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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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