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How to Advance Your Machining Career: 8 Tips from Machining Pros

Since we began shining a light on Harvey Performance Company brand customers via “In the Loupe’s,” Featured Customer posts, more than 20 machinists have been asked to share insight relevant to how they’ve achieved success. Each Featured Customer post includes interesting and useful information on a variety of machining-related subjects, including prototyping ideas, expanding a business, getting into machining, advantages and disadvantages of utilizing different milling machine types, and more. This post compiles 8 useful tips from our Featured Customers on ways to advance your machining career.

Tip 1: Be Persistent – Getting Your Foot in the Door is Half the Battle

With machining technology advancing at the amazing rate that it is, there is no better time to become a machinist. It is a trade that is constantly improving, and offers so many opportunities for young people. Eddie Casanueva of Nueva Precision first got into machining when he was in college, taking a job at an on-campus research center for manufacturing systems to support himself.

“The research center had all the workings of a machine shop,” Eddie said. “There were CNC mills, lathes, injection molding machines, and more. It just looked awesome. I managed to get hired for a job at minimum wage sweeping the shop floor and helping out where I could.

As a curious student, I would ask a million questions… John – an expert machinist – took me under his wing and taught me lots of stuff about machining. I started buying tools and building out my toolbox with him for a while, absorbing everything that I could.”

One of the best things about becoming a machinist is that there is a fairly low entry barrier. Many machinists start working right out of high school, with 12-18 months of on-the-job training or a one to two year apprenticeship. Nearly 70% of the machinist workforce is over the age of 45. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting a 10% increase in the machinist workforce with opportunities for 29,000 additional skilled machinists by 2024, so it is certainly a great time to get your foot in the door.

Tip 2: Keep an Open Mind – If You Can Think of It, You Can Machine It

Being open-minded is crucial to becoming the best machinist you can be. By keeping an open mind, Oklahoma City-based company Okluma’s owner Jeff Sapp has quickly earned a reputation for his product as one of the best built and most reliable flashlights on the market today. Jeff’s idea for Okluma came to him while riding his motorcycle 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 was there 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 four, then twenty. That was four years ago. Now I have my own business with one employee and two dogs, and we stay very busy.”

An awesome side benefit to working as a machinist is that you have all the resources to create anything you can dream of, like Jeff did with Okluma.

Image courtesy of Okluma.

Tip 3: Be Patient – Take Time to Ensure Your Job is Setup Correctly before Beginning

The setup process is a huge part of machining, but is often overlooked. Alex Madsen, co- owner of M5 Micro in Minnesota, has been working in manufacturing for more than 11 years. Alex is also a part owner of World Fabrication, and owns his own job shop called Madsen Machine and Design. Alex has spent countless hours perfecting his setup to improve his part times.

“It is certainly challenging to use little tools, but the key is to not get discouraged. You should plan on lots of trial and error; breaking tools is just a part of the game. You may buy ten end mills and break six, but once you dial one in it will last the rest of the job.

You should also make sure to put extra time and effort into understanding your machine when working on micromachining jobs. You need to know where there is any backlash or issues with the machine because with a tiny tool, even an extra .0003” cut can mean the end of your tool. When a difference of one tenth can make or break your job, you need to take your time and be extra careful with your machine, tool inspection, and programming before you hit run.”

Tip 4: Effort Pays Off – Long Hours Result in Shop Growth

Success isn’t earned overnight. That is especially true in the machining world. Becoming a good machinist takes a great deal of sacrifice, says Josh from Fleet Machine Co. in Gloucester, MA.

“Opening your own shop involves more than learning 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.”

Working hard is a common theme we hear from our featured customers. Brothers Geordan and Nace Roberts of Master Machine Manufacturing have similar advice.

“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 two or three 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 into the shop.” Starting and growing a business takes time. Every machinist starts from the beginning and through hard work and determination, grows their business.

Image courtesy of Liberty Machine Inc.

Tip 5: Utilize Tooling from Quality Manufacturers – All Tooling Isn’t Created Equal

 

When it comes down to it, tooling is singlehandedly the biggest choice you will make as a machinist. Grant Hughson, manufacturing engineer at Weiss Watch Company who works as a manufacturing instructor in his spare time, reflected on the importance of tooling.

“Tool to tool accuracy and performance is vital in this business, especially with our extremely tight tolerances. High quality tools make sure that we get the same performance time after time without needing to scrap parts. This saves us valuable time and money.”

While opting for cheaper tooling can appear to be beneficial when just starting out, before long, machinists are losing time and money because of unpredictability. Jonathan from TL Technologies echoed this point, saying:

“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.”

Additional Thoughts Regarding Boosting Your Machining Career With Tooling:

Don’t Cheap Out

  • “The 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” – Seth, Liberty Machine

Consistency is Key

  • “We know the performance we are going to get from the tools is consistent, and we can always rely on getting immaculate finishes. While using the Harvey Tool and Helical product, we can confidently walk away from the machine and come back to a quality finished part every time.” – Bennett, RIT Baja SAE

Superior Specialty Tools

  • “One of the greatest things that I’ve experienced over the past year and a half is flexibility. We’ve asked for some specific tools to be made typically, the lead times that we found were beyond what we needed. We went through the Helical specials division and had them built within a couple of weeks. That was a game changer for us.” – Tom, John Force Racing

“Having high quality tooling like Helical is essential. Helical tools help us maintain a much higher machining efficiency because of the outstanding tool life, while also achieving more aggressive run times. In addition, we are able to consistently keep high tolerances, resulting in a better final product.” – Cameron, Koenig Knives

Tip 6: Get With the Times – Join the Social Media Community

Social media is a valuable tool for machinists. With ever-increasing popularity in networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, there will always be an audience to showcase new and unique products to. We asked a few of our featured customers how they incorporated social media into their machining and the benefits that come along with it.

“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,” Jeff from Okluma said. “We have also had a lot of success collaborating with others in the community. 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.”

Tip 7: Value Your Customers – Always Put Them First

“In the Loupe’s” featured customers repeatedly emphasized the importance of putting customers first. It’s a simple concept to master, and pays off immensely. Repeat customers tell you that you are doing something right, said Brian Ross, owner of Form Factory.

“We have kept our customers happy and consistently deliver parts on time, so we get a lot of repeat business. 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.” Jeff from Okluma takes great pride in his customer service, saying “we only sell direct to consumers through our website so 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.”

Image courtesy of MedTorque.

Tip 8: Never Stop Learning – Ask Questions Whenever You Can

Hopefully some of these tips from our featured customers stuck with you. To leave you with a quote from of Seth Madore, owner of Liberty Machine, “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.”

Okluma – Featured Customer

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.

okluma

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.

okluma

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.

okluma

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

Right now I have the old standards like a Bridgeport mill and an old LeBlond lathe, as well as my CNC machines – a Daewoo Lynx 220LC CNC Lathe and a Doosan DNM 4500 CNC Mill.

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.

okluma

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!

okluma

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.

okluma


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