Monthly Archives: August 2021

Innovation from Playing with Machines, with Mike Taylor

By Noah Graff

Two weeks ago, Mike Taylor inquired on a Tornos GT26 Swiss lathe Graff-Pinkert had for sale. He told me that for him the machine would be like buying a new motorcycle. If he bought it, he would spend months learning how to use it himself before expecting to make any money with it, and it would be a lot of fun.

If Mike buys the machine it will be used to make screws that go into a KeyBar, the product he has been selling since 2013. A KeyBar is an organizer for keys and other tools that fold out in a style similar to that of a Swiss Army knife. Some of the tools available include a screw driver, blade, bottle opener, or even a comb. They’re often made of titanium, featuring distinct textures and colorful designs.

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Before he started KeyBar, Mike had been a chief engineer for several hotels in Georgia. He had a decent sized staff working under him and had to carry around a lot of keys that constantly jangled wherever he walked. The loud keys tipped off his slacking staff as he approached, so he always found them working diligently. His noisy key problem had be solved.

Mike is a knife guy. He won a pumpkin carving contest by carving a pumpkin under water. He was awarded a prize of $6,000 worth of knives and a trip to BLADE Show, the largest knife show in the world. At the show he was exposed to new machines, processes, materials and tools. When he got home he was inspired to create the first KeyBar—a stealth weapon to solve the problem of his slacking staff.

Titanium KeyBars

Mike started making KeyBars by hand for friends, but eventually they became so popular he started a business selling them. For several years, all of his components were outsourced, but gradually he brought the production process in-house, purchasing equipment such as a laser engraver, waterjet, and Haas VF4.

Throughout our interview, Mike kept telling me how much he was constantly learning and how learning fueled his business. That day alone, he had experimented with machining carbon fiber composites and learned to use a new printer for making labels.

Mike has a small but excellent staff at his company, who he trusts to handle most of the production and busy work. This frees him up to learn about new processes and play with the shop’s equipment. Often he enjoys making things other than KeyBars. He showed me a skateboard he fabricated out of a 3/8” thick titanium billet plate. The skateboard has a honeycombed design made with a waterjet. It features knurled and milled textures. It’s laser engraved, flame anodized and electro anodized. Mike plans to bring it trade shows to start conversations with skateboarding enthusiasts. He said producing the skateboard pushed the limits of the machine tools in his shop, which gave him important insight into their strengths and limitations. 

In my first conversation with Mike I asked him if a letter opener tool was available in a KeyBar—there wasn’t one. He told me that after our conversation he was going create one that day. One week later, on the day of our interview, the KeyBar website was offering a 100% titanium letter opener dubbed “The Noah.” It has a fleur de lis thumb tab and is available in Polished Titanium, Anodized Bronze and Radiant Teal. 

I wonder what fun stuff he will make when he finally gets to take a new Swiss machine for a spin.

Question: What would you make if you had free time to play with the machines in your shop?

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Together Again

By Lloyd Graff

A month ago, my son Noah pulled a hamstring lunging for a forehand while playing tennis after work with a client and friend. His opponent drove him to our house a few minutes away to assess the damage.

All of us discussed the injury, and I suggested we call Keith, a doctor and friend of 30 years, to diagnose it. “Risa, ask him if he’ll come over,” I proposed. I handed her the cell phone to call. It was dinnertime on a Monday in July. I figured there was a good chance we would find him at home. 

“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” he said, and he was. He diagnosed the injury and told Noah he didn’t need to go to the emergency room. We pulled out the Elasto-Gel cold packs always waiting in our freezer. Keith stayed for a while to talk. The conversation shifted back and forth between discussing the injury and pizza restaurants in Chicago.

Noah stayed at our house several days, and our business client spent the night as well, which turned out to be a great chance to get to know him better.

When Noah called his wife to tell her about the injury, she was astonished that we could call a doctor and he would interrupt his dinner and immediately drive over. Noah explained that Keith was a close friend and a member of the community. It was just natural that he would do it.

I remembered that 13 years earlier Keith drove 60 miles to be with Risa and our family when I was drugged in a hospital bed, teetering between life and death after a heart attack and stent, struggling to gain the strength to undergo quadruple bypass surgery. 

Risa had taught Keith’s daughter for many years before she succumbed to a horrible genetic malady. She was more than just her private teacher. She was virtually a part of her family as the child suffered crisis after crisis, yet maintained her spirit. 

When I had my second grand mal seizure three months ago in Palo Alto, my daughter, Sarah, called a doctor friend at midnight to come over to check me out and lay out my options. She arrived in a couple minutes, though I don’t even remember the visit. She arranged to get me into Stanford hospital with a minimum of rigmarole. It’s what people who are a part of your community do for friends. 

I am writing this piece not to enumerate Graff family health emergencies, but to discuss friends, family, and community that are becoming harder to come by these days as we forsake organizations and tribes, religious institutions, sewing circles, and men’s baseball leagues that used to pull us together over long periods of time.

We also move more and further away from each other, which dilutes communities and tribes. Screens also deprive us of personal contact that in-person meetings and dinner parties and barbecues used to irrigate. 

Part of the Graff Tribe Blueberry Picking on Vacation

Kids teams were excellent meeting areas for parents and children, but today sports have become more specialized. Parents hook their kids up with personal coaches to help them get college scholarships. The best players are siphoned off into elite amateur teams so local parents lose the incubating arena for long-term friendships.

Families used to be mini tribes, with big weekend dinners prepared by a matriarch. With women working almost universally, there is little time and energy to devote to pulling families together in that way. These days, young men and women use their independence to move away from the fold. 

I am grateful that our immediate family got together for a week recently in South Haven, Michigan, after almost two years of separation. The great feeling of having the tribe together, not on Zoom, was a blessing. 

Family, community, games at almost midnight. No substitute for it. Especially when it seems so rare today.

Question: When was the last time you got together with your family in person?

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Make Your Employees Want to Stay, with Adam Wiltsie, EP 130

By Noah Graff

After Graff-Pinkert sold a second used Lico CNC lathe to Vanamatic, a 3rd generation screw machine shop in Delphos, Ohio, I had a great conversation with Adam Wiltsie, the company’s Director of Operations. At that moment, I was quite envious of Adam—I was sitting at my desk in my office, while he was outside on a beautiful July Friday afternoon, waiting in line his local ice cream institution Dairy Hut.

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Adam gets out of the office on Friday afternoons. He gets to tailor his work schedule, and contrary to what one might assume, this is not just a perk for members of the company’s leadership team. Vanamatic allows a flexible work schedule for all its 103 employees. Adam says this is a key reason why the company has not been suffering from a shortage of skilled people, that so many other manufacturing companies often complain about. In fact, 103 employees is a record number for the company, which happens to be located in a town of 6,000 people.

Vanamatic was founded in 1953 by Adam’s grandfather in Delphos, Ohio. Today, the company is run by a leadership team made up of Adam, his brothers Scott and Jared, Steve Schroeder and Dave Ricker. The company makes parts for a variety of sectors including automotive, aerospace, fluid power, agriculture, construction, fittings, and refrigeration. The majority of its machines are 8-Spindle VNA Conomatics— 1-5/8” and 2-5/8” capacity. For those unfamiliar with Conomatics, or “Cones” as they’re often called, think of an ACME-GRIDLEY but heavier and a larger tool zone. Adam says the company loves the machines because “they can push feed rates like no other.” Cones aren’t built anymore so Vanamatic has its own rebuilding program for the machines. The company also has CNC turning centers, a few other brands of multi-spindles, and 10 Lico CNC lathes—picture a sexy, beefed up 11-axis CNC Brown & Sharpe. 

Adam is 42 years old, with three kids. He says having kids influenced his management style because it made him realize that every person works differently. Vanamatic’s management philosophy takes into account that all of the company’s employees have different requirements to bring out their peak performance and make them happy. Treating every individual employee uniquely bucks the traditional collective style of management in manufacturing companies, which Vanamatic had employed for the majority of the company’s life.

Adam Wiltsie, Director of Operations of Vanamatic

A while back, Adam and his brother Scott, head of Human Resources, implemented a management strategy called Start, Stop, Improve. Every year, they sit with each individual employee and ask them what they would start, stop or improve on a company level, a department level and an individual level. In the process, they learned that many people at the company desired a better work-life balance. They realized that by implementing flexible hours they could improve the lives of employees who prefer to be with their families at different times of day. Flexible hours could also accommodate employees who have hobbies or outside projects they want to pursue.

For most of Vanamatic’s existence, the company had a standard work week for every employee, of four 10-hour days and one 8-hour day. Fifteen years ago, the collective model was thrown out. Currently, all shop employees, aside from primary production operators, have the choice to work between 35 to 50 hours per week. Primary production operators can work 45 to 60 hours per week. Employees have the right to work within those ranges at their discretion without approval from supervisors. Every two weeks, the company takes a look at what work needs to be done and maps out a plan. Shop workers manage schedules amongst themselves to get the necessary work completed.

In the past, some of Vanamatic’s customers came to the company and demanded it implement a policy making its people work a minimum of 56 to 60 hours per week, but it refused to change its policy. Adam says loyal, happy, skilled employees are the essential element to keep the company successful, so it can’t afford to alienate or lose them. They take precedence over an annoyed customer.

Vanamatic’s management philosophy was a lifesaver in May of 2020, when its business fell 50%. The company gave its employees the choice to work 0 to 50 hours per week. It even laid off employees if they volunteered to be and then helped them sign up for unemployment benefits. When work came roaring back later in 2020, Vanamatic needed to get all of its people back fast. Instead of complaining about unfair competition against government assistance money, the company raised wages $5 above what workers were previously earning. Employees came back and felt valued. Now they are fueling Vanamatic to set a record pace for the company in 2021.

Question: How would you plan your own flexible hours?

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A Noisy Truck Market

By Lloyd Graff

There may never be a more fascinating and trying time to be in the automotive business. 

Demand for trucks and SUVs is powerful, but manufacturers cannot build them in the quantities people want because computer chips are short. The executives can blame themselves for being much too conservative in their ordering last year, but demand has been a yo-yo because of the defiant and devious nature of the COVID-19 variants. People didn’t buy cars in 2020 because they were afraid to walk out of their homes. This year things have flipped as folks hit the road. Money is still cheap, old F-150s are looking dilapidated, and the Feds have given so many freebies out that trucks and SUVs look too attractive to pass up. 

Big demand, not enough product. That’s one interesting problem to navigate. 

Then there is your very rich and powerful Uncle Joe (Biden) who observed the Obama Administration resuscitate General Motors in 2009. He feels this is his moment to impact the car builders, forcing electric on them by setting virtually unreachable emissions and gas mileage regulations on their windshields. 

It is possible that Biden really believes that he is saving the planet by dictating a massive changeover from gas to electric by 2030. After all, we do have the convenient existential threat of “climate change” to justify everything from the switch to veggie burgers at McDonald’s to giving billions of dollars to the government operated Washington to Boston trains that never run on time. 

The auto executives and the world of Tier One, Two, and Three manufacturers, whose businesses revolve around Biden’s decisions, are now living in a world of mirrors. Do they prepare for an environment in which the big car makers struggle to build trucks and SUVs that are rechargeable? Does Exxon plan to abandon oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and refining operations near Houston? Do the frackers try to raise money to start drilling again with oil prices around $60 a barrel?

It is an utterly confusing world in which Putin and the Saudis set oil prices by jiggering output and Biden thinks he’s saving the world, or at least his presidency, by setting virtually impossible gas mileage goals to increase electric vehicle sales, which he thinks will be made by union workers who will vote for Democrats in the 2022 and 2024 elections. 

Amidst all of the competing interests, you have market research that tells car executives and dealers that real people really do not care much about carbon emissions. They want their Ford F-150s, GM Silverados, and Chrysler Jeeps, and they want them to reliably transport them and their cargo from Boise to Bozeman and Nashville to Memphis. Gas, electric, hydrogen, or pretzels, it really doesn’t matter much to them. The latest data predicts only 15% of the vehicles which will be sold in 2030 will be electric and 3% hybrid. 

So we have the 2021 Dancing with the Stars with Joe Biden and the car bosses doing the tango. Dance and dip. The car guys plead their devotion to defeating the dreaded climate change. Billions upon billions of dollars are pledged to be spent, yet Tesla is the only car company that builds an electric car people will buy. When will that change? Nobody knows.

Demand for gas guzzlers far surpasses the ability to produce them, and gas prices approach $5 a gallon in California. It is pretty weird and goofy, but in the real world of brakes and gas pedals and transmissions, people are trying to plan and order stuff. Meanwhile, used cars are flying off the lots.

Question: What’s stopping you from getting an electric car?

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Best of Swarfcast: Ep. 46 – Building Bikes in Detroit, With Zak Pashak

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

The Today’s Machining World team is on vacation this week. We will be back next week with our regular blog and podcast. We hope you enjoy this edition of Swarfblog from August 7th, 2019!

Our guest on today’s podcast is Zak Pashak, founder of Detroit Bikes, the largest bike frame manufacturer in the United States. All bikes that the company sells are assembled in Detroit, and its high-end models have frames constructed of high quality American Chromoly steel.

Zak lamented to us that he couldn’t find many companies in the U.S. to supply parts for wheels and other bike components. We told him we would take on the mission personally to find him some.

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Zak hales from Calgary, Canada, where he had success in the bar business and organizing one of Canada’s largest music festivals. He eventually developed an interest in politics and urban planning, which would inspire his next venture. In 2011, he sold all of his assets in Canada and moved to Detroit where he started Detroit Bikes in the building of an old sign company.

Zak said he chose Detroit because he saw the city as a place with rich history. He remarked that it was where cars were first mass produced, where great genres of music were invented, and a place with talent in the manufacturing field. He also said he wanted to go to a challenging place where he could be part of positive change.

Zak Pashak of Detroit Bikes

We could feel a real sense of purpose when Zak talked about his company. He takes pride in assembling bicycles in the U.S., a country where most of them are imported. He appreciates boosting the economy of a revitalizing city. But Zak said his primary mission is changing urban landscapes. He really wants to contribute to changing the paradigm of how people get around in cities, making them less congested and more environmentally friendly. He said this ultimately will be decided by governments who invest in new types of transportation infrastructure—including bike lanes.

Question: Does it make you want to buy a product more if it is made in the U.S.?

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Best of Swarfblog: Machining a Pancreas

By Lloyd Graff

The Today’s Machining World team is on vacation this week. We will be back next week with our regular blog and podcast. We hope you enjoy this edition of Swarfblog from August 7th, 2019!

The Futurism newsletter ran a piece about Liam Zebedee, a software engineer in Brooklyn who struggles with diabetes while trying to live the semblance of a normal life.

He built his own “artificial pancreas” because he was frustrated with the daily hassle of dealing with hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and pharmacies.  He started with a good piece of hardware, an insulin pump.  He then developed his own software and purchased the necessary hardware for $979.  He pays $225 per month for off-the-shelf glucose sensors plus his monthly cost for a supply of insulin.

“I know that it’s pretty insane to run your basic metabolism on untyped JavaScript code,” Zebedee writes.  “But if you were in my shoes, you’d realize it was safer than going to the hospital, intentionally or not.”

The homemade “artificial pancreas” shows the hand of ingenuity that builds businesses out of ideas.  In a small way our machinery business has been grappling with a mechanical challenge which most of the “smart people” we consulted told us would likely end in failure.

We do not tackle a lot of setups on screw machines these days because if folks want us to do it, it usually means that they cannot do it themselves and don’t know anybody who can.  We took on this one for several good reasons that seemed to trump the obvious impediments.  It was a big opportunity to sell machines, but failure would be very expensive.

The job was to thread both sides of a 4-1/2” long, ¾”-diameter pipe.  The customer made a couple million of them a year, but their process either on CNC lathes or screw machines and threading machines was laborious and even dangerous.

On the face of it, at least to me, who did know enough to understand why they had done it the old-school laborious way for 50 years, it was quite doable on a Wickman.  Thread chasing on one end, die head threading on the other, a piece of cake.

What I did not know was that steel pipe, 4-1/2” long, presents nasty problems for threading.  Pipe is not uniform in surface quality, wall thickness, and machinability.  There are significant differences in the products of each manufacturer.  It is not perfectly straight, it will wobble—more the longer you attempt to machine.  Cutting tools usually are not durable enough to compensate for the roughness and wobble of pipe.

Wickman has a husky and generally quite useful thread chasing attachment for the end of the pipe closest to the spindle.  Unfortunately, it was really not expected to cut steel pipe to connect a hot water heater.  It normally rests on an aluminum base on top of the cross slide, but to our own dismay, we consistently got unacceptable chatter using the attachment.  After tearing our hair out in frustration, Javier, our engineer, mentioned that at his previous job they had occasionally used a steel base when chasing difficult stainless steel components.  Luck had it that we had a scruffy old steel base on our parts shelf.  To our shock the chasing worked.

We ran into similar issues trying to do die head threading on the other end.  The cutting tools broke, the die heads fell apart, chatter was a constant companion.  We put a Logan air threading attachment on to replace the mechanical one.  Better, but still not good enough.  Then we slowed down the clutch by changing gears.  Still no good.  Finally, we put it on the slowest possible threading speed, and we got a good thread, but the cutters had a maddeningly short life.  It required a different coating to finally make it work.

Through all of the experimenting we labored with four different varieties of seamless pipe.  Only one worked reasonably well.  We asked our customer for more pipe.  They could not seem to provide it for us.  “Purchasing” and “Politics” continually got in the way of providing us more raw material to perfect the process.  We offered to buy it ourselves, pick it up ourselves at another plant, do anything to move the process, but the pipe did not come.  Finally ten 10-foot lengths arrived.  Not enough for a full run off, but enough for samples and a good tryout of the process.

“We did it.”  At least we think so for now.  Not a homemade, artificial pancreas, but a satisfying, improvised solution to the problem for Graff-Pinkert.

Question: Tell us about an “impossible” job that you solved.

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Ep. 129 – Recruiting Long Term Shop Employees, with Bill Cox (Part 2)

By Noah Graff

In part 1 of my interview with Bill Cox, owner of Cox Manufacturing in San Antonio, Texas, Bill talked about the power of his company’s robust apprenticeship program.

But how does Cox Manufacturing get so many employee candidates, while most machining companies are dying to get any job applicants? Answer—the company has built a strategic recruiting program.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast. Or listen on your phone with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite app.

Some of the company’s strategies for finding new employees are simple common sense, such as keeping good records of everyone who has applied to the company, which Bill says some companies actually fail to do. Cox Manufacturing also posts a large company sign advertising jobs available, which is visible from the highway to grab the attention of potential employees.

The company also likes to find new employees via referrals from current employees who often bring in job candidates who fit the company’s culture. It offers bonuses to employees when their referrals remain at the company for one month, six months, and a year.

Several years ago, Bill became the founding chair of an organization of manufacturers in his area, called the Alliance for Technology Education in Applied Math and Science (ATEAMS). Initially, the organization sponsored tours for students to visit the area’s manufacturing companies with the hope it would attract them to working in the manufacturing industry. After a short time, the organization realized that instead of giving tours to students, it was more effective to give tours to local high school teachers who could then promote careers in manufacturing to the students. Prior to COVID-19, the program had become so popular it had a waiting list. Bill says most of the teachers have never been inside a manufacturing facility before, so they often are amazed when they get tours of state of the art shops like his. I asked Bill if guidance counselors also come on the tours. He said unfortunately most of them have not been receptive to promoting careers in manufacturing but he hopes that will change one day.

Bill said one of his employees who surprised him the most was a middle-aged woman who prior to working at Cox Manufacturing had spent many years in the health care field. She started at the company deburring and inspecting parts but then applied to its apprenticeship program. He said the company was hesitant to hire her because in the past they have not had the most success hiring people trained in other fields, but she persisted, so the company gave her a shot. As an apprentice she excelled and progressed much faster than a lot of her younger male peers. In 90 days she was setting up CNC machines. 

Bill remains wary of people already making good money in other careers who apply to work at his company. In the past, the company invested in several employees who stayed there a little while, but left when more lucrative opportunities became available.

Cox Manufacturing has a policy of not admitting candidates to its apprenticeship program if they are fully trained in a field where they can make more money and jobs are available. The aerospace industry often has a lot of layoffs, so in the past, aircraft mechanics came to work at Cox Manufacturing but then left when their more lucrative previous jobs again became available. The company has had similar experiences with employees who previously worked in the oil industry. 

Bill’s advice for manufacturing companies who want to build their workforce is to think about their long term future. He says companies should develop in-house training programs and start recruiting young people even when they don’t need new employees. They should not hire employees out of desperation who are not compatible with a long term success strategy.

As I do with many guests, I asked Bill what he thinks of when hears the word “happiness.” He told me happiness means fulfilling one’s God given purpose, which is why when his company hires a person it tries to make sure the job is aligned with who they are and who they are designed to be.

Question: How do you make sure employees stay long term?

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Goodbye to the Soul of the Team

By Lloyd Graff

I vowed not to write so often about baseball and the Cubs, but this is about Anthony Rizzo, the soul of the Cubs team that won the 2016 World Series, being traded last week to the New York Yankees for the last 60 games of the 2021 season. 

The Cubs received two Minor Leaguers, decent prospects from the lower Minors, for a young man who symbolizes the magic of the game. Anthony Rizzo graduated from Parkland High School in Fort Lauderdale. After 17 students were killed in a shooting there, he went back to console the student body. 

Anthony Rizzo is a very good ball player, but his value to the Cubs and the Major Leagues is who he is as a person. Rizzo was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 18 years old, one year out of high school, while playing in the Boston Red Sox minor league system. He underwent six months of grueling chemotherapy in 2008 before he received the great news that he was in remission. He was traded to the San Diego Padres in 2010 and then traded a year later to the Chicago Cubs.

In Chicago, his ebullient personality became a symbol of the team when they were awful, then rebuilding, then blossoming into a contender in 2014 and 2015. He caught the final out in the 2016 World Series in Cleveland.

Rizzo established a family foundation for pediatric cancer in 2012, which was a rare philanthropic deed for a 21-year-old cancer survivor, but even more important was that he became a volunteer at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. 

His family’s foundation also donated $3.5 million to Lurie in 2017.

Anthony Rizzo, former Chicago Cubs first baseman

He was not a PR hound looking for exposure to enhance his image. Rizzo really spent time with the kids struggling with cancer. His smile lit up the floors, just like it did at first base when he would kibbutz with the opposing players, umpires, and coaches. Whoever he could connect with.

Anthony Rizzo was so much more than home runs, picking up throws in the dirt, fearlessly rushing home plate to snatch a sacrifice bunt, or leading the league in getting hit by the pitcher while at bat. Anthony Rizzo was the most charismatic player in the game and a cancer survivor.

He signed a long-term contract with the Cubs soon after making his debut with the team. It was his insurance policy against another bout of cancer, but it also tied him up with the team for a long tenure because he was an underpaid star when he started hitting 30 homers a year.

As a fan, I love watching Anthony Rizzo because he loves playing the game like I love watching him play it.

Very few ballplayers generate pure joy, game after game, like Rizzo. And the Cubs traded him for a bag of balls for the last 60 games of the season. 

My daughter texted me that she was in mourning. She had come in from San Francisco to see a World Series game in 2016. We were planning on going to a game in two weeks when she would be back for a family vacation. She said now she doesn’t want to go with Rizzo gone. 

A player like Anthony Rizzo makes baseball more than just a game.

Question: What past sports trade made you sick?

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