Master Machine Manufacturing – Featured Customer

Master Machine Manufacturing, or MMM USA, is a family-owned and operated machine shop based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Master Machine is a rapidly expanding company which has seen serious growth as both a job shop and as an OEM Manufacturer of their own Quick Vise Handles and Piranha Jaws for CNC machinists.

Brothers Geordan and Nace Roberts, along with their mother, Sherry Roberts, are the owners of Master Machine Manufacturing. With Geordan and Nace, we dove into topics like having a growth mindset, working smarter instead of harder, and expanding a “job shop” business while also creating and manufacturing their own OEM products.

Tell us a little about Master Machine’s history and the type of work that your company does.

Geordan: Master Machine has been in business since 1981. Our father, George Roberts, started the business. At the beginning it was a pretty typical manual machine shop operating primarily as a job shop. As Nace and I got older, Dad introduced us to the business and we started working there part-time, eventually transitioning into full-time employees. In 1996, we transitioned to high precision machining with our first CNC machine – a Haas VF1, and we kept adding new CNC machines from there.

Nace and I took over in 2013 after our Dad passed. We had to make the transition from managers and shop foreman to owners and dealing with customers. We now own and operate the business with our mother, Sherry Roberts.

master machine

Geordan, Nace, Sherry, and the rest of the MMM USA team at IMTS with Mark Terryberry from Haas Automation

At its core, Master Machine is a job shop that does a lot of high precision machining. We work on things like lab test equipment, parts for the aerospace industry, and a lot of parts for the oil and gas industry. More medical jobs and odd things like parts for off-road racing have started to come in recently as well. One cool thing about us is that we have the unique ability to operate as a job shop, but also to design and manufacture our own products. Many of your readers have probably seen some of our vise handles and jaws in use online, especially on Instagram.

Your MMM USA Jaws and Vise Handles have become extremely popular in the CNC machining community. Where did you get the idea for that product?

Geordan: We had been using other brands of vise handles and jaws for a long time and got tired of buying products that were cheap and didn’t work well. We had this idea for a while, so in 2013 when things started to slow down a little bit, we had an opportunity to spend some time and design our own products. It was just about 2 years ago that we designed our first vise handle and Piranha Jaws. After using social media, showing them off at IMTS and other Industrial Trade Shows, they really started to take off. Our vise handles and jaws have really started to become a business of their own over the past couple of years.

vise handle

Can you breakdown the shop for us? What are you working with in terms of shop size, machine capabilities, and software?

Nace: We operate as a 100% debt-free company, so we grow as we need to. We have been at our current location for 10 years with 5-7 different additions along the way. Our shop is now spread across 10,300 square feet.

We currently have 18 CNC milling machines, including our original machine, the 1996 Haas VF1. We have been growing very fast over the past 10 years. From 2004-2007, we only had 3 CNC mills, and we have acquired the other 15 machines all in the last decade. We like buying from companies that make their products right here in the USA, so we have grown our shop through the Haas line of machines. Almost everything we own here is made by Haas Automation. In fact, our Haas VF4 and our 5-axis Haas UMC750 are some of our biggest mills in the shop right now.

Geordan: We also have other capabilities in the shop. We can do welding, painting, surface grinding, and we have a nice setup of bar feeders and lathes. For software, we use a lot of BOBCAD V31 for our 4th and 5th axis mill programming and all of our lathe programming, Nace uses a lot of Autodesk Fusion 360 for the mill side of things.

For inspection, we have many inspection tools, including a Fowler Z-Cat CMM that can measure down to +/- .0002″ for our most high precision jobs.

How did you guys first get involved in manufacturing?

Geordan: I started machining with my Dad at age 13, and got into it full-time after high school, but was not yet fully committed. At this point, I learned manual and CNC machining entirely through working with my Dad and my Uncle.  It wasn’t until my Uncle, the main machinist in our shop, decided to split off and start his own shop that I was faced with a more urgent need to commit to the family business. So I decided to make manufacturing a full time career move and started learning fixturing, programming, and everything I needed to know to be successful. We still have a great relationship with my uncle and his shop and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him stepping out on his own.

Nace: I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I just knew I wanted to make money, and a lot of money. I was actually in college for radiology and physical therapy, but I didn’t like the layout of the career path. I could not convince myself to wait to start making real money until I had finished a long education and received a license 6-8 years down the road.

Instead of physical therapy and radiology, I started taking more computer engineering courses and learned a lot about programming and technology. After my uncle left, I told my Dad I would like to be a bigger part of the business and take what I knew from my computer programming classes and apply it to the shop. Within a year I had gone from never running a CNC to fully doing everything on the machine. My computer programming skills definitely helped me make the transition into CNC machining and programming.

master machine

As a second generation owner of a family business, how do you stick to those family values while also rapidly expanding the business?

Nace: We have grown a lot with our systems and technology, but our culture has also changed since we took over. We educated ourselves on workplace culture and maintaining a positive work environment. When we were kids, Dad worked probably 100 hours a week and we were always fortunate that he was able to provide us with food, clothes, and a roof over our heads. But no matter how hard he worked, he can’t replace the time with us that was spent working.

One of the major improvements we focused on was trying to maintain repeatability. Everything in the shop is labeled in boxes and readily available for our employees. Ultimately, we want to do everything we can to make it easy as possible for our employees. We want to work smarter, not harder, so there is more time for our employees to spend with family and not spend their lives in the shop.

As owners, we often need to work odd hours of the day to maintain the business, but we do it in a way that makes sure we have our family time. There are many times where we will go home, have dinner and hang out with the family, and wait until they are all sleeping to go back to work until 2 or 3 a.m.. We will get back home later that morning to sleep a little and have breakfast with the family and send them on their way before heading back in to the shop.

Working with family, we have to remind ourselves that business is business, and outside of business it is all about family. It can be tough to differentiate those two, but you have to. We went to business counseling and learned how to respect family members and build up the team while also making tough business decisions. We have our tough moments at the shop, but at the end of the day this is still your family. You can’t carry any frustration with other family members outside of those shop doors and into the home.

mmm usa piranha jaws

What are some other things you have done to maintain your “Work Smarter, Not Harder” mantra?

Geordan: One of the first things we did was look into getting more tooling and better tooling. We paid more for tools that can push harder and faster, and last longer. When Dad ran the shop, he would just buy whatever he thought we could afford and still get the job done. Now as CNC technology and advanced CAM systems have improved, the need for quality tooling is extremely important. Finding the best and most reliable tools helped take our shop to the next level and that is where Harvey Tool and Helical come into play.

Nace: We like to be the “purple cow” of the industry, differentiating ourselves in any way that we can. We strive to maintain a certain level of quality across our website, our Instagram page, our products, and the entire business as a whole. We are proud to support products made in the USA and keep supporting American manufacturing to help keep the business thriving in our shop and others. We are always happy to support companies like Haas, Harvey Tool, Helical, and many others who are doing it all right here in the USA.

What are some of your “go-to” Harvey Tool and Helical products?

Geordan: The Helical Chipbreaker End Mill for Aluminum is key for making our vise handles. We use the ½” end mill and run it at 10k RPM, 300 IPM with a .700” DOC and 40% stepover. We can push those tools harder than others while also maintaining our product’s quality. We also rely heavily on Helical’s HEV-5 for our steel applications.

One of our favorite and most-used tools is the Harvey Tool 90 Degree Helically Fluted Chamfer Mill. We use the 3-flute style on everything that isn’t Aluminum because we can simply push it faster and harder than anything else that we have tried.

master machine

Nace: We actually keep a ton of other Harvey Tool and Helical products in our Autocrib. It made sense for us to get an inventory system, and we got a great deal on a system during the recession. Industrial Mill & Maintenance Supply got us hooked up with an Autocrib and a ton of tools, and they have been great at supplying it whenever we need more. It has helped a lot having an inventory system like that. It is reassuring to know that we have the best tools ready on hand so we can eliminate any potential downtime.

Master Machine is everywhere in the online machining community, specifically on Instagram. How has online marketing and social media changed the way you promote your business?

Geordan: Most people who run businesses seem to just hope that the word of mouth gets out there, or they have a website and hope it just goes viral one day and gets some attention. With the way the Internet is so crowded these days, you have to do something more to stand out. On our side, we have boosted our business through the use of paid online advertising with Google, boosting our SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to rank higher in search results, and being heavy users of social media like Instagram.

When I started the Master Machine Instagram account, I was really just using it to see what other machinists were doing. It was actually only a personal account for my use. I was skeptical of Instagram because of the Facebook community of machinists. I always viewed Facebook as a little more negative and less productive, while the Instagram community was much more collaborative.

mmm usa

I started by following people like Aeroknox, Kalpay, John Saunders, Bad Ass Machinists, and Tactical Keychains. I immediately noticed how helpful everyone was. I started posting as a business just about 2 years ago, when I posted our first version of the vise handles. Almost immediately people started asking to buy them. We were blown away by the response.

We didn’t set out to create something new with these handles, but by getting our name out there and filling a need for people following us, the hype continued to grow and grow and grow. Instagram has been a great tool for that aspect of the business, especially. We now have around 15 distributors across the US who are carrying our products, and are getting some great momentum. We also sell a lot of our products direct on our website, and 99% of that probably comes through Instagram.

Nace: We have actually landed distributors through someone following us online and going to their integrated distributor asking for our products. The distributor then called us and asked if they could carry our product on their shelves. Other online connections have also helped us land distributors through simple messages and phone calls.

Where do you see MMM USA in 10 years?

Nace: That’s a tough question…

At the shop, we always stress four major actions: Define, Act, Measure, and Refine. In our eyes, there are always better ways to do things and improve our processes. We hire people to have a growth mindset, and so we are redefining our future every day through our continual improvement process. We strive to always have that growth mindset to figure out how to do a job more efficiently. With constant improvement always taking place, it is hard to nail down exactly where the shop will be in 10 years, 5 years, or even 1 year from now. One thing is for sure – we will be successful.

Geordan: Something we do want to focus on is creating new assets, exploring new ventures, and doubling in size every year. We want to continue to release new products to build out our own product line and have MMM USA distributors worldwide.

Back in the day, Kurt Workholding was just a job shop, and now they are one of the most recognized workholding brands in the CNC machining industry. It is really hard to say where this ends or goes, but we think we have a bright future as both a job shop and as a supplier of our own OEM products for manufacturing.

vise handles

Are you currently hiring new machinists? If so, what qualities and skills do you look for?

Geordan: Every Tuesday we have an open interview at 4 PM. As you can imagine, with our company’s growth, we are constantly hiring. We are looking for people that are positive that have a growth mindset who can grow within the company. We always believe we can promote from within. Most of our people have been at Master Machine for 10-15 years because we can always move people up closer to the top and help them advance in their careers as we grow.

Nace: We are really focused on finding people with good attitudes, and people who want to be here. Skilled machinists are great, but they can be rare, so attitude and fitting in with the culture is huge. We can always take a good attitude and train the skill level up, but we can’t take a good skill level and change the bad attitude. We want team members who will coach each other up and help improve the team as a whole. We love working together and supporting the business together in every aspect of the business.

master machine

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Geordan: We really like “Notable Quotables.” Here are a couple of our favorites.

“The pen is for remembering, and the mind is for making decisions.”

We only have so much brain power to make crucial decisions, so we write all the day-to-day action items down on our checklists to make sure nothing is left undone. That frees our minds up from having to remember every little piece of the business so we can save that brain power for strategic decision making moments. We must be proactive and not reactive as we lead our team.

Nace: “Your employees want to follow someone who is always real, and not always right.”

As a leader, you need to take responsibility when you screw up, and be open with the team. Let them be a part of fixing the problem, and approach every situation looking at the positive.


Would you like to be considered for a future “Featured Customer” blog? Click here to submit your information.

Fleet Machine Co. – Featured Customer

Fleet Machine Co. was founded in 2010 to dramatically outperform other contract manufacturers by fusing advanced machine tools, automation and custom software to achieve what they call “Zero Manufacturing”. The team at Fleet Machine take pride in their ability to produce zero defects, zero missed delivery dates, carry zero part and material inventory, and maintain zero process inefficiencies. Every strategic decision and investment that they make is based on this philosophy of eliminating waste and human error from the manufacturing process.

For Manufacturing Day 2018, the team at Fleet Machine hosted several shop tours for Harvey Performance Company employees. Employees across all departments from Customer Service and Marketing to Finance and Accounting were given a in-depth tour of Fleet Machine’s manufacturing process. Josh Pregent, co-owner of Fleet Machine, was kind enough to host the tours at his shop and talk to us for this post. We talked with Josh about manufacturing automation, the challenges of obtaining AS9100/ISO9001 certification for your business, and the advantages of different milling machine types.

Thanks for hosting our team at your shop. It was a great tour! To get started, tell us a little bit about Fleet Machine’s history, and what sort of products you typically manufacture.

Fleet Machine Co. was incorporated in 2010 in Gloucester, MA to manufacture precision components for the Aerospace, Defense, Medical, and Robotics industries. Fleet’s emphasis on quality, customer service, and professionalism quickly distinguished us from other manufacturers and allowed us to outgrow our original location and expand to our current location. Since our inception, we have devoted our company to automating manufacturing and business processes to minimize human interaction and error in the manufacturing process. Our ultimate goal is to completely eliminate all human involvement in production. This may seem like a lofty goal, but you have to have dreams!

Fleet Machine

How did you first get involved in manufacturing?

My business partner and I both worked in a machine shop while we were in college and instantly became interested in manufacturing. Over the years, we advanced through the different facets of manufacturing, learning everything we could. In 2010 we seized an opportunity and decided to branch out on our own to start Fleet Machine.

Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to open their own shop?

Opening your own shop involves more than knowing how to program and machine. You also need to be willing to sacrifice some of your free time by working long hours to build your business from the ground up. Being a great machinist is important, but you also need to understand the basics of business, and you need to be able to sell your service and maintain a certain level of quality to keep your customers coming back.

We saw a good mix of machine types while walking around the shop floor. What sort of machines and software do you have here in the shop?

Fleet currently has three two axis turning centers, four three axis VMCs (Vertical Milling), one mill/turn with sub-spindle, and two HMCs (horizontal milling) with sixteen work stations each. It is a long list, but the specific types of machines we have in our facility are listed below. For software, we use a custom Salesforce CRM module, E2 MRP, and Mastercam 2019 for programming.

CNC MILLING

  • (2) Akari-Seiki 450i HMC 27 x 26 x 25 X, Y, Z Travel, dual 400mm pallets, 15,000 RPM, through spindle coolant, 80 tools
  • (2) Mori-Seiki MV-40E VMC 22 x 16 x 18” X, Y, Z Travel, 20 tools, 8000 RPM
  • (1) Mori-Seiki MV-40B VMC 31 x 16 x 20” X, Y, Z Travel, 20 tools, 8000 RPM
  • (1) Haas VF-2 VMC 30 x 16 x 20” X, Y, Z Travel, 25 tools, 10,000 RPM

CNC TURNING

  • (1) Mori-Seiki SL-15 5000 RPM, 9” maximum turning diameter x 16” maximum length
  • (1) Yama-Seiki GA-2000 6000 RPM, 13” maximum turning diameter x 20” maximum length, programmable tailstock, tool setter
  • (1) Doosan Puma 240MSB 6000 RPM, 11” maximum turning diameter, 18” maximum length, dual spindle, live tooling, C-axis milling, tool setter, part catcher/part conveyor
  • (1) Mori-Seiki CL-200 4000 RPM, 11” Maximum turning diameter, 12” maximum length

fleet machine

How has the mill/turn CNC machine helped you speed up production? Would you recommend it to others?

Our mill/turn machine has helped us increase production by reducing our setup time. There is no longer a need to remove a turned part, get it over to a mill, and set everything up again. Most basic milling operations can be performed on the mill/turn machine, so it is a great time saver.

We would definitely recommend this type of machine to other shops. Ultimately, we highly recommend any machine/software/process/ancillary equipment that eliminates or reduces human labor. Manufacturing is a ruthlessly competitive, tech-driven industry and the failure to invest in technology of this type exposes you to over reliance on expensive, scarce, and potentially unreliable human labor and possible obsolescence.

You also have both horizontal milling centers (HMCs) and vertical milling centers (VMCs). What has been your experience with both, and do you prefer one style over the other?

In my opinion, HMCs are superior to VMCs in every respect due to the additional axis, superior chip evacuation, greater load capacity, and the ability to run unattended with pallet pools. VMCs are still useful for simple jobs and rapid prototyping, but for high production runs we lean on the HMCs to get the job done.

Fleet Machine

What have been some of your keys to success for expanding the business and growing your shop to take on more work?

Fleet Machine provides a superior product in terms of quality and value and uses automation and poke yoke techniques to streamline processes and eliminate the possibility of error.

We noticed the banner hanging in the shop celebrating your AS9100/ISO9001 certification. How important has that been in your manufacturing process?

Having an AS9100/ISO9001-certified quality system will improve every aspect of your organization while eliminating waste, improving product quality, and improving OTD. Imposing the discipline required to attain certification on your company will reveal inefficiencies that you never realized existed.

Do you have any advice for shops looking to try and get their AS9100/ISO9001 certification?

It is easily worth the investment but it requires attention to detail, extensive documentation, focus on constant improvement, and a real commitment from all employees. It needs to govern every aspect of your business, from the quoting process to shipping. If you don’t have someone who is extremely organized and enjoys data collection, measurement, and documentation, or employees who aren’t compliant or don’t understand the value of certification, it probably isn’t for you.

Fleet Machine

Who are some of your key customers?

Some of our key customers (the ones we can name) include Hill-Rom, United Technologies Corp, Rockwell, and B/E Aerospace. We do work under NDAs for some projects so we cannot reveal all of our customers, but they are heavily skewed to the Aerospace, Medical, Robotics, and Defense industries.

How do Harvey Tool products help Fleet Machine stay at the top of their game?

Harvey Tool products are an integral part of what we do, from the quoting process through finishing. Fleet relies on the tooling engineers and technical support team at Harvey to help us produce parts that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to make.

What skills or qualities do you look for when hiring a new machinist?

Fleet Machine has a robust training program for all new employees. We look for important soft skills such as good written and verbal communication, reliability, a positive attitude, the ability to work as part of team, and basic computer skills. We have found that people with this combination of attributes rapidly surpass people with machining skills who lack these qualities.

Being well-rounded is important as an employee in any business, but as manufacturing progresses to become more and more technology-based it will be important to hire machinists with computer skills and technological know-how to stay ahead of your competitors.


Would you like to be considered for a future “Featured Customer” blog? Click here to submit your information.

Liberty Machine – Featured Customer

Liberty Machine, Inc. is a small Aerospace and Defense-focused machine shop located out of owner Seth Madore’s garage in Gray, Maine. In just a few years, Liberty Machine has transformed from a side hustle into a full-fledged machine shop with customers all over the world.

We were given the chance to visit Seth at his shop in Maine and interview him for this post. We picked Seth’s mind about entrepreneurship, the online manufacturing community, some interesting home construction choices made to accommodate a machine shop, and more.

Thanks for having us come out and visit the shop for this Featured Customer post. To get started, tell us a little bit about Liberty Machine’s history, and what sort of products you typically manufacture.

I founded Liberty Machine, Inc. out of my garage about 6 years ago while I was still working full-time at one of Maine’s largest (and best) Aerospace and Defense shops. I was working close to around 80-100 hours a week, maintaining my full-time job as well as coming home and making chips in the evenings and weekends. At first, I was doing a lot of smaller pieces and one-off parts, such as fixtures and prototype work to help build up a customer base and make enough money to eventually upgrade my machine.

In the early years, I was using an old 1982 Matsuura MC-500 Mill that I picked up for around $6,000. I used that machine to generate enough cash flow and eventually pull the trigger on a 2015 DMG Mori Duravertical 5100 with a 4th axis, probing and high-pressure coolant which really allowed me to take on the type of aerospace and defense work I had been doing at my day job and make the leap into full time entrepreneurship in my own shop. Now, we have the capabilities to focus on aerospace and defense work for major clients all over the country.

We are still working out of my garage, with myself and one other employee, but there are hopes for further expansion in the future as we acquire more work and expand our customer base. If you want to keep up with our shop, follow us on Instagram @liberty_machine!

Liberty Machine

You have a great shop here and are definitely maximizing the space. How much square footage are you working with?

Currently, we are working out of a 940 sq/ft shop. We “technically” have room for one more CNC mill if we really squeezed things together. I don’t think that is in the cards though; it is more likely that we will move to a larger space if and when the time comes for expansion. Heat management and air quality are real issues when working in small spaces with low ceilings, which is something we deal with currently.

What sort of machines and software do you have here in the shop?

For now, we have two VMC’s and a decent amount of inspection equipment. We have the DMG Mori machine I previously mentioned, as well as a 2016 Kitamura-3XD. Both machines have 12k spindles, Renishaw probes, and feature coolant through spindles.

For inspection equipment, we have a 2014 Mitutoyo QM-Height 350 Digital Height Gage, a 2003 Brown & Sharpe Gage 2000 CMM with Renishaw MIP Articulating Probe Head, and a 2003 Mitutoyo PH-A14 Optical Comparator. We also recently acquired a Scienscope Stereo/Digital microscope. This allows us to perform visual inspection of our parts at an extreme amount of detail.

Liberty Machine

There are still holes in our inspection lineup, so we are always looking at adding onto what we do to provide our customers with quality machined products.

For CAD/CAM software, we use Autodesk’s Fusion 360 as well as Inventor HSM.

You mentioned using Fusion 360 for CAD/CAM. Some of our readers may know you from the Autodesk CAM forums as an “Autodesk Expert Elite.” How did that come together?

About 4-5 years ago, I knew I needed a legal, supported, capable CAM solution. After several “30-day trials” of the more affordable packages, I stumbled upon Fusion 360. Having a fair amount of experience with Esprit and MasterCAM, I taught myself Fusion 360 in between running my shop and trying to spend what little time I had with my wife and children. Even though I had prior experience in other CAM packages, I still had lots of questions. I turned to the Fusion CAM Forums for assistance. The employees and other users were excellent to work with and got me sorted out quickly.

Liberty Machine

After I became more comfortable with the Fusion 360 software, I decided to spend some of my free time helping others by answering their questions on the forums. I wanted to give back to the community that had helped me learn. Autodesk eventually took notice of my constant presence on the forums and granted me the title of “Autodesk Expert Elite,” an honor given to some of their most prolific community members and advocates. Now I work with them to help test new features, provide insight from a user’s point of view, and participate in events like Autodesk University.

How did you first get involved in manufacturing?

I will be honest – I never meant to end up working in manufacturing. When I was a teen, I had glamorous ideas about law enforcement, federal work and so forth. But, life doesn’t always work out that way (I met a wonderful girl and goals shifted, so I started looking for alternate career paths).

My friend (future brother-in-law) was a machinist, so I started asking about his work and what it involved. He was working in a “job shop” using all sorts of cool machines and technology I had never really heard about. I was very excited about this career shift and I pursued it with fervor. 19 years later and I still LOVE this trade. The thing that intrigued me most about manufacturing, and the real reason I became so fixated on the trade, was the integral role the machinist plays in every aspect of manufactured society. I believe it is the most fundamental profession there is, and I take great pride in it. The evolution of the trade from manual machining to skilled programmers running CNC machines has always fascinated me as well and has kept pushing me to learn more and continue growing as a machinist.

Liberty Machine

Is it true that you built an addition to your garage specifically for the DMG Mori machine?

That is true! Before I bought the machine, I knew it was going to be too tall for my existing space, and was also going to need a solid foundation to sit on (it weighs 7 tons). Before the machine arrived, I had a concrete slab poured right against the side wall of the existing garage, and placed the DMG Mori on that slab.

After a couple days of unfortunate rain and multiple layers of tarps covering the machine, I had several family members (carpenters by trade) help me build the addition. Ok…I helped them. They were able to get it all framed and covered in just one day, breaking down the side wall of the garage and literally building the new space around the dimensions of the machine. Like they say, if there is a will, there is a way!

Running a shop out of your garage must have been a challenge to startup. What were some of the growing pains you experienced as this shop was built out?

On a professional level, the struggle was real. Two jobs, huge payments on the horizon, wondering where all the work (and money) is going to come from… As I mentioned, at that point, I was working 100 hours a week between the two jobs, and really feeling wiped out at the end of each week. However, the hard work did eventually pay off. Once I was able to get the DMG Mori and prove to customers that I had the capabilities to go full-time on my own, it was all worth it.

Liberty Machine

Outside of that, there were the literal growing pains, like cutting holes in my garage ceiling to fit the column on the Kitamura machine, and of course, building an addition to house the DMG. But like I said, it was all worth it in the end to own my own shop.

What is the best thing about working for yourself?

I’d say the best thing about working out of my shop (and for myself) is seeing my family on a daily basis. Yes, I still work 60-70 hours a week, but to have breakfast with them each morning before our day starts and have the flexibility to shift schedules around for doctor visits and other “life stuff” is worth its weight in gold. We are all so busy in life and I think we suffer as a society because of it. I want my children to know what it’s like to have a parent that is around. Busy, yes. But still present.

You mentioned that you had used a lot of Harvey and Helical tools at your last job. However, once you were on your own, you could choose any tooling you wanted to use. What made you stick with the Harvey Performance Company brands as your go-to tools?

The thing with Harvey Tool and Helical products that keep me coming back is the consistency of quality. I know that when I buy one of these tools, I am going to get a high-performing tool that has gone through multiple levels of inspection and is consistently ground within the tight tolerances that were promised. I honestly cannot remember a single time I have had to send any Harvey or Helical tools back for quality issues.

Liberty Machine

I tell friends and others in the manufacturing community about the tools, and the hurdle is always getting them to look past the slightly higher cost. That additional cost is always worth the payoff in the end knowing that you have a tool that will produce quality parts and shave valuable minutes off your cycle times. The slightly higher cost of the Harvey/Helical product is small change compared to the long term cost savings associated with their performance.

Can you remember a key moment where Harvey Tool/Helical products really saved the day?

Truthfully, Harvey and Helical are my first thought when I’m looking at a challenging feature on a new part. If they offer something that looks like it will work, I don’t even look for an alternative. Order it, get it in house. I’d say where Harvey helps the most is their awesome selection of long reach/stub flute end mills for stainless steel. I cut so much of that, so it’s great to have a vendor stock what is truly needed.

Liberty Machine

Would you recommend entrepreneurship to other young machinists hoping to open their own shop some day?

Yes! But like all things in life, “It depends.” Entrepreneurship is certainly not for everyone. The amount of work required to get a shop rolling and out of “crisis-mode” is insane. There is no other term for it. If you have a significant other in your life, MAKE SURE they are on the same page as you. I am blessed to have a wife by my side who sees the end goal and is understanding of the sacrifice needed in the short-term for the long-term benefit of our family.

What advice might you want to give to someone starting in this trade?

Don’t stop learning. Keep your ears open and your mouth shut. That old guy in the shop has likely forgotten more than you will ever learn. The amount of tools in your Kennedy box doesn’t mean you’re a good machinist. Some of the best toolmakers I knew had small boxes with only the common tools. Learn how to excel with limited resources. Ask questions, and own up to your mistakes.

Form Factory – Featured Customer

Form Factory is a machine shop located in Portland, Oregon focused primarily on prototype work, taking 3D CAD models and making them a physical reality through CNC precision machining. Over the past 14 years, Form Factory has grown from a one man operation with a single CNC mill into a highly respected shop in the Northwest US, making prototype models for clients all over the world. Harvey Tool customers may recognize the name Form Factory from their photo on the front cover of the Fall 2018 Catalog, as they were the first place winners of the #MachineTheImpossible Catalog Cover Contest!

We talked with Brian Ross, Founder/Owner of Form Factory, to learn about how he suggests entrepreneurs and inventors think about prototyping their ideas, his unique experience working on many different models, his winning part in the #MachineTheImpossible contest, and more!

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us for this Featured Customer post. To get started, tell us a little bit about Form Factory, how you got started, and what sort of products you manufacture.

Prior to starting my own business, I had worked as a machinist at 4 different prototyping firms which is where I learned the trade and got the itch to run my own shop. I started Form Factory myself just over 14 years ago with a single Haas VF1. I had no client base and a bunch of loans. It was a scary time for me to jump in to entrepreneurship. Now, we have three CNC machines, various other components and machines, and four full-time employees.

At Form Factory we focus primarily on industrial design models and prototypes. We do a lot of work in the electronics industry, making prototypes of cell phones, laptops, printers, and other consumer electronics. Many of our models are created for display at trade shows or in Kickstarter and other product announcement videos, but we also do a fair share of working prototypes as well. It all depends on what the client wants, and we pride ourselves on the ability to deliver exactly what they need.

form factory

What sort of machines and software do you use in your shop?

We currently have 3 CNC mills – a Haas VF1, Haas VF2, and Haas VF3. We like using machines made in the USA because we like making products in the USA. Haas is what I knew and had run predominantly, and Haas is fairly common in the Northwest so it was easier to find skilled employees in the area who knew these machines well.

We use Mastercam for our CAM software, which is what I learned on. It also seems to be very common in this area which makes for an easy transition for new employees.

form factory

What were some of the keys to success as you built Form Factory from the ground up?

I based much of Form Factory’s business model on my past experiences in manufacturing. Many of the other small companies I had worked for ended up closing, even though the guys on the shop floor would be working lots of overtime and we had plenty of business. What I realized was that these other places often closed because of greed, over-expansion, and rapid growth which they could not sustain. They ended up overextending themselves and they could not keep the doors open as a result.

I like the spot I am in now because while we can certainly expand, we have found a happy medium. We have kept our customers happy and consistently deliver parts on time, so we get a lot of repeat business. Being a small company, word of mouth is one of our only forms of marketing. Word definitely gets around on how you treat people so we try to treat everyone with respect and honesty, which is key to running a good business.

form factory

Working Prototype of a “Smart Ball” Charger for Adidas

Prototype manufacturing is a very competitive segment of this industry. What sets Form Factory apart from the competition?

Understanding how model making relates to industrial design separates us from a typical machine shop. We can take a prototype design or simple drawing and we are able to implement all of the functionality into a prototype model. We do not deal much with the actual production run, which will come later, so we have the ability to focus more on the prototype and a customer’s exact needs to get a product off the ground. This level of expertise and focus sets us apart from your typical shop.

For example, if the model is for photography purposes, a trade show display, or a promotional video, appearance will be key. We will spend more time working on building what we consider to be a true work of art; something that will immediately stand out to the consumer, but may lack in complete functionality. If the client requires a fully functioning prototype, we will spend more time making sure that all of the components work as intended over multiple stages of design. The final result may be a bit “uglier” than a prototype designed for appearance alone, but it will work as intended.

Let’s say I have an idea for a new product. What should I know about getting my design manufactured?

Right now, especially with 3D printing and cheap overseas manufacturing, it can seem very easy to prototype a new product. However, these options are not always the best route to take to get a quality prototype. With 3D printing, you get a huge step down in resolution and quality, although you can save in cost. You can also save on cost by having things made overseas, but the communication can easily breakdown and the quality is often lower. The other factor is that virtually anyone can end up copying your product overseas and you have very little protection against that.

form factory

By going with a local machine shop and sticking with CNC-machined parts, you are guaranteed to get a higher quality finished product with better communication. We do a ton of back and forth communication with our clients to understand their exact design intent. With a prototype, there are often a lot of blanks that need to be filled in to completely understand the product, and we do our best to communicate with the client to deliver the perfect piece, and always on time. Sure, your cost may be higher, but the entire process will be smoother and the time saved on revisions or scrapping poor quality prototypes is invaluable.

It sounds like you guys take a lot of pride in the work you do, which is great!

Absolutely! Our models are all one of a kind works of art. We can take things from the early stages where a client might have an idea drawn on a napkin, all the way to a fully functional piece.

Our goal is always to make parts look like they grew that way. In my opinion, taking a solid block of material and making it into a finished part is truly a work of art. We work hard to determine where the burrs are, what the radiuses are, and how the finish should look, amongst many other variables. We take a lot of pride in the finished appearance and want everyone in the shop to produce the same level of quality as their co-workers. We hold all ourselves and our work to very high standards.

form factory

Finished Laptop Display Models

How has the online machinist community helped your business/changed your thinking/helped you grow as a machinist/business owner?

I follow tons of great machinists and other companies on Instagram.  It’s funny how quick you can get an idea from a simple picture or short video of another project somebody else is working on.  I love machining because after 25 years, I am still learning so much every day.  The machines, the software, and the tooling are changing so fast its hard to keep up.  Every day I see something on Instagram that makes me say “Oh WOW!” or “Hey, I can do my part that way!”  I was machining before there was an internet, so I really appreciate having an on-line community, and body of knowledge to draw from. You can find us on Instagram @FormFactory!

We loved the ball in chain part you created for our #MachineTheImpossible Fall 2018 Catalog Cover contest, and so did our followers, as they voted you into first place. Tell us a little more about that part.

So that piece was something I had been wanting to try for a while to challenge myself. It was not a part for a customer or part of a job, but simply a practice in more complex machining. The entire part was actually machined from one solid piece of aluminum on a 3 axis mill. With some clever fixturing and a few setups, I was able to make it work!

machine the impossible

Harvey Tool’s Tapered and Long Reach End Mills played a huge part in the creation. There would have been no way for me to get at those impossible angles or hard to reach areas without the multiple available dimensions and angles that you guys offer. In total, that piece took me about 20 hours, but it was a great piece to learn with and it definitely paid off in the end! As a small business, getting that exposure and marketing from being on your catalog cover was huge, and we appreciate the opportunity you gave us and the entire machinist community.

To a small business like yours, what did it mean to you to be highlighted on the Fall 2018 catalog cover?

I found out we had won when one of my customer’s emailed me congratulations! I was blown away! Even to be chosen as a finalist was exciting. The Harvey Tool Catalog is the ONE catalog we always have around the shop at the ready. I have been a Harvey fan for two decades, so making the cover of the catalog was pretty awesome!

In your career, how has Harvey Tool helped you #MachineTheImpossible?

Being able to overnight tools straight to the shop on a moment’s notice has saved us too many times to count. Harvey Tool makes some of the most impossible reach tooling; I still don’t know how they do it. ‘Back in the day” I would grind my own relief on an old Deckel. There’s nothing quite like looking for that extra 50 thou of reach and snapping off the tool! Now I let Harvey do ALL of that work for me, so I can focus on the machining. It takes nice tools to make nice parts. If you need tools that are always accurately relieved to just under the tool diameter, crazy sharp, and balanced, then look no further than Harvey Tool.

form factory

If you could give one piece of advice to a new machinist ready to take the #PlungeIntoMachining, what would it be?

Find the ‘Distance to Go’ setting or view on your machine’s control, and hit ‘feed hold’ with the first plunge of every new tool you set, and every new work offset, 100% of the time. It will save your mill and your parts from disaster. Machining is the art of doing thousands of simple things, exactly right and in the right order. The hard part is to keep your focus and pay keen attention through the entire process. Understand how easy it is to make a simple mistake, and how quickly you can be starting over. Allow yourself room for mistakes along the way by triple checking BEFORE your mill lets you know it’s too late. If you have other things on your mind, don’t machine parts.


Would you like to be considered for a future “Featured Customer” blog? Click here to submit your information.

B&R Custom Machining- Featured Customer

B&R Custom Machining is a rapidly expanding aerospace machine shop located in Ontario, Canada, focused primarily on aerospace and military/defense manufacturing. Over the past 17 years, B&R has grown from a 5 person shop with a few manual mills and lathes, into one of Canada’s most highly respected manufacturing facilities, with nearly 40 employees and 21 precision CNC machines.

B&R focuses on quality assurance and constant improvement, mastering the intimacies of metal cutting and maintaining the highest levels of quality through their unique shop management philosophies. They seek to consistently execute on clear contracts through accurate delivery, competitive price, and high quality machined components.

We talked with Brad Jantzi, Co-Founder and Technical Manager of B&R Custom Machining, to learn about how he started in the industry, his experience with High Efficiency Milling, what he looks for most in a cutting tool, and more!

B&R Custom machining

Can you tell us a little bit about how B&R Custom Machining started, and a little background about yourself and the company?

My brother (Ryan Jantzi, CEO/Co-Founder) and I started working in manufacturing back in 2001, when we were just 20/21 years old. We had 5 employees (including ourselves), a few manual mills and lathes, and we were wrapping our parts in newspaper for shipping. We took over from a preexisting shop and assumed their sales and machines.

We bought our first CNC machine in 2003, and immediately recognized the power of CNC and the opportunities it could open up for us. Now, we have 21 CNC machines, 38 employees, and more requests for work than we can keep up with, which is a good thing for the business. We are constantly expanding our team to elevate the business and take on even more work, and are currently hiring for multiple positions if anyone in Ontario is looking for some challenging and rewarding work!

What kind of CNC machines are you guys working with?

Right now we have a lot of Okuma and Matsuura machines, many of which have 5 axis capabilities, and all of them with high RPM spindles. In fact, our “slowest” machine runs at 15k RPM, with our fastest running at 46k. One of our high production machines is our Matsuura LX160, which has the 46k RPM spindle. We use a ton of Harvey Tool and Helical product on that machine and really get to utilize the RPMs.

B&R Custom Machining

What sort of material are you cutting?

We work with Aluminum predominantly, but also with a lot of super alloys like Invar, Kovar, Inconel, Custom 455 Stainless, and lots of Titanium. Some of those super alloys are really tricky stuff to machine. Once we learn about them and study them, we keep a recorded database of information to help us dial in parameters. Our head programmer/part planner keeps track of all that information, and our staff will frequently reference old jobs for new parts.

Sounds like a great system you guys have in place. How did B&R Custom Machining get into aerospace manufacturing?

It is a bit of a funny story actually. Just about 12 years ago we were contacted by someone working at Comdev, which is close to our shop, who was looking to have some parts made. We started a business relationship with him, and made him his parts. He was happy with the work, and so we eventually got involved in his company’s switch division and started to make more and more aerospace parts.

aerospace machining

We immediately saw the potential of aerospace manufacturing, and it promoted where we wanted to go with CNC machining, so it was a natural fit. It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time and seizing the moment. If an opportunity comes up and you aren’t ready for it, you miss it. You have to be hungry enough to see an opportunity, and confident enough to grab it, while also being competent enough to handle the request. So, we took advantage of what we were given, and we grew and went from there.

Who are some of the major players who you work with?

We have great relationships with Honeywell, MDA Brampton, and MDA Quebec. We actually worked on parts for a Mars Rover with MDA that was commissioned by the Canadian Space Agency, which was really cool to be a part of.

Working with large companies like that means quality is key. Why is high quality tool performance important to you?

High quality and superior tool performance is huge. Aside from cutting conditions, there are two quick things that cause poor performance on a tool: tool life and consistency of the tool quality. One without the other means nothing. We all can measure tool life pretty readily, and there is a clear advantage that some tools have over others, but inconsistent quality can sneak up on you and cause trouble. If you have a tool manufacturer that is only producing a quality tool even 95% of the time, that might seem ok, but that means that 5% of the time you suffer something wrong on the machine. Many times, you won’t know where that trouble is coming from. This causes you to pause the machine, investigate, source the problem, and then ultimately switch the tool and create a new program. It becomes an ordeal. Sometimes it is not as simple as manually adjusting the feed knob, especially when you need to rely on it as a “proven program” the next time around.

So, say the probability of a shortcoming on a machine is “x” with one brand of tooling, but is half of that with a brand like Harvey Tool. Sure, the Harvey Tool product might be 10-20% higher in upfront cost, but that pales in comparison to buying cheaper tools and losing time and money due to machine downtime caused by tool failure. The shop rate for an average machine is right around $100/hour, so machine downtime is much more expensive than the added cost of a quality tool.

B&R Custom machining

Inconsistent tool quality can be extremely dangerous to play around with, even outside of machine downtime. We create based on a specific tool and a certain level of expected performance. If that tool cannot be consistent, we now jeopardize an expensive part. The machine never went down, but the part is no good because we programmed based on consistency in tool quality. Again, the cost of scrapped parts heavily outweighs the upfront cost of quality tooling. Tooling is a low cost of what we do here, but poor tooling can cost us thousands versus a few dollars more for quality tools. Too many people focus on the upfront cost, and don’t look downstream through the rest of the process to see how poor quality tooling can affect your business in a much bigger way. We get to see the whole picture because I am involved from cradle to grave, gaining feedback and knowledge along the way.

That’s great feedback Brad, and I think it is important for people to understand what you have laid out here. Speaking of tool performance, have you guys been using High Efficiency Milling techniques in the shop?

Absolutely. We feel that we are on the front edge of efficient milling. We are quite capable of all the latest techniques, as our programmers are well-versed and up to date. For our larger production work, we have programs dialed in that allow us to push the tools to their limits and significantly cut down our cycle times.

What advice would you have for others who are interested in High Efficiency Milling?

Make sure you are smart about using HEM. If we have one-off parts, particularly expensive ones, that do not have time restraints, we want to make sure we have a safe toolpath that will get us the result we want (in terms of quality and cutting security), rather than pushing the thresholds and taking extra time to program the HEM toolpaths. HEM makes total sense for large production runs, but make sure you know when to, and when not to use these techniques to get the most out of HEM.

B&R Custom machining

Have you been using Machining Advisor Pro in your shop when you run Helical end mills?

We have been, and it makes for a great point of reference for the Helical end mills. It has become a part of our new employee training, teaching them about speeds and feeds, how hard they can push the Helical tools, and where the safe zones are. Our more experienced guys also frequent it for new situations where they have no data. Machining Advisor Pro helps to verify what we thought we knew, or helps us get the confidence to start planning for a new job.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new machinist, or someone looking to take the #PlungeIntoMachining for the first time, what would it be?

Learn the intimacies of metal cutting. Get ultra-familiar with the results of what is actually happening with your tool, your setup, your part, and your machine. As well, don’t be limited to thinking “it sounds good,” or “it’s going good so far, so that must be acceptable.” In order to push the tools and confirm they are performing well and making money, you need to identify and understand where the threshold of failure is, and back off the right amount. This doesn’t end here though. Cutting conditions change as the tools, holders, machines, and parts change. Learning the nuances of this fluctuating environment and adapting accordingly is essential. Verify your dimensions, mitigate against risk, and control the variables.

Also, get intimate with what causes tools to succeed and fail, and keep a log of it for reference. Develop a passion for cutting; don’t just punch in and punch out each shift. Here at B&R, we are looking for continuous improvement, and employees who can add value. Don’t stand around all day with your arms folded, but keep constant logs of what’s going on and always be learning and thinking of how to understand what is happening, and improve on it. That is what makes a great machinist, and a successful shop.

B&R custom machining

University of Michigan Formula SAE Racing Team – Featured Customer

Formula SAE is a student design competition that began in 1980. The competition was founded by the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) branch at the University of Texas. Each year, hundreds of universities across the world spend months designing and manufacturing their best Formula style car before putting them to the test in competitions.

Alex Marshalek is the Team Captain of the University of Michigan’s Formula SAE team, MRacing. The team was originally founded in 1986, and has been very successful over the years. In the 2017 season, they finished 5th at the Formula SAE Michigan event, and took home a 1st place finish at Formula North. They are hoping to continue riding that momentum into another successful season in 2018.

Mracing

Alex reached out to Harvey Tool and Helical earlier this year, and after some conversation, the decision was made to sponsor their team’s efforts by supplying cutting tools and providing technical support. With competitions on the horizon and a new build coming over the summer, Alex was kind enough to find some time to talk with us about his experiences as a student learning the ropes in engineering, manufacturing, and design, the importance of quality tooling and maintaining a superior part finish for competition, and challenges he has faced during this process.

Hi Alex. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. When you were looking into college degree programs, what initially interested you in manufacturing and engineering?

I have always had an interest in Aerospace Engineering, but it was nothing more than a personal interest until I started college. My high school unfortunately did not have any machine shop or manufacturing type classes, so a lot of what I knew, I learned from my dad. My dad worked as a Mechanical Engineer at an axle manufacturing company, and he used to always be doing things around the house and showing me the basics of engineering and design.

When it came time to choose a school, I knew that Michigan had an impressive Aerospace Engineering department, and I liked the feel of the campus and community better than other schools I had toured.

How did you first get involved with the Formula SAE team?

I knew going into school that I wanted to get involved in a design team and advance my learning in that way. We have about a dozen different design teams at Michigan, but the Formula SAE team really stood out to me as a really cool project to get involved in.

I started with the team in Fall of 2016, helping out with the design and manufacturing of the vehicle’s suspension. Now, for the upcoming 2018 season, I am taking over the role of Team Captain. There will be a little bit less hands-on design and manufacturing work for me as it is more of an administrative/outreach role.

michigan racing

How does a typical FSAE season run?

So FSAE seasons are constantly running, and nearly overlapping with each other. For example, we are currently finishing up competitions from the 2018 season, but at the same time we are beginning the design of the vehicle for the 2019 season. Typically, the design work is done over the summer, and finalized in October. After that, the major manufacturing begins and lasts until about March, with spare parts and additions being added as we go. Testing begins in March, where we fine tune the vehicle and optimize the design for performance. Then, the rest of the Spring and early Summer is competition time, and the process starts all over again!

What sort of machines do you have in the shop?

Right now, we have three manual Bridgeport mills, two retro-fit CNC Bridgeport mills, 2 manual lathes, 1 retro-fit CNC lathe, and a Haas VF-2SS and Haas SL-20. For the vast majority of what we are machining, we are using the Haas. We do most of our work in Aluminum, with some parts made out of steel or titanium, and the Haas has been great for everything.

We are also using AutoDesk’s Fusion 360 software for our CAD/CAM, and we love it.

What has been the most difficult part of the build?

Time is really the biggest challenge. We are all full-time students, so time is already hard to find, but we also don’t have an overabundance of machinists so the operators can get overburdened. It all works out in the end and our machinists are great, but time management is truly the biggest challenge.

michigan formula sae

The composite materials we work with are also very challenging to machine. We constructed the vehicle’s monocoque (the structural “skin”, often seen in Formula One cars) out of carbon fiber. While we cut a lot of it on the water jet machine, we needed more precise holes than a water jet could offer, so we went to the Haas for that. We were using HSS drills and only getting 10-12 holes at a time before they wore out. However, we had Don Grandt (Harvey Performance Company Application Engineer) stop in the shop and he sent us a few Harvey Tool diamond coated drills, which should make this a much faster and more precise process!

You mentioned Don stopped in to give you guys a visit. What were some of your biggest takeaways?

Don was great. He stopped by and we gave him a tour of the facility and showed off some of the parts we were designing. We talked shop for quite a bit, and he gave us a bunch of great tips and tricks we could use to really optimize our machining. As I mentioned, he also went through the catalogs with us and helped us find exactly what we need for tooling. The Harvey Tool diamond coated drills are going to be a life saver for carbon fiber. I guess the biggest takeaway was just all of the knowledge we received from Don and how helpful that was to have someone direct from the tooling manufacturer sharing everything we knew with us.

Now that you have the Harvey and Helical tools in the shop, how have they helped you complete this project and get a leg up on your competition?

One of the most impressive things for us have been the finishing end mills we received. The Helical finishers for Aluminum are giving us some of the best finishes we have ever seen. For us, that is a point of pride. We not only want to have the fastest and most well-designed vehicle, but we also want to have the best looking parts. Subpar finishes reflect poorly on the entire build, and first impressions mean a lot in these competitions.

We have also been blown away by the Chipbreaker roughers. We absolutely love those tools and push them to the limits with great results. In fact, the first time we ran them, we used Machining Advisor Pro to dial in our speeds and feeds, and the numbers seemed insane to us. We were nervous, but we pushed the button and let it run. It was amazing to see that we could push a tool that fast without tool failure.

How has your experience been using Machining Advisor Pro?

We use Machining Advisor Pro every time we picked up the Helical end mills. MAP was actually one of the main reasons we were looking for Helical to sponsor us. We had heard a lot about MAP and your level of technical support, which was important to us as we are learning more about manufacturing and machining. Machining Advisor Pro has quickly become one of our best learning tools in the shop.

The nice thing about MAP is that is takes a look at all of the parameters. A lot of applications only give you numbers on your speeds and feeds, but MAP takes a look at the depth of cut, chip thinning, engagement angle, and all of the other parameters that are so essential to a successful run. As a result, we have been able to get very aggressive with the end mills. We are not a huge production shop, so cycle times are not as important, but we still want to get the most out of our tools in the least amount of possible time.

So, let’s break down some specs. What are you all working with on this year’s build?

Right now our car features a 4 cylinder Honda 600 CBR engine, with a Turbo and 600cc displacement. We are one of the few teams that run a turbo in competition. As we mentioned, the monocoque is completely carbon fiber, and the car features a full aero package with an undertray. The max speed is around 80 MPH, and the car weighs 420 pounds without the driver.

Once the build is complete, how does a typical competition work?

Most of the Formula SAE competitions are multi-day events, with a few static events, and then dynamic events where the car is running. For static events, we first have a Design portion. We validate and argue for our design in front of judges who are engineers in the industry. Then, we get into a Cost presentation, as one of the goals is to build the cheapest possible car with a high level of performance. That balance of cost vs. performance is a critical part of the build. The last static event is a Business presentation, where we introduce a business/manufacturing plan on how to get this design to a production level of 100 units in a year.

For the dynamic events, we have 4 different tests. First, we have the Accel Run, which is a 75 meter sprint, and the fastest cars win. From there we go to the Skip Pad event, which is centered on turning radius and the stiffness of the chassis as we do tight figure eight turns with the car.

University of Michigan FSAE

Then we have the AutoCross, a one lap race, which determines our placement in the final event; Endurance. For the Endurance event, we drive the cars around a 22km track, and the goal is to finish the race without any mechanical or design failures in the quickest time possible. Only around 50% of participants actually complete this event. If a single part falls off, or breaks, you are disqualified. Many times we see things like the suspension, powertrain, or wings falling off. It is disappointing when it happens, but it allows us to easily identify any flaws and fix them for the next event.

What is next for you after school? Any future plans or goals?

I am currently majoring in Aerospace Engineering, and would like to stay within that industry. I am leaning towards working on aircraft. Designing either aircraft structures or the aerodynamics would be very cool. I really like the size and scale of working on commercial aircraft, but I could see myself doing something more specialty like working in Defense as well.


Alex and his team had a very successful 2018 season. They recently placed 9th overall in a competition at the Michigan International Speedway. In the dynamic events, they placed 4th in Skidpad, and 7th in Autocross. The high placement in the Autocross event allowed them to race head to head against top teams in the world, and they ended up placing 4th in Endurance out of 104 cars!

The MRacing team also competed at Formula North, a competition in Ontario, Canada, where they achieved a top ranking of 2nd place overall. They passed all of the technical inspections on the first try and placed 1st in Acceleration, 2nd in Skidpad and Endurance, 3rd in Autocross, and 4th in Efficiency.

michigan fsae

1186 Manufacturing – Featured Customer

1186 Manufacturing is a high-production machine shop focused mainly on making large parts for the Aerospace industry. The company was founded by Devon Dupuis, a self-taught machinist who has quickly distanced himself from the competition by adopting the newest machining technologies in his shop. Devon was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about his thoughts on 5 axis machining, maintaining a competitive edge over his competition, and the impact that Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions cutting tools have had on his shop’s performance.

Tell us a little bit about 1186 Manufacturing and how you got started in this industry.

I actually started in manufacturing by programming manual machines like Bridgeports while working in a shop that manufactured suspensions. I ended up learning CNC programming indirectly after working on a couple of programs and just being exposed to it. I have no “formal” training in CNC machining or programming; everything I learned was from my hands-on experiences on the shop floor.

I started 1186 Manufacturing in my garage with a Haas Mini-Mill. I was making rings, small firearm accessories, and everyday-carry items like wallets and other small items. After pushing that machine to the limits for a couple of years, I took the leap and decided to expand the business.

Pretty quickly we saw one machine turn into four, and we eventually made the switch to the larger DMG Mori machines to be able to manufacture some of the massive parts which the Aerospace industry was starting to send our way. Now, manufacturing parts for the Aerospace industry has become the core of our business, and our machines keep getting bigger. At this point, a lot of quotes come down to simply having a big enough machine to make what these Aerospace companies need. By going big, we have been able to earn a lot of their business over our competition.

DMG Mori

What sort of machines do you use in your shop?

We actually started with a few Haas machines in our earlier days – a UMC-750SS, a VF-6SS, and a VF-3SSYT. When we made the switch to larger machines, we went with the 5 axis DMG Mori machines and we now have four of those; a DMF 260-11, a DMU 125, a 60 eVo Linear, and a DMC 85 with a pallet changer. We are hoping to add another 5 axis machine, the DMG 340 Gantry, sometime in the near future.

Recently, we had John Saunders from NYC CNC stop in the shop and do a quick tour, so you can see most of our machines up-close and personal in that video (below).

That is some serious 5 axis power. What advice would you have for others when it comes to 5 axis machining?

I think that people need to adapt to new technology to stay ahead of their competition. I have been in shops where people are doing 10-15 setups for a single part, and it just wastes so much valuable time. That same part could be done in 2 operations on a 5 axis mill. When you really think about the lost time and the amount of scrapped parts due to the constant moving and misloading during setups, you could have paid for a 5 axis machine with the money you lost.

Right now, with software like AutoDesk Fusion 360, it is easier than ever to learn to program a 5 axis machine. A lot of the basic machining principles remain the same; some people are looking at this and making it more difficult than it needs to be. If you can program and run a 3 axis machine, taking the next step to 3+2 and eventually 5 axis machining is not as hard as it may sound.

Do you have a favorite material to machine? What material has been the most difficult for you?

We work with a lot of Aluminum. About 90% of our parts are in Aluminum, and it just cuts like butter, so that is by far my favorite material to machine. We machine so much Aluminum that we regularly go through a 14 cubic yard hopper full of chips in just a week. We are making parts faster than we can even get the chips out the door for recycling.

Recently, we have been getting more Stainless Steel jobs, and the A286 alloy has been an extremely difficult material to work with. We love a challenge, but it is definitely my least favorite material to machine.

machined parts

How did you first hear about Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions?

I first heard about Harvey Tool and started using their products about 9-10 years ago. I was making much smaller parts then, and would use a lot of the Harvey Tool miniature end mills and some of the specialty profiles for specific cuts.

Nowadays, we are making much larger parts, so we don’t get to use the Harvey Tool products as often. When we started moving into our new space, one of our customers saw us cutting stainless steel and mentioned Helical. I searched a few videos online, and saw a crazy test run of a Helical end mill running at something like 10k RPMs in stainless. We had only been running at 800-900 RPMs with our current tooling, so we knew we had to try these tools right away.

How have the tools impacted your business?

We now use Helical tools for everything because we can push them harder than any other brand. We have performed many head to head tests and haven’t found anything that can compete at the same speeds as the Helical end mills. Carrying reduced neck end mills as a standard stocked item is also huge for us with the 5 axis work we do. We used to have to buy end mills and grind them down ourselves to get that reduced neck, but we are able to save valuable time by just ordering them standard with our other tools from Helical.

helical tool

In Aluminum, most tools cut like butter, but the Helical ones have always been able to run faster with better tool life. As we have started moving into more Stainless/Hardened Steels, Helical has pulled through for us every time. Previously, we could go through a $50 tool from another brand in just one part. Now, we can get four parts out of the Helical tool, while pushing even faster than before. For high-production shops like ours, speed and cost is everything, and Helical tools have constantly outperformed the competition.

You were an early adopter of Machining Advisor Pro – how have your experiences been with the software and parameters it is outputting?

We were actually an early adopter of the original Helical Milling Advisor after we had it recommended to us by another customer, and so we signed up for Machining Advisor Pro as soon as it became available. It makes sense that it became a web-based software; now we can get updated with the latest tooling information and formulas without needing to download a new version on all of our computers.

So far, we have been very happy with it. We constantly recommend it to others. A lot of what I do for speeds and feeds can come right off the top of my head and with some tweaks I can figure it out, but having software like Machining Advisor Pro allows us to double check our speeds and feeds and figure out how we can push the tools even faster. The biggest thing is that it always gets our guys close. No matter what their level of experience is, they can plug the information into MAP and get some great starting parameters that are always on point.

helical tool

What is your key to staying ahead of the competition and winning quotes?

In manufacturing, you not only have to worry about competing with your neighbor but also competing with shops overseas that can offer low-cost quotes. However, we have found that by pushing our machines as quickly as we can and using 5 axis machining to improve our cycle times, we can offer extremely competitive quotes with a faster turnaround. Some of our machines are pushing so hard and fast that it is difficult to keep enough workpieces in front of them at times.

My favorite thing to tell customers when they ask how long the lead time will be on a part is that it will take longer to get the material in the shop than it will to make the parts. We can make parts at such an outstanding rate here because of our investment in technology. This is truly what sets us apart from everyone else.

What advice do you have for the In The Loupe community?

Embrace technology, embrace multi-axis machining, and keep pushing your limits. Losing less time to setups and moving operations like deburring into our machines has saved us so much time and money while increasing our production rates to new highs. If you are not taking a hard look at adopting some of the new advances in machining technology, then you are already behind your competition.

DMG Mori CNC


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TL Technologies – Featured Customer

TL Technologies helps manufacturers reduce time to market and drive down per-piece cost with their unique “Intelligent Design and Planning” processes. Located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, TL Technologies serves manufacturers throughout the mid-Atlantic from their centrally located, 10,000 sq. ft. facility. Their unique manufacturing processes and services quickly made them stand out in the industry since their inception in 2012.

Jonathon Thompson is the Vice President of Engineering at TL Technologies. Jonathon talked with us about their rigorous manufacturing and inspection processes, the advantage of using high-quality tooling, their unique on-site assembly services, and much more in this Featured Customer interview.

Tell us a bit about your shop, how you got started, and what sort of products you manufacture.

TL Technologies got started in January 2012. Our first customers were firearms and defense based. Since then we have diversified our business through growth within customers and word of mouth. We started with the intent to be precise and accurate in a lights-out or nearly automated fashion.

What sort of machines do you use in your shop?

We use an array of modern equipment. 4 axis Kitamura HX400G Horizontal Mills. Nakamura Tome 9 axis Turn Mill, Star 6 axis, and two 5 axis vertical Hurco Machines. All our machines are optioned out with Renishaw probing and all the bells and whistles required to handle high accuracy runs for 24 hours a day with no process issues. Most of the machines have glass scales and thermal packages.

kitamura cnc machine

Which materials do you most often work with at your shop?

Mostly steels; the usual 4000 and 8000 series steels. Comparatively less 6061 and 7075 aluminum and other common stainless grades. We’ve been fortunate to have many of our materials within a reasonable range of Rockwell so that we may tool accordingly for most of the business.

How has your experience been with multi-axis machining?

Fantastic. Multi axis Machining has been excellent for us. It requires high-level understanding to fully maximize but the benefits are huge.

On your website, you mention that TL Technologies has never delivered a rejected part. What sets your quality apart from the competition?

From day one and job one, we worked with the customer to understand exactly how they were measuring the parts, exactly with what tools, processes, and methods to identically duplicate the process in our shop. After replicating key processes we performed many correlation studies to ensure that our measurements were within single-digit microns of what our customers were seeing on their end during inspection. This methodology was scaled up into our overall quality program and allows us to greater understand and manufacture our goods. Our ISO process coupled with this method truly does prevent bad work from getting out. We have never had a case where a part did not function or perform due to our oversight or bad specs. There have been failures on the customer side of things due to engineering, bad prints, and tolerance stackups, but we have not supplied parts that were flat out incorrect.

TL Technologies

What sort of tolerances do you work in on a daily basis?

Typically single or double-digit microns. .0002” to .003” total is common for a large percentage of specs. It is not unusual for +/-.0002” to run long-term over many fixture stations with no manual adjustment. Our machined products are from 1” to 8” cubed.

What are some of the coolest projects you have had come through the shop?

That’s a good question. TL Technologies sat on the United States Senate committee in 2013 for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. We were featured on the cover of New York Times business section in 2013 as well. Throughout our years we’ve been fortunate to meet many amazing people from high branches in the government, the US Military, top name manufacturers, lenders, and local municipalities. Some of the coolest contacts were folks that formerly operated with US Special Forces. Unfortunately, we cannot comment.

As for projects not covered by an NDA, one of my personal favorites was producing low impact physical therapy products for rehabilitating shoulders after surgery. Though simple in manufacturing, this project provided an array of fun challenges that required high performance tooling, 3D printing, and using our machines with custom cycles. This allowed us to use the equipment very unconventionally. In this way, we were able to provide a cost-effective product utilizing the maximum ability of our equipment with a very short lead-time and low up-front cost.

harvey tool catalog

You also offer assembly services on-site, which is fairly unique in the industry. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

Sure. Both my business partner and I have tremendous experience with assemblies in both hands-on and directorial roles. Whether it was a high precision multi-axis mechanism that ended up being a custom machine, on and off-road vehicles, or even things like child safety seats, we have had our hands in a lot of things over the years. At TL Technologies we’ve provided assistance to machine tool builders, special tooling designers, consumer goods of various types, and most frequently to firearms builders. Mostly we drive out cost, but as we age we’ve been called upon to troubleshoot high-end assemblies where the issues were not immediately apparent. This led to us creating sub-assemblies and even semi-finished OEM products. This includes hand fitting and assembling collectible pistols and precision bolt action rifles. This is usually offered as a temporary solution or process engineering service to larger companies developing new goods or revamping existing ones, and is offered as part of our comprehensive knowledge to attract clients. It has been very successful.

You service a variety of industries, including defense, automotive, agricultural equipment, and consumer products. Do you have a personal favorite?

I’d have to say the products we make that almost every soldier carries and relies on are my favorite. We take great pride in knowing that these parts have not failed due to machining error since we took over the production years ago on the core components.

TL Technologies

Why is American manufacturing important to you?

It’s everything. It’s the heart and soul of all products and by extension facilitates the means with which goods and services exist in our society. By bolstering the skills, knowledge, and experience, we can not only succeed economically but also further the craft and pride of making quality goods. We will always need to be able to make our own goods. The skill and craft to create is more than just economic. We absolutely must embrace and respect the skill and hard work it takes to create. We must pass that knowledge on for posterity so the next generation might find the satisfaction and pride of skilled work.

Why is high-quality tool performance important to you?

It’s everything. The old adage, “Garbage in, garbage out,” is accurate for us. We feel that if we invested so much in these high-end machining centers, it would be criminal to put insufficient tooling and holders into them. We found that by selecting the proper tool with the appropriate sciences behind it we have been able to create products with a cost per cut that is not only competitive, but required to stay current. By keeping the quality as high as possible on the part making side of things, we’ve insured as much ease and reliability into our downstream process as we could. Quality tooling also provides predictability and added safety into the workflow. High-quality carbide tooling is the lifeblood of the business.

Have Harvey Tools had an impact on your performance?

Oh man…frequently. Harvey Tools are a mainstay in our company. If I had to think of some key examples it would have to be your variety of Keyseat Cutters, 3 Flute Counterbores, Extended Reach Ball End Mills, and Miniature End Mills under .040”. The 270 degree Lollipop Cutters are excellent for deburring, and we also rely on the 140° spot drills, corner radius forming tools, and more. In short, not only are the tools good, but they provide exactly what we need and the specifications to handle major OEM jobs. We absolutely love metric and you’ve got that too. Your catalogs help us eliminate the need for customs. That is key to cost and lead time.

harvey tool

 

If you could give one piece of advice to a new machinist ready to take the #PlungeIntoMachining, what would it be?

Embrace the old knowledge and techniques. The manual skills learned with files and hand ground tools translate critically into the concepts you will need to master if CNC becomes your career. Understand how and why materials cut or refuse to cut, what rake angle to use and when, and how to leverage machine physics to help you work smarter instead of harder. Don’t be afraid to jump down the rabbit hole of engineering concepts, materials, physics, elementary chemistry; these all help give you an edge. Machining is done best with comprehensive knowledge of the machines and machining environment. You never stop learning. All that said, keep a fresh perspective. Old knowledge can be great, but operationally each business will likely have its own methods and flow. Try to understand there is more to the overall business picture than you can often see.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the In The Loupe community?

Oh definitely! Buy our stuff!! Ha. We are a supplier of choice for OEM, and small batch bolt actions for rifles, pistol components, and pistol slides. We machine to spec and provide cost-competitive options as well as super-premium options.  We are working now to release our own line of aftermarket products in 2018, so keep an eye out for those!

TL Technologies


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Aspex CNC – Featured Customer

Aspex CNC is a CNC machine shop based out of Poway, California. They offer prototype turning and milling, as well as production level machining. Their quick turnaround times and premium quality have garnered them some serious recognition in the manufacturing industry. Aspex CNC is just one of the four businesses that Gary Colle Jr. currently owns, but they are an essential part of his business ecosystem, creating parts for the other three product-based companies while also offering machining services to outside customers.

We talked to Gary about his unique experiences in the industry, his thoughts on 5 axis machining, his advice for trying High Efficiency Milling, and more!

Tell us a bit about how you got started in machining, your businesses, and how Aspex CNC was formed.

It is a bit of an interesting story. I got started in manufacturing because my father designed, developed, and manufactured one of the first lines of Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle lifts, which allow people in wheelchairs to easily get in and out of their vehicles. The company was called GoldenBoy Mobility and is still one of the four business I currently own and operate today.

At a young age, I was working in my father’s shop, answering phones and doing odd jobs as young as the age of 10. When I got to high school, I worked after school and during the summers in a more hands-on position, welding parts, cutting up cars, and helping on the shop floor. This really inspired my love for metalworking at a young age.

goldenboy mobility

My dad used to let me mess around in the shop at night, so I started welding my own parts and trying to learn as much as I could. One day, someone came in and asked if I could create a “tuna tower” (an accessory for wakeboarding/water skiing) for their boat. I relented at first, but eventually gave in and welded all the parts together for him. After I made that one, word got around that I could create these at night. I started to advertise a little bit locally, and people started ordering more and more. That summer, I ended up making 50 of these towers and got noticed by a couple of big distributors. Scaling up like that made it necessary to outsource some of our parts to local machine shops, which is where I discovered machining. I had very little prior knowledge of machining, but once I stepped into my first machine shop, I was blown away.

As that business grew even larger (now known as DBG Concepts), I needed more parts and needed them faster. We outgrew the local shops and purchased our first machine, a Fadal 4020 CNC Mill, from a local machine salesman, who also helped teach me the ropes. I learned a lot in those first 6 months about machining.

Business kept ramping up, and my father eventually retired and I took over GoldenBoy Mobility. With all the extra parts we needed, we kept machining things in-house, and buying more mills. Eventually, machining became an even larger part of the business than either DBG Concepts or GoldenBoy Mobility, so we formed Aspex CNC to move our machining out of the product line and more into prototype work and production machining for other business. We still machine most of the parts for DBG and GoldenBoy in-house, but we are doing much more for outside sources than we used to.

What sort of machines do you use in your shop?

Right now, we are a Haas-only shop. We currently have eight Haas machines in our shop. Our lineup consists of a couple of lathes (ST10 and ST30), a Super Mini Mill, and five CNC Mills (VF2SS, VF2SSYT, VF4SS, VF5SS, and UMC750SS), with another UMC750 on the way!

aspex cnc

Which materials do you most often work with in your shop?

We work with a lot of the common materials, 6061/7075 Aluminum, 1018/1045 Steel, 303/304/17-4ph Stainless, as well as plastics like Acetal, UHMW, HDPE, and PVC.

How has your experience been with 5 axis machining?

If you don’t keep up with technology, you won’t be able to keep up with business, so learning multi-axis machining was a no-brainer for us. We first started with a Haas HRT210 4th axis rotary, and began to play with that. Over the next two years, we learned everything we could about multi-axis machining and made the decision to upgrade to a 5 axis machine. We actually went to IMTS that year to talk to manufacturers and find the perfect machine for us and ended up sticking with Haas because of their support platform and educational resources.

5 axis can be hard, but there are a lot of tools out there (HSM Works from Autodesk being one) that can help you learn. It does require a little more upfront work and discipline, but it eliminates a lot of setup time, creates new opportunities for our shop, and has been really good for us from a business standpoint. A big part of our business is machining one-off parts, so the 5 axis machine allows for a faster turnaround time for those odd shapes and sizes we come across.

5 axis machining

You are very active on social media promoting your business. How has the online machinist community helped your business?

Honestly, even though it can become a bit of a distraction at times, using social media to share our work and partner up with companies like Harvey Tool and Helical has been a lot of fun. We are still young in the social media space, so we haven’t seen a massive impact yet, but the best is yet to come. We have received a few bites here and there which has led to work, but as with everything, it takes some time. We expect a lot of growth this year as we work on more really neat projects and continue to get our name out there. As we grow, the opportunities are going to come.

aspex cnc

What are some of the coolest projects you have ever worked on?

Unfortunately, we can’t talk about most of the work we do, due to customer confidentiality, but we did just do a project for the State of California building a training vehicle for their driver’s education program. We designed and built a dual steering system that gave the driver’s trainer a second steering wheel on the passenger side of the car to be used during training. Another job we just finished up was some parts for the new Raiders football stadium in Las Vegas. They contacted us in a pinch and needed them in two days, and we made it happen. It is pretty cool to know you played a part in a huge project like that.

Aspex CNC also does a lot of work with racing/off-road vehicle companies, often machining parts for the chassis and suspension components. We have worked on projects for companies like Scarbo Performance, ID Designs, TSCO Racing and a whole list of others.

You can only use one machine for the rest of your life. Do you go with a CNC Milling machine or the Lathe?

I would hate to have to choose between them, but it is 100% the CNC Mill. I love ripping around with end mills and working with the 5 axis machines. It is mind blowing what these things are capable of.

Why is manufacturing products in America important to you?

Growing up in the industry which I did while working under my father (building wheelchair accessible vehicles), we had a lot of customers who were veterans coming back from Vietnam or Desert Storm who had been injured overseas and needed extra accommodations, which we could provide for them. The veterans I have worked with made me so patriotic with their stories and courage. We also get to work on a lot of projects with the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, which is putting money back into the American economy by supporting companies like ours and contracting us to make these vehicles. It only makes sense that we employ more people here and avoid sending things overseas to support those who have supported us.

aspex cnc

Do you utilize High Efficiency Milling (HEM) techniques in your shop? What advice do you have for those who are getting started with HEM?

Absolutely, all the time!

The biggest thing is listening to your tool manufacturer for recommendations and then cut those in half to start. From there, work your way up until you are comfortable. Just because the tool can handle it doesn’t necessarily mean your machine, work holding and or set up can, so I would advise people to walk before you run when it comes to HEM.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new machinist ready to take the #PlungeIntoMachining, what would it be?

Be conservative and establish good habits from the start. You can get more aggressive as your career starts to take off, but don’t run out and try to run the biggest and baddest machines on day one and try to cut corners. You need to learn what is behind machining; you can get easily lost in all the technology that is available, but you need to understand the core science behind it first. Take it slow, because if you go too fast, you might miss something important along the way.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the In The Loupe community?

The best thing is building relationships with companies like Haas, Harvey Tool, and Helical. Not only do they provide great service and support for you, but it quickly becomes a mutually beneficial relationship. As we give feedback to the tool and machine manufacturers, and even our metal supplier, it helps them improve their products, which in turn allows our shop to increase our production and efficiency.

Also, having a good team with good people makes all the difference. No matter how many machines you have and how automated you get, you still need good people on your side. I would put my guys up against any other machine shop out there in terms of skill, and it is a big part of what has made our business so successful.

aspex cnc


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Zootility – Featured Customer

Zootility prides themselves on designing products that blend art and function for everyday use. Everything from design to manufacturing to distribution is done at their custom shop in Portland, Maine. Utilizing laser-cutters, laser-etchers, and CNC Machines, their skilled team works 15 hours a day to carry out their mission to get their incredibly thin, extremely useful “zootilitarian” tools into pockets everywhere. Zootility was founded by Nate Barr and was launched on the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign for their first tool, the PocketMonkey. Nate has now expanded Zootility and grown into several more products and brands, including the “WildCard” Wallet (Pocket) Knife, “Open Beer Season” bottle openers, the popular “Headgehog” Wallet Comb, and their new line of “Tülry” multi-tools that disguise as fashionable jewelry.

We visited Zootility at their shop in Maine and talked to Nate and Chris, one of their CNC Machinists, about using Kickstarter campaigns to launch new products, the state of the Manufacturing Industry, machining in very tight tolerances, and more in this latest Featured Customer blog.

Thanks for having us, Nate! Tell us a little bit about your shop and how you got started with Zootility.

Nate: Zootility really started as a maker shop for our first product, PocketMonkey. The goal was always to take the idea behind the PocketMonkey and grow it from just a Kickstarter project so that I could expand the business. I also wanted to make sure that I was learning something new myself every step of the way; I wanted to understand how to make our products, so we could keep production in-house and use our knowledge to expand the business in the future. When we started, I was re-investing all of our proceeds back into the business, allowing us to buy more equipment and really build out the shop. Our shop is fairly unique, where we now have nearly total vertical integration across the board. The only thing we need to do now is buy an iron mine and get our own materials!

How did you come up with the idea for the original Pocket Monkey?

Nate: I came up with the idea for the Pocket Monkey one day while I was locked out of my apartment. I was living in Boston at the time, and I would run out every night to the stores around the corner to buy food for dinner, typically only taking my wallet with me. One night, the door locked behind me, and I was locked out, sitting on my front steps and wishing I had some sort of a shim to slip the lock. I started thinking what that would look like and how it could fit in a wallet for easy carrying and realized that I could add on more tools like bottle openers and screwdrivers while still keeping it slim enough to fit in my wallet. I had studied Mechanical Engineering in college, so I had the background to create what I was envisioning.

Pocket Monkey

You have used Kickstarter campaigns very successfully, not only to launch Zootility, but also to further your product line and expand the business. How was the Kickstarter experience, and would you recommend it to other entrepreneurs looking to launch a new business?

Nate: Our Kickstarter experience was great. We have raised up to $90,000 in a single campaign, and we have figured out a strategy that works for us. We found that if you set a reasonable goal that will allow you to cover start-up costs, say $25,000 rather than $100,000, people are more willing to take the time to invest. A reasonable goal gives people more confidence that the project will be funded, and that it will be successful, leading to more backers and more exposure; it is a great Marketing tool in that regard.

Kickstarter also levels the playing field for smaller companies like Zootility – I consider it to be “The Great Equalizer”. There is no longer a need to have tens of thousands of dollars for upfront costs when starting a business. You can spend a little bit of time creating the campaign and invest a small amount of money into that without taking the huge risk of throwing your life savings into an unproven idea. When I started Zootility, I was still working my day job and did not have the money to put up front, so Kickstarter was a natural fit. We have continued to use Kickstarter for new product lines because we are committed to manufacturing our products in the US, so Kickstarter campaigns allow us to validate new ideas and collect funds up front as we continue to grow the business. I do recommend it for all the entrepreneurs out there, and it has been a great tool that has contributed to our success.

You mentioned your commitment to manufacturing Zootility products in the US. What makes this ideal so important to you?

Nate: Let me start by saying that I think that Globalization is a good thing; it has pulled huge numbers of people across the world out of poverty. However, American policies have essentially allowed large corporations to gut the middle class by moving jobs overseas, especially in more rural areas. This has created unbalanced manufacturing and retail sectors. Personally, I believe things have gone too far, and standing behind our belief in American-made goods allows us to contribute to a more balanced approach to manufacturing. As with all things in life, a balanced approach is the best option. There will never be a time when 100% of goods can be feasibly made in America, so overseas manufacturing will continue, but bringing back more jobs to the middle class here in America is a good thing for the entire industry.

zootility

We have definitely made an effort to re-invest in our local community and the people who live here by manufacturing our products right here in Maine. Offshoring has resulted in a loss of knowledge and a real disconnect from the products that we use every day. Products that were previously considered to be of a high quality are now losing their shine, as less care is put into them and there is less appreciation and understanding of how these things are made. By investing in our local community and ourselves by learning something new every day, we believe we are doing our part to bring this knowledge back and instill more of a sense of pride in our employees and the products that they help to create.

You are originally from the Boston area. What made you decide to move the company and shop to Maine?

Nate: I had originally looked at a few places in the Boston-area, but it just didn’t make sense financially. There is a lot of great technology being developed in Boston by the innovative companies in the area, but to set up a manufacturing business in Boston was cost-prohibitive. By moving our shop to Portland, Maine we were able to save a lot on the space, which helped us in the early stages of the business.

The other thing was the lifestyle change. Portland has a great downtown area with lots of small businesses. There are restaurants, breweries, coffee shops, and plenty of locally-owned shops. It is also easy to get around, either by car or bike, and there is very little traffic throughout the city. I also wanted to locate our shop so that it felt like part of a community. We were able to find a great spot in downtown Portland surrounded by other manufacturers and small businesses. It makes for a great place to come to work every day.

What does the future hold for Zootility?

Nate: Right now, we do as much business in Q4 around the holidays as we do the entire rest of the year, so we have been exploring ways to make better use of the machines during the slower months. As we have completed installing and setting up our new machines, we have begun to do contract manufacturing to fill out the rest of the year. We have the unique ability to create small parts with extremely tight tolerances, and we are willing to do small volume, small batch manufacturing that other shops may turn down. We have been getting business from companies in Boston, who are looking for the “just in time” manufacturing which we can provide. The extra revenue from these projects will allow us to take off the Kickstarter training wheels and expand the business faster on our own.

tulry

From a product standpoint, we are looking to launch more “serious” tools for the outdoor enthusiast. Right now we are in the process of launching our new RNGR brand, which will be a line of minimalist every day carry products, without the whimsical nature of the Zootility Tools products. We also are on the verge of shipping our new TÜLRY brand, which is a series of jewelry infused with every day carry tools.

Chris, you create a lot of very thin products. How does that affect your workholding when working in materials that thin?

Chris: Our workholding has been built entirely custom for our CNC machine, due to the nature of the products. For example, we are currently working on our WildCard knives, which are only .040″ thick. There really isn’t much on the workholding market that will work well for something that small, so our team actually machined our own metal strips on the CNC, held the knives down with small bolts, added some rubber bumpers so we do not have metal on metal contact, and it has worked really well for us so far. We also created custom workholding for the new TÜLRY line tools, which are also extremely thin.

helical solutions

The biggest challenge with our custom workholding is the additional time it adds to each job. Right now, we can run batches of 72 knives per cycle, with a cycle time of 28 minutes. Then, we need 20-25 minutes to unscrew each of the bolts, remove the finished knives, and then insert the new knives and screw the bolts back in. However, it is the only way we can machine products this thin with our tight tolerances, and we can still finish around 600 knives per day.

You mentioned your tight tolerances. What are some of the tolerances you are working in every day?

Chris: Right now, all of our tolerances are in the thousandths. For example, the WildCard knives have a tolerance of just +/- .003″, and the screwdriver tools on the TÜLRY necklace, while one of our highest tolerances, stick to just +/- .005″. The tightest tolerance we are currently working in is on the hex wrench tools for the TÜLRY necklace. The hex wrench tools have to be spot on, or they will be too loose when they go to be used on a hex nut. Right now, we like to keep those tools to a tolerance of +/- .001″.

How has your experience been using Harvey and Helical tools on these projects?

Chris: The Harvey and Helical tools have been great for us. When I started, we had another brand of end mills in stock, and they simply weren’t cutting it (no pun intended) in the types of heat-treated stainless steel which we were working in. We switched over to the Helical 7 flute end mills for roughing and finishing of the knives. Each knife has a very small shelf on it, which allows it to be a removable piece of the WildCard tool. We use a 3/8″ 7 flute Helical end mill with a .020″ corner radius for this cut, with a 3/8″ 7 flute square end mill for finishing. One interesting part of this job is that it requires a very low ADOC because the tools are already so thin, that the roughing we do removes only a very small amount of material.

harvey tool

We also use both Harvey and Helical chamfer mills to create all of the box cutter and hex wrench TÜLRY tools. With the hex wrenches, we have found that the 60° tipped off chamfer mill has been great for creating those intricate cuts. With the box cutters, we needed an edge sharp enough to cut through tape and cardboard, but not sharp enough to cut through the skin. We have found that the 2 flute 120° chamfer mills work best for those cuts.

What is the biggest challenge you face at the CNC machine?

Chris: Right now, we laser cut all of the outlines for the knives from a thin sheet of steel. Then the knives come to us right off the laser cutter for machining. The laser cutting does create a rough finish on some of the knives, which can make them hard to lock down when machining. This can result in some movement, which can lead to the occasional scrapped part. The laser cutter can also leave burrs at the start and stop points, or leave a scorch mark or some slag on the knives, which can make them tougher to machine.

The Zootility shop uses a lot of different equipment. How has the CNC machine in particular impacted the shop as a whole?

Chris: Our CNC machine comes in handy for a lot of different things around the shop. As I previously mentioned, we used it to create our own custom workholding, which has worked very well for us. We also used the CNC machine to create all of our forming dies, which are used to create all of our tools from scratch. As we move into more contract manufacturing for other companies, these machines will get even more use when we are working on the small batch jobs we will (hopefully) be getting.

cnc machinist


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