilman had more robot installations than any other robot installers in the world!
I think I bought the first PC in Janesville from Radio Shack. I taught my son, who graduated from Craig, to use it and he went off to MIT.
He was introduced to the New York press as the architect for the world’s fastest computer, at the time. It was huge. He had built it with 16,000 small computers. Each one of them did a small part of the work and the computers communicated with the others!
I stayed with Gilman for 17 years, eventually becoming General Manager and running the company for three to four years.
One interesting thing to note is that Bill Jezo, who was an engineer at Gilman, and I had a joint patent. Bill recently died, but our patent is being referenced a lot by people working on autonomous vehicles and electric cars and such. If the patent is useful for a lot of people, they can reference it in their work and in their own patent applications. It is older than 17 years, so the patent has run out, but the technology remains the same.
I left Gilman to become the President of Engineering Systems Division for Litton Industries, a major corporation headquartered in California, but I was working out of northern Kentucky. We stayed in Janesville while our two boys were in high school, not wanting to move them around. So, we moved to Kentucky once the youngest was a senior in college. I stayed with Litton for 6 years.
After that I went to a company that had been started by former Gilman employees in Dayton, Ohio, called Triple A - Advanced Assembly Automation. Ultimately, I became President of that company. I worked there until my retirement.
Returning to Janesville
We thought we wanted to return to Janesville, even though our kids weren’t here anymore. My mother was living in Whitewater, so we could be close to her, as well.
I reconnected with a group of former Gilman executives who all got together regularly to have breakfast. We still get together, though we’ve dwindled in the size of the group and the pandemic has interrupted our plans. By comparison, I’m pretty old, but one of the guys, Tom Taylor, is 95 and is a WWII veteran of the Navy. He is quite an interesting guy.
We bought our current house in 2002. While living in Ohio, we also bought a cottage in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, and we still enjoy going up there.
Painting and Mathematics
My emphasis in high school was mathematics. But in the service, I was involved in doing a lot of drawing and that’s where I really developed my drawing skills.
Virginia remembers seeing me sitting and sketching back in high school. Then, years later, sometime around 1970, Virginia had seen me drawing again and signed me up for watercolor lessons here in Janesville. It was a class taught by an artist named Wayne Gunness, who was also Connie Glowacki’s teacher. We were some of his earliest students! That’s where I developed my interest in watercolor.
I think the first Christmas card I painted was in 1970 and I’ve pained a Christmas card every year since. Virginia has kept all of them!
I don’t paint as much as I would like to. My preferred medium is watercolor and I have been keeping up with it for many years. I painted even when I was younger and working.
Another hobby of mine is to work with my son on doing mathematical studies on global warming. Unfortunately, some of the solutions currently offered are not practical.
I dig deeply into the mathematics of solar energy and wind energy, much to Virginia’s chagrin, as it zaps a lot of my time.
A watercolor painting by Bob Douglas
Janesville Business Community
It’s interesting that SHINE is using atomic accelerators for radio isotopes. When I was at UW Madison, I worked on things in the accelerator department, and I know just what they’re working on at that company.
As far as business goes, I’m really glad to see that the new head of Forward Janesville, Angela Pakes, is a technology engineer, a geologist, a geophysicist and a university researcher. That’s a good sign for Janesville! Having an engineer head up Forward Janesville is really great.
I had worked rather closely on promoting Gilman with John Beckord, former CEO of Forward Janesville. I tried to arrange a meeting between the high school industrial tech teachers and the Blackhawk Technical College, bringing in an educational speaker from Chicago.
A watercolor painting by Bob Douglas
But that never materialized, as the teachers, at the time, weren’t interested.
Today, new businesses are coming in here, which is a sign that people are looking at Janesville as a viable place to startup businesses.
I’m pretty optimistic about Janesville’s future!
We have two great sons. Our oldest son, David, went to MIT and ended up working for a computer company out of Boston. Now he’s consulting in the high tech, automatically guided vehicle industry. Our son, Peter, is president of a North American division of an English company that works with insurance companies.
During the pandemic we were so thankful for Zoom! We were able to talk to all the family and kind of “be together” that way at Christmas. We’ve seen them all since things improved somewhat.
We have 5 grandchildren, two in Chicago and three in Concord, Massachusetts. We’re thankful for being close to our son in the Chicago area and we do get to see the other son, as well.
I have done a lot of traveling around the world for business and with Virginia. But I’d say our place in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, is a favorite. We’ve had fun summers with the grandkids at the cabin.
Virginia & Bob Douglas (seated in center), their sons Peter & David (standing behind Virginia & Bob) and the growing family
Every year they would come up and go boating and fishing and have lots of fun. The children are all delightful to be around.
We’ve been very blessed!
Three Lakes, Wisconsin - photo by Debra Schultz