Pioneer Service employs a diverse group of people—varying age groups and genders, African Americans, Latinos, and a few old white guys, too. Twelve of its 31-person workforce are women. The diversity provides the company with a great pool of talent and creates a special work environment.
Today’s podcast is part two of my interview with Aneesa Muthana, co-owner and president of Pioneer Service Inc., a thriving Swiss machine shop in Addison, Illinois.
Aneesa says that even with such a unique, diverse workplace, her company still deals with the problem of its people forming cliques, which can hurt their ability to work together.
Like in every organization, cliques emerge based on variables such as cultural backgrounds, job types, and seniority. Aneesa copes with this problem by demonstrating to her employees that she has equal respect for everyone.
Aneesa Muthana of Pioneer Service Inc.
She likes to spend time with employees on the shop floor, devoting the same amount of her time to everyone—people of all job types, seniority, etc. She passes out water bottles on a hot days. She learns about people’s lives. She wants to show them that she cares about them and they aren’t just a number. She even tries to reveal some of her own vulnerability.
Aneesa says she recognizes that people naturally gravitate to others with similar jobs or backgrounds. What she wants is for employees to listen to each other with respect and cooperate when they come together in the huddle.
She says her best employees almost always come from referrals by current or past employees, because employees who have already been successful at the company usually bring in people whose personalities and abilities fit with the company’s culture.
I asked Aneesa if she had any advice for a machining company that was having trouble finding good people—a company unlike hers that didn’t have a base of strong employees who could bring in others like themselves.
She chuckled and suggested the company should join the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA), of which she soon will be president. She says that peers in the organization guided her to modernize her shop in 2012 when the company had lost 90 percent of its business. She marveled at the unique cooperation the organization fosters amongst its members, who sometimes are direct competitors.
Companies are capable of great things when people respect each other in the huddle.
Question: Do you wish your workplace were more diverse?
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By Noah Graff
Several months ago, I called Pioneer Service Inc. when I noticed online they had a used Doosan for sale. The woman who answered the phone beamed with enthusiasm. She told me that she couldn’t wait to come to work every day because of how much she loved her job and the company she worked for.
So, for our current season about how machining companies find good employees, I knew I needed to interview Aneesa Muthana, a favorite past guest on the podcast, and the co-owner and president of Pioneer Service Inc. What is Aneesa’s secret? What is in the Kool-Aid she is passing out to employees on the shop floor that gives them such passion for their jobs?
Pioneer Service is a Swiss machining company in Addison, Illinois, established in 1990 by Aneesa’s uncle. Aneesa joined her uncle as a partner in 1993, on the condition that she would assume full control of the operations of the company. When she came to the company it was an old school screw machine shop filled with Brown & Sharpes. In the last seven years the company has replaced its Brownies with a fleet of high-tech CNC turning equipment—mainly Star CNC Swiss lathes and a few turning centers. Aneesa says she particularly likes the output and reliability of the Stars. The company makes parts for many sectors such as medical, aerospace, biotech, and electric vehicles such as TESLA.
Aneesa grew up working at M & M Quality Grinding, a centerless grinding company her parents started. She says that at 11 years old, while cleaning tanks on the shop floor, she fell in love with the production business. Yet despite making a very good living at her family’s company, she left her job at age 23 when she felt she could could no longer progress in her career there.
When the Covid-19 crises hit in 2020, Aneesa was faced with the dilemma of whether to furlough employees when parts orders were put on hold. Despite some questioning from her management team, she chose to keep producing parts at current quantities, rather than furlough employees or cut overtime. She didn’t want to create instability in her 30-person workforce, and she anticipated correctly that orders would eventually resume.
Like many machining companies in 2021 Pioneer Service is having a great year, but despite having held onto her employees during the crises Aneesa says she is always searching for new good people and always has to try hard to keep the ones the company currently has.
She finds some new employees on LinkedIn but says the best ones usually are referrals from current or former employees. Pioneer Service pays competitive wages, starting at $17 per hour, and Aneesa says she is committed to creating a company culture where employees feel respected and valued, so it sometimes surprises her when employees are enticed to leave by competitors who offer very modest pay raises or perks.
Aneesa says sometimes applicants with experience seem to check all the right boxes for a position, but if she senses they will not treat coworkers well she will not hire them.
She says she is committed to having all her employees feel like their voices are being heard and that they belong. Half of Pioneer Service’s employees are women, and the company also employs some African Americans, a long underrepresented group in the machining industry. A workplace where people feel comfortable and accepted is vital to maintain such a diverse group.
Aneesa has recently become a payed professional speaker, and often she is asked to speak on behalf of women in manufacturing. I asked her if she gets tired playing the role of “the woman advocating for women in manufacturing.”
She says she likes to talk about women in manufacturing to empower them. She wants to educate and inspire women leaders to participate in male dominated industries. Also, inspiring women does a service to society and the economy because it brings more quality people into the workforce.
Aneesa also wants expose other groups besides women to opportunities in manufacturing such as young people or people in the inner-city. She says to be successful in a profession people need to feel like they belong, so it is up to business owners and leaders to make people feel that way.
She tells audiences that although machining is a male dominated industry, she hangs with the guys, and they’re not monsters. She says women can’t portray men as villains and then expect them to accept them. She says it’s good for people to talk about their pain, but everyone, no matter what background, has gone through pain, so it’s important not to feel like a victim and blame others.
Question: Did your company keep all its people during the pandemic? Why?
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Comments Off on Ep. 125 – Hiring Ex-Felons, with Kathryn Shibelski /*php endif; // comments_open() ?*/>
By Noah Graff
On today’s podcast I interviewed Kathryn Shibelski. Kathryn is a second chance hiring advocate. Her firm, KES HR Consulting, works with companies who are considering hiring incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people. The job candidates have often been convicted for drug offenses, white collar crimes, sex crimes, and even murder.
Obviously, the idea of hiring people with criminal records could seem quite risky for a number of reasons, but according to Kathryn, second chance hires can thrive in the right work environment and even surpass the performance of employees with no criminal background.
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.
Strengths of Formerly Incarcerated People
In various areas around the United States there are programs in prisons that train inmates in trades such as machining.
Kathryn says formerly incarcerated people are often the most devoted, loyal employees. One reason for this is their gratitude for the opportunity just to have a job. Many ex-felons have few options for employment, so its extra important for them to hold onto their jobs, both for supporting themselves and to fulfill parole obligations.
Also, formerly incarcerated people often come into jobs with a unique set of skills. In prison people are forced to be resourceful. They have to solve daily practical problems using limited resources that people on the outside take for granted.
Other Reasons for Second Chance Hiring
Companies who employ second chance hires can receive tax breaks through the work opportunity tax credit. Also, Federal bonding programs protect employers against losses caused by the fraudulent or dishonest acts of at-risk bonded employees.
Finally, Kathryn encourages companies to hire second chance employees because it helps communities end a cycle of repeat offenses that often occur when people are released from prison.
Second Chance Hiring Obstacles
One of Kathryn’s main services is helping companies with on-boarding second chance hires.
Often formerly incarcerated people lack resources that many of us take for granted, such as a bank account, transportation to get to work, and a decent place to live. Companies who hire them have to be ready to help their new employees cope with these challenges.
One of the greatest challenges for companies to successfully hire second chance employees is getting their current workforce to buy in. Kathryn is a proponent of employers keeping an open mind to people with all types of criminal backgrounds, but she says that every company needs to choose for themselves which candidates they feel comfortable working with. Everyone at a company has to be on board for second chance hiring, not just the top managers. Often at least one individual at a company has had a bad past experience with a certain type of offender, and this may cause it to rule out many candidates immediately.
Another criterion companies need to consider is how long a candidate was incarcerated. People incarcerated for a decade or more often become institutionalized, making them prone to emotional issues.
Kathryn admitted to me that even she has her own personal difficulties regarding certain types of offenders, but she still firmly believes that everyone deserves a second chance to turn their lives around.
When reasoning with people who are resistant to second chance hiring, Kathryn suggests to them to think about their own friends or relatives who have made past mistakes or had poor luck navigating the U.S. criminal system. Have they made it back successfully?
With today’s 3-D printing technology parts can be produced on site so clients don’t need to wait for products to be sent by land or sea. All that needs to be sent is the digital information for how to produce the parts on site. Blockchain insures the digital information is correct.
(3:30) Jim gives background on his company Veritx which he established in August of 2019. He characterizes the company’s product as “a digital parts catalog for regulated industries that reduces long lead times and increases readiness for military and airline customers.”
(4:35) Jim talks about a proof of concept with the Department of Defense where blockchain could reduce the lead time for an F-15 part from 265 days down to 6 hours from order to delivery. He says that the United States military still uses some aircraft from as far back as the 1950s, so being able to deliver spare parts efficiently can be difficult when many of the original aerospace suppliers have gone out of business.
Jim Regenor, founder of Veritx
(8:00) Jim gives his background. He spent 31 years as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He was on the Security Council for the Bush and Obama Administrations, and he also ran a large logistics operation, with 15 locations in 11 countries across three continents—many of them war zones. He said he was moving roughly 570,000 tons of cargo and about 2 million people a year, and found himself constantly needing spare parts.
(9:25) After he got out of the Air Force, Jim ran the military aftermarket division at a Tier 1 aerospace company called Moog Aircraft Group. The company had acquired a 3-D Printing business in Michigan and realized that 3-D printing would become an enabler for digital 4.0 schema and how industries would interact. This led him to world of blockchain.
(11:00) Jim says that 3-D printing coupled with blockchain enables what he calls the fourth modality of logistics. Instead of transporting physical parts by land or sea, digital information to make the parts is sent on the cloud. Then parts are manufactured on site with 3-D printing. Blockchain enables the information to be sent properly.
(14:10) Jim characterizes blockchain as a distributed ledger. He gives an example of several people in a room in which one person owes another person 10 dollars. Every person records that 10 dollars is owed in their ledgers. If the person who owes money tries to lie and says he only owes 9 dollars, the people in the room have records to prove he lying. This concept means that information can be sent through a decentralized transparent system and cannot be corrupted. All records are transparent so that there is a consensus. For blockchain applications, sometimes hundreds or thousands of computers keep the ledger. This can be used to establish value for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, but it can also work well for other applications such as logistics because it enables people to track the entire lineage of an asset.
(17:20) Jim gives an example of Walmart using blockchain to track the supply chain of its lettuce from harvest to store shelves to combat the E. coli problem last year.
(19:00) Jim says that many companies are using blockchain right now and data can be tracked with user interfaces. He says for the supply chain for aerospace blockchain records the entire process, starting with the initial requirements being sent to a designer. Then each stage such as the design of a part, manufacturing, quality control, etc. is recorded individually. Everything is transparent and correct, insuring a good final product. If people realize there is a design flaw, it is easy to go back and find the mistake because each stage has been recorded with blockchain.
For more information about Veritx go to veritx.co or email Jim Regenor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: What’s your experience using blockchain?
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Comments Off on Best of Swarfcast – Ep. 85 – Kaizen Principles for Personal Growth with Darrell Sutherland /*php endif; // comments_open() ?*/>
By Noah Graff
Note: The Swarfcast team is enjoying a short summer break this weekend. We’ll be back next week with a fresh blog. In the meantime, enjoy this great episode from 2020 on incorporating Kaizen principals into your daily life, with guest Darrell Sutherland.
Today’s guest on the podcast is Darrell Sutherland, founder and owner of Dylan Aerospace in Auburn, Washington, a Tier 1 supplier for Boeing.
Darrell is also a professional mentor. He believes in using the Kaizen manufacturing principles for personal development as well as to improve a business. He believes in the power of mentorship so fervently that he spends over $100,000 a year on his own education.
(3:40) Darrell talks about his personal transformation in the last decade or so. He says that for many years it was hard for him to just get out of bed because he wasn’t happy with his life, despite his success and running a business he loved.
(4:15) Darrell says growing up he looked awkward and was bullied a lot but thinks his difficult childhood prepared him for adversity later in life. He says when he was young he got into martial arts, which made him realize his passion for learning and more importantly teaching. He says he has a talent for deconstructing ideas and concepts and synthesizing them into individuals’ unique abilities.
(5:40) Darrell grew up in Washington state. His grandfather and father worked for Boeing. His father told him to never be a “number” working for Boeing.
(8:00) Darrell says his manufacturing business had been very successful and made a lot of money for a long time before he underwent his personal transformation. He was even able to take more than 10 years off from day to day operations so he would have a lot of time to raise his kids. Yet he still wasn’t content with his life as he was addicted to food and alcohol, gaining over 100 pounds. He says November of 2009 he realized that he needed to change direction, starting with his health. Darrell says it took him many years and thousands of dollars to get the guidance he needed to fix his life.
(11:00) Darrell in the end realized that the Kaizen principles he had embraced in his manufacturing business could be applied to his own personal life. Darrell summarizes the Kaizen principles as deciding what one wants to accomplish and then analyzing and breaking it down to its root. Then a person starts making small incremental changes at the lowest level he can, and then analyzes the result at that low level. The process makes a person more aware of certain facts about his own life that he hadn’t looked at before. Then when a person can understand the roots of what the real issues are, he can understand the challenges he needs to overcome. Darrell calls his philosophy “living Kaizen,” and in his new book he writes about its parallels with the Toyota Kaizen model.
(14:30) Darrell says that reshoring of manufacturing is happening quickly and we as a country need to be prepared for it. He says despite Covid-19 this is probably one of the greatest times to be in manufacturing. He says that the pandemic demonstrated to everyone that the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing during the last few decades put the United States in a terrible position in the areas of infrastructure and national security.
(15:40) Darrell says before Covid-19 he was already planning for 2020 to be a big year for his company. He says that several years ago his company started an initiative called I Love MFG. MFG stands for “Moving, Feeding, and Guarding” America and the world.
(16:55) Darrell says that young people have no connection to manufacturing. He says they don’t think about their consumer items or modes transportation that are created through manufacturing. He says with reshoring upon us he is going to devote himself to opening young people’s minds to manufacturing.
(19:30) Darrell says that people often “stumble” into the world of manufacturing rather than set out to make it their trade. He says the question we need to ask is, how do we turn people into professional manufacturing people? He says we need to analyze how people are hardwired from birth and softwired by their community and then find the lane for them in the manufacturing space. He says he interviews his employees of all levels to help them figure out their talents and find the best way they can excel at his company.
(24:30) Darrell talks about how to find mentors and why they are so important. He says mentors are important to help us to find our weaknesses so we can fix them but to find the right mentor a person has to figure out what he wants. Darrell says to look on social media for mastermind groups to locate mentors, but he warns to watch out for life coaches who haven’t already achieved anything in their lives.
Darrell says for more information about Living Kaizen people can go to his Website, darrellasutherland.com and lifeapprentaceship.com where he will be giving away a free PDF with an introduction to his program.
Question: Which self-help books have benefited you in the past?
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Comments Off on Ep. 124 – Valuing Employees, with Scott Eighmy /*php endif; // comments_open() ?*/>
By Noah Graff
Today’s show is the first episode in our new season about hiring and retaining good employees in machining companies.
Our guest is Scott Eighmy, co-owner and CEO of American Turned Products, a medium-sized precision machining company in Erie, Pennsylvania. Scott says his company is struggling like many manufacturing businesses right now to hire new good employees, so he needs to get the most out of the people he already has. He says small acts of recognition and making employees feel heard is key to maintaining a happy and productive workforce.
American Turned Products (ATP) employs a little under 100 people. It serves a variety of industries such as automotive, appliance, military, and hydraulics, primarily focusing on high volumes—jobs with quantities of hundreds of thousands or millions of parts. To produce the large quantities of precision turned parts the company has many EPIC CNC Hydromats and INDEX CNC multi-spindles.
The the city of Erie and its surrounding areas supply ATP with a population of around 250,000 as a source for employees. Erie has a long history of heavy industry, its educational system is solid, and the cost of living is relatively low. A person can purchase a nice house there for $120,000.
Wages at ATP range from $12 per hour for new workers to $24+ on the higher end. Most of the hourly workers at the company start at the bottom and are trained in-house.
Today’s Difficult Labor Market
Scott says the current tight labor market has been challenging for ATP. He says the precision machining business is hot right now, but potential workers don’t have enough incentive to get jobs while they can still receive the generous unemployment benefits brought about by the COVID-19 crisis. Scott says he hopes Pennsylvania will soon stop taking the government subsidies that fund the special unemployment benefits, as several other states have recently done.
In typical times, ATP finds new employees by using temp agencies, but right now there are no temps available. The company also tries to find new employees using social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn, but that has also not yielded great results.
Culture of Employee Engagement
Scott says the millennial employees at ATP often ask why they have to do certain things, rather than simply accepting orders. The company tries to show them respect by allowing employees to ask questions in meetings and giving them straight answers. For instance, if management asks employees to prepare equipment to be sold, sometimes people ask why the company is selling it. Then managers do their best to explain why the change is necessary.
ATP wants its hourly employees to understand the purpose of their work, so the company often sends them to visit customers. Also, when customers come to visit the company, shop employees give them the tour, rather than the managers. Scott says, “The more employees understand what is important to the customer, the better the product the customer receives.”
Making Employees Feel Valued
Scott says ATP’s management philosophy is to show its people it respects and values them. It’s not uncommon for the company to have small celebrations, like a pizza party for a team that succeeds in setting up a challenging part.
He also says the company demonstrates how much it cares about its people by constantly emphasizing the importance of safety. Management has daily meetings with employees on every shift, and the first topic they go over are safety issues in the plant. In addition to preventing accidents, Scott says it demonstrates to employees that the company cares about their wellbeing.
He says if you demonstrate to people that you care and show optimism, people will be loyal and do good work.
Question: Do people at your company communicate well?
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Comments Off on Best of Swarfcast – Ep. 97 – Reducing Machine Setup Time up to 50% with Paul Van Metre /*php endif; // comments_open() ?*/>
By Noah Graff
On today’s show we’re talking about how to set up machine tools efficiently.
Our guest is Paul Van Metre, co-founder of ProShop ERP. ProShop produces a comprehensive web-based and totally paperless shop management system for small to medium manufacturing companies. Paul says that using a few best practices, guided by ProShop’s management system, can reduce a machine setup time up to 50%.
Paul shares his background. He grew up in New York and studied mechanical engineering in college. He says he found it dry, so he began looking for something more hands on. He found a program in Washington State that was heavily involved in the Formula SAE competition, which he fell in love with. He and his teammates decided to start a machine shop together right out of college. (3:10)
Paul says that for their machine shop’s first three years (in late 1990s) the company used Excel to make its job routers and travelers. As it added more machines, it put a computer next to each one. (5:15)
Paul explains that the idea for his company’s proprietary shop management system came out of desperation and need. As the company grew, introducing more machines and employees, Excel was not keeping up. His team researched shop management software in the old school Thomas Register books. (6:25)
Paul says that none of ERP software firms his company looked at offered products designed specifically for managing the shop floor. The products also required paper printouts, which Paul and his team felt was a step backward from what they were already doing using Excel. Ultimately, they decided to hire a software designer to design a custom ERP system for the company. Paul says it took a little less than a year to develop workable software to handle the company’s needs. (7:35)
Paul says it took about eight years before the company’s ERP software received outside attention. During the economic slowdown in 2008, a production manager from his company’s biggest customer came to the shop to work one day a week. When he tried using the ProShop ERP he liked it so much that he told his own company about it. (10:50)
The customer convinced Paul’s company to let it use ProShop ERP. Paul says that within six months of using the system his customer’s productivity was boosted so much it was able to free up three full time employees, and it drastically decreased its lead-times on various jobs. Then the customer asked if Paul’s company would allow some of its vendors to use ProShop ERP. Paul and his team then realized the opportunity to start a new business selling their ERP, which they founded in 2016. (12:30)
Paul says he misses the joy of the production process of running a machine shop, but he says providing ProShop to help other companies succeed is what he enjoys the most. (15:45)
Paul says that by using a few best practices a shop can save up to 50% of machine setup time. (17:45)
Paul says proper setup process starts when a machine has already been torn down from its previous setup. The teardown should be part of the machine’s previous job’s processes. (18:46)
Paul says the first thing to think about when starting a machine setup is to have all of the materials ready for the job at the machine—tooling, instructions, and rich media such as videos and photos to guide the setup person. This is because if a setup person has to leave the machine to get something that she forgot she can run into a multitude of distractions in the shop which significantly delay getting back to work on a machine.
Paul says one of the worst obstacles in slowing down setup time is when the shop doesn’t even have a necessary tools or materials on site. Then the setup process loses days while the company waits for materials to be shipped in. (23:00)
Paul says it’s very important for a setup person to have detailed work instructions for a job ready (SEE VIDEO BELOW). He says that ProShop ERP’s paperless system makes it easy for people to have all the important info about a job at the machine at all times (again, so they don’t have to get up and leave the machine). Having paperless instructions also makes it smooth to set up jobs that were already run on that machine in the past because the setup person doesn’t have to find an old printout. The instructions from the old job are ready on a computer next to the machine and may have important updates from the last time the job was run. Having organized instructions at a machine that are easily accessible enables a different person to set up a machine than the previous one. Paul says that ProShop ERP has plans to have software integrated right on machine tools in the future.(24:45)
Paul says ProShop ERP also helps with cutting time on the inspection step of a setup. It sets up processes for a setup person to do her own inspection on a part so the part looks good before it is sent to the Quality department. When the part goes to the Quality department there are notes for the quality technicians to pay attention to. (29:45)
Paul says another important part of every setup is continuous improvement on a part. One of the key features of ProShop ERP is that it allows machinists to document process improving ideas, flag their planning department, create action items, and assign tasks to save even more time. It’s all in one place so that communication is simplified and efficient. (31:40)
Paul says one of the most interesting things he learned last week was that 6% of the forests on the West Coast have burned this year within the last few weeks, which is nearly 20 times more acreage than last year. (34:05)
Paul says a key takeaway is that setup is very logical and doesn’t require specialized software if you have key systems in place. He believes that a little upfront work will have huge ROI on your time on the back end of the process. (35:15)
Question: What aspect of work do you wish you were more organized for?
For more information on ProShop ERP, visit: https://www.proshoperp.com/.
Have you ever noticed how certain people always seem to get lucky breaks? According to Christian these lucky people have a skill for recognizing luck when it materializes. In his book he guides readers on how they can create luck, recognize it when it appears, and then turn it into positive outcomes.
After hearing Christian interviewed on another podcast a few months ago, I was so fascinated I started listening to his book myself.
My job as a machinery dealer revolves around serendipity. Opportunities for machines always pop up when we’re not expecting them. It’s one of the most interesting parts of the job. But I’m seeking other serendipity in my life. I’m looking for inspiration for new creative projects and opportunities to bring more purpose into my life.
Christian prescribes using what he calls serendipity hooks, triggers to cause serendipitous outcomes in social interactions.
He advises introducing yourself to new people by using alternative questions to the typical, “What do you do for a living?” For instance, if you meet someone at a conference you could start a conversation by asking people what book they are currently reading, or you could ask them what they are thinking about at that moment and why.
If other people ask you what you do for a living, Christian suggests to mention several diverse things that could spur a connection with your counterpart. For instance, in my case I could say, “I’m a used machinery dealer, I have a podcast, and I’m passionate about making documentary films.” That response would create three different potential hooks that the other person might relate to.
Good salespeople use serendipity hooks by casually mentioning alternative uses for a certain item or various other products available. The strategy is to not make a blatant pitch, just mention things in passing that could possibly strike a chord a client.
Christian Busch, author of The Serendipity Mindset.
Changing Your Paradigm
In his book, Christian brings up the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza decides to do the opposite of everything his instinct tells him. The behavioral shift results in him meeting a beautiful woman and getting a job with the New York Yankees. Christian suggests that people try to think of one thing they could do differently every day.
One issue he says we need to overcome is the “hammer and nail problem.” If we need push a nail into a wall we automatically think we need a hammer. Our current knowledge closes our minds. However, if we have less expertise in an area, we are more likely to try new innovative ideas, for instance, the development of mobile banking in Third World countries where ATMs are hard to come by.
Always Keeping Your Eyes Open For Serendipity
Christian says if you believe interesting things can happen, it makes them likelier to happen. You should be prepared that every meeting could lead to something. For instance, if you spill coffee on a stranger at a cafe you should be open to using this as an opportunity introduce yourself to the person. Christian happened to have met an ex-girlfriend as well as his current wife that way.
He suggests to keep a serendipity journal in which you write down examples of when serendipity strategies worked and didn’t work. It is also useful to write down when you failed to use a strategy that might have led to serendipity.
Connecting the Dots
Christian says we can’t always change a situation, but we can influence our response to it. We can often use negative circumstances in our lives to get to positive outcomes, for example, the reinvention of a brewery during the Covid-19 pandemic, which used alcohol to become a hand sanitizer company.
Last year Christian became severely ill from Covid-19 and almost died. While he was sick and alone in his house he read Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, a book about a man in a concentration camp who tried to find meaning in something every day despite being in a place where there should be nothing meaningful. He says reading the book made him rethink his life’s priorities. When he recovered, he started a romantic relationship with a friend of 12 years. They are now engaged and expecting a child.
Question: If you could be granted one wish for a serendipitous occurrence, what would you wish for?
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Comments Off on Best of Swarfcast – Ep. 104 – Machining the Perfect Pen with Ian Schon /*php endif; // comments_open() ?*/>
By Noah Graff
Happy Memorial Day from the Swarfcast team!
We’re enjoying some family time this holiday weekend as the summer weather is finally upon us. We will return next Wednesday with a fresh blog for your enjoyment. In the meantime, tune in to a Best of episode from November 2020.
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.
Today’s podcast is Part IV in our series about how machining companies find new work.
Our guest is Tony Uphoff, CEO of Thomas, the parent company of Thomasnet.com, an online directory of over 500,000 North American manufacturers that was founded 123 years ago. Thomas filters its listings into 72,000 categories, which enables buyers and suppliers to pinpoint the exact partners who fit their needs.
The idea for Thomas Register came about in the late 1800s when its founder, Harvey Mark Thomas, observed some friends who were trying to build restaurants. He noticed they were struggling to source equipment—commercial ovens etc. He created a catalogue specifically for industrial supplies, which over time became the dominating platform in North America for procurement, engineering, and MROs (Maintenance, Repair, Operations). In 2006, Thomas went all in on a Web platform, ending its print format that had made it the king of industrial directories in North America for 100 years
The Online Directory
Today Thomas organizes its listings into 72,000 categories. Meta categories such as Machining or Metals are subset into hundreds of more specific categories. The purpose is to make it as easy and fast as possible for buyers and suppliers to find the exact right match for each other. Sophisticated search filters on Thomasnet.com guide users to the companies which best fit their specific needs. Users have the opportunity to view data about the listed companies to evaluate if a prospect is worth pursuing.
Thomas has around 1.3 million active registered users. The platform uses info about their demographics and interests to point users to the right search filters. It is possible to use Thomasnet.com without registering (about 30% of users do so), but a user cannot unlock the benefits of the filters unless registered.
Right now there 600,000 suppliers on Thomasnet.com. Every firm is offered a free listing, but to have greater reach Thomas offers the option of paid advertising, ranging from $500 per month to millions of dollars per year. Tony says the key advantage of Thomas is that it’s an in-market browser, so it attracts the specific type of users companies are seeking out. He says regardless of what companies spend, being listed can be valuable.
Building Industrial Websites
Thomas also builds private industrial websites for companies, independent of its main platform.
Tony says the latest data shows B2B purchasing is over 70% finished before a buyer engages with a sales rep. He says the top complaint from buyers is slow response time after they are contacted about potential work. This inspired Thomas to create WebTrax, a website add-on to help customers set up systems and standards for tracking phone calls and other communications. It organizes leads and allows companies to see who is browsing their sites.
Where Tony Uphoff Sees Manufacturing Upside
Noah asks Tony which arenas he would go into if he were to start a manufacturing company right now. Tony says he likes the automotive sector, seeing growth in related computer technology and battery fueled cars. He also sees a big impact of 5G and related technologies in the sector.
Tony also sees huge growth in the space industry, and renewable energy. Basically, follow whatever Elon Musk is doing—minus the Dogecoin.
Question: What’s been your most successful method for finding customers?