Today’s podcast is the final segment of our season about companies who produce their own products.
Our guest is Ian Schon, founder of Schon DSGN, a company that makes high quality metallic pens machined on Citizen CNC Swiss lathes. One of Ian’s core philosophies for the production and marketing of his pens is to tell the story of their creation.
The summer after Ian’s Freshman year at Boston University, he and his brothers bought a 1940s Clausing lathe on Craigslist and started machining all kinds of things in their parents’ garage, including his first pen. After graduating with a degree in engineering, Ian got a job as a product designer. He started his own company on the side, creating pens and watches, back in 2012. Two years ago, Ian finally started manufacturing pens and watches full time. He distributes his pens in stores all over the world. He also sells at pen shows and on his website.
One of the defining aspects of Ian’s pens is that when you look at them you can see how they were made. The clothes are off. The full monty of the machining process is proudly on display for an onlooker to see. The pens are made of brass, copper, titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel, presented in a variety of bright colors and finishes. They have precise visible threads for fastening their components. They feature distinct exterior textures from processes like knurling or milling—outwardly telling the story of their creation.
The moment I started talking to Ian, the word that came to my mind was “passion.” He is passionate about both designing and manufacturing his products—ballpoint pens, rollerball pens, and fountain pens (listen to the podcast for an explanation on their differences). He gushed about the setscrew design he came up with to secure the ink cartridges in his pens. He also loved talking about machining on his used Citizens, L20s and L16s from the mid ‘90s, which he holds in the highest regard.
He says he sees himself as both a designer and a manufacturer, and says he could not create his products the way they are if he was not both.
He markets his pens and other products by telling the story of their creation. He makes videos of himself designing the pens, as well as videos showing himself working on the Citizens—setting up tools, changing programs, or managing pesky swarf.
He says his loyal customers care that his products are made by a person who they can get to know, whether through social media or in person at pen shows. “The journey is as important as the destination,” he explained.
Question: What is your favorite type of pen?
On today’s podcast we continue our season talking to successful companies who produce their own products.
Today’s guest is Joel Trusty, co-owner and President of Trusty-Cook, a company that manufactures a diverse group of industrial polyurethane products such as dead blow hammers and spindle liners for bar loaders. Joel says one of the keys to the company’s success has been talking to customers about what they need.
Joel talks about the origins of Trusty-Cook. His father designed ship-to-shore missiles for the military. When he tired of that, he moved on and started a company making custom electronics. He hired a man named Cook, who went to Chrysler and came back with a purchase order for 3,000 polyurethane wear pads for an assembly line, something that the company did not make. In response, Joel’s father bought a used pizza oven, bought a book on polyurethane and figured out how to hand-batch the order. Two years later, he invented the dead blow hammer, one of the main products Trusty-Cook manufactures to this day. (2:55)
Joel explains the company’s polyurethane dead blow hammer. It is constructed to have good power when striking, but it avoids damaging the target or sending a lot of vibration through the user’s elbow. (3:40)
Joel says it was difficult to get into the market at first. The products were expensive to make, but the company landed deals with Matco Tools, Cornwell Tools, and Snap-On. Originally Stanley Tools wanted a private label as well but instead decided to buy out the company in 1982. In the mid-1980s a recession hit, and Stanley wanted to move the company under the same roof as a screwdriver plant in South Carolina. Joel’s father and brother agreed to assist the move in return for commercial ground and two product lines Stanley Tools was no longer interested in. They moved the plant and founded Trusty-Cook. The non-compete for the hammer ran out in the mid-1990s, so they created the Trusty-Cook brand. They also landed a private brand called Estwing out of Rockford, IL. Matco and Cornwell came back on board, and Trusty-Cook continues to make sledgehammers for Snap-on. The company also makes a line for NAPA. (4:00)
Joel explains that Trusty-Cook’s polyurethane hammer is made to replace hammers made of lead or brass. It is constructed so that it will not spark and not damage the material it is hitting. The durability of polyurethane is what inspired Joel’s father to create the hammer. Joel also talks about his father’s other inventions, including a machine to cook hamburgers in 6 seconds and the first blood machine to analyze kidneys, which is still in use today. The hamburgers tasted terrible, so that invention was not taken to market. He says inventing new products comes naturally to him and other members of his family. (6:30)
Joel says Trusty-Cook now makes 29 different hammers, which Joel calls a “rock on a stick.” The price to make them has not changed much since the ‘70s. Joel says the average retail price of a Trusty-Cook hammer is in the $50 range. The hammers are made in Indianapolis in-house. The company produces the steel components and the polyurethane for the hammers’ exterior. Each hammer is handmade using no automation. (listen for more a detailed description) (9:55)
Joel discusses other Trusty-Cook products, including polyurathane spindle liners for bar loaders for CNC machines. He talks about how the company got the idea for the product when a customer called up wanting to reduce a diameter in his bar loader he was using with a Mazak CNC lathe. Now the company makes spindle liners for running bar stock with irregular shapes such as hex and rectangle. It also makes spindle liners to enable running bars less than a millimeter in diameter. The OEMs selling machine tools refer customers to Trusty-Cook, rather than bundling them in a sale. (11:30)
Joel says that listening to customers is the number one reason why his company is successful. He describes feedback he received on forum for garage mechanics. The mechanic wanted a ball peen hammer for use in tight work spaces. In response, Trusty-Cook developed a large-headed ball peen hammer with a short handle. On the same forum, another mechanic asked if a similar product could be built with a flat end on both sides, so Trusty-Cook started making this design of hammer as well. (19:10)
Joel talks about why the company was monitoring the forums. At the time there appeared to be a lot of confusion about who was making various products because of all of the different brands distributing for Trusty-Cook. Joel says Trusty-Cook doesn’t participate often on online forums, but the company does post when it develops something new and asks for feedback. It has developed relationships over time with some of the users on the forum. Joel says Trusty-Cook will sell limited editions of various products at a low price to some users to get them to try them. (23:00)
Joel talks about building relationships with customers like custom bike builder Eddie Trotta star of the TV show Thunder Cycle. Joel says Trotta was having difficulty holding tolerances on his Mazak and put in an order to Trusty-Cook for spindle liners for his machines. Eddie was so happy with the results he gave a free testimonial. Eddie later called and asked if the company could make a dead blow bossing mallet to shape metal. Joel says he didn’t know what one was at the time. With Eddie’s feedback Trusty-Cook created three different polyurethane bossing mallets for him free of charge. Eddie said the hammers cut the work time in half. Today Trusty-Cook ships them all over the world. (25:55)
Joel describes the company’s relationship with bar feeder companies, LNS and IEMCA. He told the companies that if they came to him with an idea for a polyurethane product, he would work with them free of charge. He describes a split block Trusty-Cook designed for Edge bar feeders. (see video) He says LNS also called them with a predicament, in which some bar feeder channels were filling with lubricant and swelling over time. Trusty-Cook now makes all the channel sets for LNS. (28:10)
Joel says feedback from both endusers and OEMs is Trusty-Cook’s lifeblood.(29:40)
Joel shares advice for new companies who want to bring a product to market. He says that too many creators spend time perfecting something because they are afraid to test their product on the market. He says a company needs to test the sales end of things so it knows if a product has the potential to be successful. He suggests sending new products at no charge to friends or trusted contacts in an industry and letting them try it out to get feedback. It might cost money to produce the product, but so does doing nothing while you perfect it. (30:05)
Joel reflects on something new he has learned recently. He says the week before was the first time he could recall that he started feeling stressed about all of the negative stuff going around the world—the election, the pandemic etc. He says he had to take a step back to reexamine what he does, stay focused, make sure he is doing what he likes, and make sure he his doing things for the right reasons. (31:45)
Question: What is the most important tool you have in your shop?
On today’s episode we continue our season talking about companies who produce their own products.
Our guest is George Breiwa, founder of DynaVap, a company that produces a unique type of vaporizer, using Index multi-spindles and CNC Swiss lathes. George says that one of the keys to the company’s success is growing and nurturing a community of passionate customers.
George describes DynaVap’s VapCap 2020 M vaporizer, which he prefers to refer to as a selective thermal extraction tool. To operate the VapCap M a user removes a temperature indicating cap and places a chosen substance (often dry herb) for consumption inside the extraction chamber. Then the user applies a portable heat source to the VapCap such as a lighter. George also showcases a battery powered induction heater that can be used with the VapCap. (3:10)
George talks about the differences between thermal extraction (using a vaporizer) and smoking. He says that when burning a smokable substance, portions of it are burned away rather than extracted, whereas with thermal extraction, the plant material is heated to a temperature where the active compounds evaporate and can be extracted, leaving everything else behind with minimal chemical changes a no incomplete combustion byproducts like tar, resin and carbon monoxide. (Fingers crossed that I summarized him correctly!) (5:05)
Noah asks George about the health ramifications of using DynaVap’s vaporizer. George says health and safety depends on the substance being extracted and if it is done in moderation. He suggests that using a VapCap is a healthier alternative to smoking. (6:40)
George describes how DynaVap’s products are machined. Tube stock is custom drawn at the mill in variable thicknesses to manufacture the various parts. Again, he shows the 2020 M VapCap, which does not require tools to assemble or disassemble its four parts. The 2020 M can be purchased in a variety of colors. George describes one color called rosium (see video), which he describes as pink, gold, and blue with a little bit of green. The color is produced through a process called PVD (physical vapor deposition), which he says is very commonly used when producing carbide cutting tools for CNC machines. He also describes another model the company sells called AzuriuM, which starts as blue but changes to several different colors when exposed to heat. (8:40)
George talks about the value proposition of DynaVap’s product, which uses an external heat source (like a lighter) rather than using a built-in battery like a typical vaporizer. He says the VapCap’s small size and portability are significant advantages. DynaVap’s products can fit in a person’s pocket and also are extremely durable because they don’t have sensitive electronic parts. He says a person can throw a VapCap on the ground or even drive over it with a car and it will hold up. He says he is confident DynaVap’s products will remain functional for 20 to 30 years if taken care of properly, and the only parts that may need to be replaced are the o-rings.(12:30)
George talks about how DynaVap makes its products. He says the tip is machined on an INDEX multi-spindle (MS22-8 with double NCU). (14:20)
George discusses the company’s approach to marketing its products. DynaVap focuses primarily on growing relationships with the customers it already has, giving them the tools and knowledge to talk about the product with others. He says the primary way people are introduced to the product is by personal interaction with others who already have it. (16:05)
George talks about the impact of building a community around a product. He says many of DynaVap’s customers learn about its products in online communities like Reddit. He says the ability to customize a product to suit a personal preference is highly appealing to the company’s customers. DynaVap designs its products so that creative people can customize certain components. It shares necessary dimensions with the public and even supplies certain materials for customers to make after-market accessories like interchangeable stems. Meanwhile, the high-precision parts are still made by DynaVap. DynaVap’s community of users post photos online of their homemade components. (18:50)
George explains that the starting cost of a DynaVap vaporizer is $75, while the top of the line models sell for $180-190. (21:05)
George says the most important factor in the company’s growth is its user community and “social proof.” This wasn’t something he initially realized, but he discovered that the more the company supported and engaged with customers, the more the customers shared their love of the products with others. (22:30)
George talks about how the DynaVap’s numerous online videos show how passionate he is about the company’s products. (23:55)
George says that getting customers to have a great experience with a product requires educating them. He says DynaVap devices are simple to use, but they do require users to learn how to operate them properly. He draws a comparison to a chef’s knife. Most people know how to use a knife, but how many people do so correctly? (25:00)
George states that while using DynaVap devices may seem to require more work than similar products, few customers seem concerned. The company’s user community also provides resources to overcome the initial learning curve. (26:35)
George says community enrichment of customers is a very important aspect of bringing a new product to market. He says if the customers don’t know who you are and you don’t know who your customers are, then you need to familiarize yourself and engage with them, or you will not be successful. (27:55)
George shares something he recently learned. He reports that traveling to Europe right now is not difficult. He just spent two weeks in Amsterdam on business. He traveled on commercial airlines in major airports and experienced no issues or concerns. His COVID-19 test was negative upon his return. (28:30)
Question: What online communities do you belong to?
On today’s podcast we’re continuing our 5th season, discussing companies that machine their own products.
Our guest is Zach Dunham, Director of Marketing at Bantam Tools, a company which builds an 80-pound desktop CNC milling machine that costs under $4,000. This machine is designed for both novice and experienced machinists who want to quickly prototype and tweak new products.
Zach describes Bantam Tools as a company that builds desktop CNC milling machines, with a focus on precision and reliability at an affordable price. The company has two products in their current lineup, including its new desktop CNC mill that was released in July of 2020. The company is based Peekskill, New York, and employs around 15 workers. (3:10)
Zach talks about the types of products made on desktop CNC milling machines (SEE ABOVE). He says the machines are often used to make “everyday carry items” like bottle openers and aluminum wallets. He says Bantam Tools’ machine has the capability to produce almost anything (aluminum, wood, or plastic) that can be made on a 7 x 3 x 9 machine with 3 axes, even more complex items like a small synthesizer (see video). He says that the target market for the company’s products are people who prototype. The machine is optimized for aluminum, but it can machine engineered plastics and wood as well. Some customers even create circuit boards with it. Machining other metals is not impossible, but it is difficult because the mill does not use coolant. (4:10)
Zach shares his background. He studied music composition at Bard College in New York, a good part of which involved electronics and recording arts. He worked as a sound designer for a while, and dabbled in acoustics, which led to getting interested in hardware. He taught himself much of what he knows about electronics. He launched his own product called The Public Radio, a single station FM radio, which is still being sold. Eventually he took a job with the crowd funding platform Kickstarter, teaching people how to launch hardware products. (6:30)
Zach talks more about his work at Kickstarter, helping customers launch new design and technology products. Toward the end of his time at the company, he worked with digital fabrication products. He gives examples of the kinds of products he helped bring to market, including a desktop waterjet cutter and a CNC machine that pulled itself around a table with cabling. (8:35)
Zach discusses the Bantam Tools Desktop CNC milling machine. He says a few hundred customers have pre-ordered the machine. Many of these customers are hobbyists or people who work primarily with 3D printers who are looking to add CNC capabilities to their workshop. The company also has orders from machine shops that need in-house prototyping capabilities. (11:10)
Zach says people can make the same things with the Bantam Tools CNC desktop mill that they would make on larger CNC desktop mills, such as fixtures, flanges, and gears, but Bantam Tools’ machine weighs 80 pounds and costs less than $4,000. Also, unlike other competing CNC mills in a low price range, Bantam Tools’ machine comes with a several things to help a user get started, including a t-slot bed, toe clamp fixturing setup, a 28,000 RPM spindle, at least one nice tool by Helical Solutions, and modern control software with a lot of interesting features. (15:00)
Zach says that the main benefit of the desktop mill is that it is fast and easy to use, which helps both novices and experienced machinists. Customers with access to full machine shops find it fills a unique role because it is cost effective and prevents tying up heavy duty machining centers with small runs or prototypes. It also is useful as a hands-on primer or training tool. (17:30)
Zach talks about the unique software Bantam uses for its desktop machines. The software accepts G-code files, NC files, and similar file extensions. There are post-processors for Fusion 360 and other CAD packages as well. It also can accept vector files from Adobe Illustrator. He says a preview feature allows you to see what the tool looks like before production. (19:55)
Zach speaks about the benefits of developing a new product in-house rather than with a third party job shop. He says it may not be cost effective to outsource a single small item or a prototype because of the amount of time it takes to set up the tools for a new part. He says a designer can waste a lot of time and money especially if they don’t have experience in machining and production. Bantam Tools’ CNC mill allows a user to become more literate in designing and how the machining process works. (24:40)
Zach describes the pros and cons between prototyping on a desktop CNC mill and a 3D printer. He says that most 3D printers can only use brittle plastics like PLA, while others may use ABS or engineering plastics. Bantam Tools’ CNC mill can machine aluminum and often can make objects faster than a typical 3D printer. (30:05)
Zach talks about something new he learned last week. The company recently purchased a Datron single flute ball end-mill, which was new to him. He says the science and physics that go into choosing an end-mill he finds fascinating. (30:50)
Zach says Bantam produces all the major parts for its desktop CNC mill in-house. The company has two large Mazak machining centers for production. He says only the motors and screws are outsourced. (32:20)
Zach says that the company is running 6-8 weeks behind on fulfilling orders for their machine due to COVID-19. The company’s workers been challenged to practice social distancing while on the production line and performing R&D. (33:15)
Zach says that anyone interested in Bantam Tools’ desktop CNC mills can find out more on the company’s website at bantamtools.com. The website features helpful videos, as well as product information. The company is also active on social media. The current waitlist for the new desktop CNC mill is five months. (35:25)
Question: Do you have a product you have been thinking about prototyping?