Okluma is a small manufacturing business located in Oklahoma City focused primarily on creating high-quality flashlights that can stand up to the most extreme conditions. The company was founded in early 2015 out of owner Jeff Sapp’s garage, and has quickly gained a solid reputation as one of the best-built and most reliable flashlights on the market today.
We were able to steal a few moments of Jeff’s time to interview him for this Featured Customer post, where he shared his thoughts on topics like the importance of customer service, the reason to use higher quality tooling, and his transition into the world of CNC machining.
To get started, how did you first get involved in manufacturing?
In high school I actually worked in a machine shop. This is where I got my first exposure to big machines and manufacturing. I worked at the shop until I graduated, doing simple things like sweeping the floor and running errands. The work wasn’t very exciting, but it did give me some really good exposure to the world of machining. Every now and then one of the machinists would let me help out with a part, but that would be rare. I did manage to save up enough money to buy a small mill and lathe, which I took with me when I went off to college.
During college and after graduation, I made a living by writing software, which I did successfully for 15 years. Eventually I got tired of writing software after I had spent more than a decade in that space, and I wanted to try something new. I had picked up small jobs and worked on personal projects over the years, so I decided to enroll in a machine shop school in Oklahoma City to learn more about manufacturing and becoming a machinist, and graduated from there with a renewed sense of what I wanted to do. Technical schools are a great way to pick up new skills and advance your career. The manufacturing technology program at the Francis Tuttle Technology Center here in Oklahoma City was great and the instructors there, Dean and Julia, are talented and very patient people.
Did your background in writing software help you transition into CNC programming?
Absolutely. It was a tremendous help to understand some very strange programming concepts that came with writing software, and it all translated very well into CNC programming. These days, CNC machinists and programmers need to be as knowledgeable about the software and programs as they do the tools and parts, so having a background in software programming or development certainly translates well to the world of CNC machines.
Where did the idea to start Okluma stem from?
After graduation from the machine shop program, I took a few weeks off and went on a long, off-road motorcycle trip across the country. I had purchased what I thought was a nice flashlight for $50 to carry with me on the trip. However, two days in to the trip the flashlight broke. Of course, it was dark and I was in the middle of nowhere trying to work on my bike. I’m happy to pay for good tools, but that wasn’t what happened. Not only there was no warranty for replacement, there was no way to fix it. It was just made to be thrown away. That whole attitude makes me angry.
When I got home, I decided I was going to put my new skills to work and design and build my own flashlight, with the goal of never running into an issue like I had on my trip ever again. I started by making one for myself, then 4, then 20. That was 4 years ago. Now I have my own business with one employee and two dogs, and we stay very busy.
What does your current product offering look like?
For our products, I currently have two flashlights models (the DC1 and DC2) and we are working on some cool new projects for 2019. With battery and LED technology advancing like it has, there are some interesting applications, way beyond just flashlights, that haven’t been possible until recently. Stay tuned for more information on those by following us on Instagram.
What do you think separates an Okluma flashlight from the competition?
The basic values behind Okluma all stem from me simply wanting a nice tool that won’t break easily and will be supported by the manufacturer. I offer a lifetime warranty and stand firmly behind that. I want an Okluma flashlight to last forever so you will never have to buy another flashlight.
The quality and hardiness of a flashlight is important to many outdoors types, homeowners, and collectors, but we also sell lots of our flashlights to the military and police. If their light goes out in a tough situation it could be really bad, so we have to make sure our flashlights can be dependable above all else. Like they always say, you get what you pay for. Our flashlights aren’t going to be the cheapest, but we stand behind them with our warranty and pride ourselves on the quality and reliability.
What sort of machines and software do you have in the shop?
For software, I use Autodesk Fusion 360 for the mill, and I write the G-code by hand for the lathe. I was more familiar with the lathe, so I had an easier time writing my own code for it. Getting Fusion 360 for my milling has been a huge help.
Have you been using the Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions tool libraries in Fusion 360?
Yes! The tool library in Fusion 360 was a huge help for me. To be able to get the right tool and not model things incorrectly probably saved me a lot of broken tools. That was a big reason why I came to Harvey Tool and Helical for support in the first place.
It was cool to come from the software community, where we collaborated on a lot of open-source projects, and see companies like Autodesk opening up their software to manufacturers like Harvey Tool and Helical for these great partnerships.
What sort of operations/parts do you create on the lathe versus the mills?
As you can imagine (being a cylindrical shaped part) most of the flashlight manufacturing is done on the lathe. For a while I had been making them all by hand, until we got the CNC lathe. While most of the work is done on the lathe, for the more intense pieces we have to drill and tap and do some different slotting operations. We also drill and tap the clip holes for all of the flashlights, so the CNC mill is huge for those operations.
As Okluma started to grow, we realized that we had a huge bottleneck doing our secondary operations by hand on the manual milling machine. We solved that problem by buying the Doosan mill to help with secondary operations, but you still have to know how to use it to make it worth the purchase!
I was completely in the dark on the CNC milling side of things at that time, as I was much more familiar with the lathe. I actually called Harvey Tool with a few questions, and the Harvey Tech team really held my hand and walked me through all of the things I needed to know, which was huge. I also used the Machining Advisor Pro application to generate speeds and feeds for my Helical end mills. MAP helped save me a lot of broken end mills and increased my production times.
You are using almost exclusively Harvey Tool and Helical for milling operations on your Doosan VMC. Why is purchasing quality tooling important to you?
I can try to do things on my own and eventually get it, but it costs me money on broken tools and it costs me my time, which is even more valuable. I could go that route with any number of different tooling manufacturers, but the fact that I can call Harvey or Helical and get an answer to my questions the first time, usually in a few minutes, and know it will work is hugely helpful. I don’t really look at the cost of the tools so much, because I just know they work and I know I will get the support I need to make my milling operations a success.
Can you remember a crucial moment when Harvey Tool or Helical technical support helped you to be more productive?
As we try to get more creative with our designs, we plan to rely heavily on Harvey and Helical to explore some of these new applications. We actually build our own tool to work on the flashlights, and we are using Harvey and Helical exclusively to machine that. At first, I was making the tools in two operations; I was doing a radius on top and then flipping the part over to create a radius on the bottom. I was having a hard time lining it up. We moved the second radius on the first operation, and used an undercutting tool and everything matched up perfect. I wasn’t really sure how to do it, but I called you guys and you figured it out with me! We have some cool projects coming up which we are planning to rely on Helical tools for, but people will have to stay tuned for that one!
What have been some of your keys to success for your growing sales?
Good customer service is key. We are one of the few companies that will offer a lifetime warranty. I know there are a lot of flashlight collectors, and we can make fun stuff for those guys, but I want people to really use our flashlights and scratch them and do ridiculous things with them. We have had people use a flashlights in crazy ways (like as a hammer) but we will still fix them under our lifetime warranty. I don’t really care what people do to our flashlights, I just want them to always work.
We can also overnight replacement flashlights for professionals who rely on them for work, so they never have to be without one. That is huge for our customers in the military or in law enforcement who rely on our flashlights as an essential tool in their day-to-day lives.
Do you have plans to expand into retailers, either online or brick and mortar stores?
We only sell direct to consumers right now through our website so that we can control our lifetime warranty. It has worked really well for us so far, so we have no plans to change that right now. I care more about our customers than any retailer is able to.
I’ve noticed that you have gathered a rather large social media following. How has social media helped shape your business?
A lot of our sales come through Instagram or Facebook, so I would recommend those platforms to anyone who is trying to start a business. We have also had a lot of success collaborating with others in the EDC (Every Day Carry) community where makers are creating knives, wallets, keychains; anything you would carry on you “every day”, hence the name. We have collaborated to make flashlights out of other people’s materials, let other shops refinish our flashlights, and things of that nature. Typically it is something we couldn’t do ourselves, or they couldn’t do themselves, so we share the labor and collaborate on some really cool items.
I think social media is especially great for manufacturing because a lot of younger people don’t even know all this crazy cool stuff that is going on in the industry. I was lucky enough to see it first hand at a young age, but so many others never get the chance. It is awesome to share our work and try to inspire some of the younger generation to make their own products and participate in the world of manufacturing.
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