Category Archives: Business

Swarfcast Ep. 50 – Robots, Vaporizers and Transfer Machines

By Lloyd and Noah Graff

For the fiftieth episode of Swarfcast we are playing clips from some of our favorite past podcasts.

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Highlights include:

(3:06) From episode 1, Lloyd talks about his decision to go into the family machinery business. He also talks about his working relationship with his father and his father’s cousin Aaron Pinkert.

(7:37) From episode 15, George Breiwa, founder of DynoVap, talks about his proprietary vaporizer that does not rely on an external electrical source. He discusses manufacturing his product using CNC Swiss screw machines.

(11:10) From episode 10, John Griner, owner of Griner Engineering, discusses his company’s drug testing policy.

(13:50) From episode 18, Jerry Levine, former executive at Amoco, gives his take on global warming, saying the earth’s environment is not in an age of crisis as many scientists believe.

(17:00) From episode 5, Esben Østergaard, founder of Universal Robot, discusses the role of collaborative robots in the future of manufacturing. He says that in today’s economy there is a need for robots that are easy to redeploy for constantly changing short runs.

(20:25) From episode 37, Brent Robertson of Fathom gives Lloyd and Noah insight on how they can find purpose running their machine tool business and media business.

(23:53) From episode 47, business writer, Bo Burlingham discusses the keys for business owners to successfully exit their businesses.

(26:47) From Episode 43, Bruno Schmitter, owner of Hydromat USA, discusses his upbringing in Switzerland and the early days of selling Hydromat rotary transfer machines in the United States.

Question: Who would you like to hear interviewed in a future Swarfcast?

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Swarfcast Ep. 49 – Sebastien Schmitt of Staubli on Robotics in Diverse Fields

By Lloyd and Noah Graff

On today’s podcast we interview Sebastien Schmitt, North American Robotics Division Manager of Stäubli, a prominent robot producer from Switzerland. Sebastien explains how Stäubli focuses on building robots to help produce smaller automative components for car interiors and parts under the hood rather than assembling large car bodies like some of its competitors.

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Sebastien also discusses Stäubli’s TX2 Robot, a model which can be used in a collaborative or a standard industrial mode, plus the importance of working with robot integrators who are specialized in their specific fields in order to get the most out of robots.

Highlights from the podcast include:

(2:44) Sebastien Schmitt discusses the history of Stäubli since the company’s inception in 1892 in Switzerland as a producer of textile machines. Later Stäubli got into the connector business, and in 1980s it entered the robotics field.

(6:10) Sebastien discusses the specialty areas for Stäubli robots. He says that 50 percent of industrial robots are utilized by the automotive sector. Stäubli focuses on the production of smaller automotive components such as car interiors and parts under the hood. Other robotics companies produce a lot of larger robots for welding and assembling car bodies.

(7:37) Sebastien discusses Stäubli’s significance in automating industries such as pharmaceuticals, life sciences and medical devices.

(13:00-18:30) Sebastien discusses the trend of collaborative robots. Stäubli’s TX2 model is capable of being used as a collaborative robot as well as standard industrial type. He discusses how robots can only truly be collaborative if they are properly integrated. Telling the robot what to do is not complicated. The complicated part is integrating the robot to execute a productive application.

(18:30) Sebastien explaines Stäubli’s philosophy of partnering with integrators who are specialists in the field of an application rather than using an in-house integration department.

(23:25) Sebastien discusses statistics which show that when countries bring in a lot of robotics into their infrastructure their unemployment rate actually decreases.

(25:55) Sebastien discusses how he got into robotics. He talks about his upbringing in northeast France, an area once known for mining. He was influenced by his father, a mechanic who was the first in his family who didn’t go into mining.

(29:43) Sebastien gives his preference for the film Short Circuit over The Terminator.

Question: What task do you wish you could give to a robot?

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Machining a Pancreas

By Lloyd Graff

A couple days ago, 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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Swarfcast Ep. 48 – Jonathan Ladouceur on 3D Printing Houses

By Noah Graff and Rex Magagnotti

Our guest on today’s Swarfcast is Jonathan Ladouceur, head of engineering at Twente Additive Manufacturing, a company specializing in architectural 3D printing. We met Jonathan last week when his company bought an ABB IRB 6700 track mounted robot from Graff-Pinkert.

Rather than 3D printing with plastic or metal, Twente 3D prints with concrete, creating huge structures. Jonathan told us that in the next few months Twente will be embarking on a project to produce the frame of a house in 40 hours of machine run time over a six week period.

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Main points from the interview:

(3:35) Jonathan talks about the emergence of 3D printing with concrete.

(5:20) Jonathan talks about the origins of 3D printing. He characterized the very first versions of 3D printing as “2.5D printing,”  as compared to the processes his company is currently using, printing with concrete.

(9:45) Jonathan discusses Twente’s upcoming project to build a code compliant house frame using 3D printing in British Columbia, Canada. This would be the first of its kind in the country.

(16:07) Jonathan discusses the way 3D printing houses may change the building industry. He says, “One of the biggest benefits to 3D printing is the complexity not costing extra.”

(20:35) Jonathan discusses the material composition of the concrete Twente is using for 3D printing. The concrete’s composition and a precise control of temperature enables it to harden 30 seconds after it is released from the nozzle.

(23:15) Jonathan talks about the design software, Rhino, with an add-on called Grass Hopper that does parametric design. The software also enables the user to map out where the nozzle needs to run.

(27:30) Jonathan discusses his predictions for who will be using 3D printing to produce houses in the near future. He says that it will be important in areas where transport is difficult. The shipping costs to ship traditional building components to remote areas can be astronomical. To build a house with 3D printing all one would need to transport to the location is a robot and some chemical additives if materials can be sourced at a local quarry.

Question: Have any of your clients switched a product from machining to 3D printing?

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Trade Wars

By Lloyd Graff

Today is the last day of the Major League Baseball trading season.  I am a nutty baseball fan, Chicago Cubs variety, who follows such folly with a fanatic’s intensity.

Maybe it’s the machinery dealer in me, but I love the trading.  Every team is looking for that player who with change of scenery turns into a butterfly from a caterpillar.  Other times non-contending teams will trade a star at the end of his contract for a potential star at the beginning of his career.  The classic case of this was in 2016 when the Cubs traded their best young minor league player, Gleyber Torres, for the services of Aroldis Chapman, the hardest throwing relief pitcher in the game who was at the tail end of his contract.  Chapman, who could throw 105 mph, helped the Cubs win the World Series in 2016.  Gleyber Torres was an All-Star this year for the Yankees.  Chapman left the Cubs after 2016 and re-signed with the Yankees.

These “deadline deals” can be transformative for a team.  The Cubs made a great deal with the Texas Rangers in 2012 trading Ryan Dempster, a once great relief pitcher, and a decent catcher, Geovany Soto, for pitcher Kyle Hendricks, then a minor league pitcher out of Dartmouth who had a fastball that could not break the proverbial “pane of glass.”  In a little less than a year Hendricks had become one of the best pitchers in the game, and Dempster had retired.

As I was preparing to write this piece I had a heretical thought for a baseball fan.  Does the act of trading a player make him a kind of high-priced slave?  The player usually has no say on where he might be sent.  He has to uproot himself and maybe his family on a moment’s notice.  He immediately has to acquaint himself with an entirely new group of teammates, some of whom may be hostile because he threatens their position.

The NBA players are pushing back on the notion of easily trading players.  Star players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis can almost call their own landing places and influence whom they would like to play with.  In football the Le’Veon Bell holdout at Pittsburgh is a precedent for important players to command more leverage in their employment, though the NFL seems to be very hardline in resistance.

I don’t know exactly how things will play out, but the players are destined to get a say.

Question: What are the best or worst sports trades in history for you?

 

 

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Swarfcast Ep. 47 – Bo Burlingham on Successfully Exiting a Business

By Lloyd Graff

Bo Burlingham has spent much of his career writing about the lives of entrepreneurs. I recently interviewed him at his home in the rustic hills of Oakland, California.

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We talked about the need to plan for a strong and successful conclusion to a business career, as described in his recent book, Finish Big. Bo discussed seven factors that characterized owners who had happy exits:

(10:55) You must know who you are, what you want and why.

(11:44) You have to build a sellable business—a business that you could sell when you wanted, to whom you wanted, for an amount you considered fair.

(11:20) You have to give yourself enough time. Most people don’t start thinking about exiting early enough. You need to find a successor, and it takes a long to time to get that right.

(13:15) You have to get the right advice from others who have exited their own businesses in the past.

(13:50) You have to become very clear in your own mind about what you want to have happen to the people in the company for you to feel at peace afterwards.

(14:20) You must do as much do diligence on the buyer as the buyer is going to do on you. You want to find out why they really want to own the company. Otherwise you are in for some bad surprises.

(14:44) You have to figure out what you are going to to do after the exit, who you are going to serve. Bo found that many people after they leave their company don’t know who they are anymore. They no longer know what their purpose is in life.

Question: What will you do after you are finished with your current work?

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At the Track Every Day

By Lloyd Graff

Trading in used machinery is sophisticated gambling. Some people find it strange that I am utterly indifferent about sports gambling.  It has no allure for me. I once lost $25 playing 21 at a casino in Vegas and felt stupid – not for losing, but just for walking into the smoke-filled room.  Yeah, it was a long time ago.

And now, after such a long, long time in the screw machine trading and refurbishing business, we have the exhilarating and scary opportunity to reinvent a new business by finding a new cohort of machines to gamble on.  I’m finding it exciting, even enthralling at times, and pretty damn scary, too.

A very smart guy once told me that “if you don’t feel ‘it’ in the pit of your stomach, you aren’t bidding enough to get a deal.”  He was right, but that doesn’t mean fear guarantees your success. It only guarantees doubt and restless sleep.

In our machinery business, we are confronted with the wrenching reality that our traditional customers are not very interested in buying what we’ve always sold.  It’s a bit like a car dealer specializing in sedans and convertibles in a pickup truck and SUV world. Not much action. The obvious path is to switch to pickups and SUVs, but the downside is that almost everybody else has done the same thing.  For a used machinery dealer, the analog is to jump into the used Haas lathe and vertical machining center market. But that is awfully boring and terribly competitive. There is an auction every Tuesday and Thursday with Haases in it. The only sleepers are in sofa beds.

Our strategy has been to go to Outer Mongolia searching for bargains and hauling them back to civilization.  My son Noah likes to travel to Outer and Inner Mongolia so he wants to try this approach.

I also want to search for the guavas and jackfruit in the produce department, the exotics that only the people with weird tastes dare to inhabit?  This is a long jaunt from the Acmes and New Britains of my youth that we once sold by the truckload.

Our real niche seems to be in the European descendants of the Acmes and New Britains, the CNC multi-spindles like Index and Schutte that are so darn complicated and daunting that they confuse even people who have grown up with their simpler, now often discarded, cousins.

When you place bets on machinery you don’t know like family, you are going to lose some of the time.  Try to tell your banker, “Well, I bought that washer, that robot, that Hydromat thing, to experiment.”  They may get the intellectual gambit, but they get rather annoyed about losses. They think you are always supposed to win in business.  This is when resilience and being part of a team that understands the value of defeat as an educational tool, one that realizes that business is a continuum, are so vital.  To succeed in the long game of business you have to build in defeat cushions. If you are going to gamble you are going to lose. If losing is “unacceptable,” which seems to be the position of football coaches like Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, you are going to end up desperately needing a shrink or a sabbatical.

I hate losing or being wrong, but I also love the action of being in business and trying really hard to win every day, knowing that setbacks are inevitable, and dealing with change is maddening.  

I think about the option of leaving the game.  Noah often asks me, “Dad, was it always this hard?”

Honestly, I can’t even remember, Noah.  Let’s just get it on.

Question: Do you view business as gambling?

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Swarfcast Ep. 45 – Patrice Zamor on Manufacturing in Israel

By Lloyd and Noah Graff

For most people manufacturing and Israel are two topics that are not normally spoken about together. Patrice Zamor, the guest on today’s podcast, lives in both of these worlds.

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Patrice emigrated to Israel from France in the 1970s and has spent much of his career working for Ditron Precision, a multi-national automotive component supplier headquartered there.

Takeaways from the interview:

  • Patrice discussed Israel’s strength in high-tech fields as well as its significance in producing machined components for international markets.
  • He gave his outlook on the current world automotive industry.
  • He talked about Israeli culture and what inspired him to emigrate from France.

Question: Is Israel a place you want to visit? Why?

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The Purchasing Bottleneck

What else doesn’t count anymore?  PURCHASING DEPARTMENTS.  The bottleneck of “purchasing” in big companies has become laughable to me as an outsider and to shop folks who make the money in manufacturing.  The big gripe used to be “management,” but I don’t hear that as much now.

Today, the outcry is with purchasing departments in larger companies that slow everything down with paperwork and “justifications.”  When you need 1,000 pounds of 12L15 round tomorrow, and Central Steel is happy to get it to you at a fair price so the company can make five grand on a hot job, and purchasing just can’t quite make it happen for a week, that is dumb, antiquated management.  We see it all the time.  It’s why small companies survive and often prosper, while bigger firms trip all over themselves.

It is also why private equity firms are eyeing even small shops with 20 or 30 employees if they have a “secret sauce,” few destructive fiefdoms, and a culture of cooperation.  Unions have failed in America today because they rely on a culture of conflict.  Enlightened management has reduced conflict in many cases, thus reducing the desire for institutionalizing conflict in a union setup.

American stock markets edged close to all-time highs yesterday.  The mavens of the market, who I think really know less than nothing, think it is the prospect of the Fed lowering interest rates today.  I doubt it.  The Fed is generally rather irrelevant during these days of low inflation and tiny unemployment.  The Fed is almost as irrelevant as the United Auto Workers who after 25 years still have not managed to unionize one auto plant in the South.  They lost last week at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga again.  This is at VW which has a Board thick with Union folks in Germany.  The UAW now has 30% of the workers it used to have.

*************

We are celebrating 10 years of growth in the economy according to the numbers.  I am a bit skeptical of that personally.  I have seen plenty of ups and downs in my work over the last 10 years, but the broad sweep has been upwards — unless you build single-family homes in places like Chicago.

The national press and Democrats running for President are up in arms about the “lack of affordable housing.”  If you live in Seattle, Portland, or Manhattan, yes, you cannot find a cheap place to live except for an alley, but to generalize it for the rest of the country is absurd.

You want affordable, move to Bismarck or Oklahoma City or my neighborhood of beautiful homes on big lots, 35 minutes from downtown Chicago.  You may have a neighbor with darker skin than you, but this is America, folks.  Or you might prefer 900 square feet of quite-functional, newer space in Chicago and forgo a car.  Affordable housing is in the eye of the beholder.  I just heard of a couple from Seattle who made a study of the entire country as they prepared to move.  They were both in jobs which required them to have access to a major airport.  They were hoping to have kids.  They wanted an area that was not homogeneous.  They bought a home under $200,000 near me where they can live on one earner’s pay.  Affordable housing is plentiful if you have flexibility and don’t accept the conventional wisdom of scarcity.

Where is the “economy” heading?  It depends on what economy you identify with.  My economy of people making stuff out of metal using creativity and grit looks quite promising, even as automotive companies deal with a young population increasingly bored with cars and trucks.  There are plenty of more promising areas to gravitate into than pickups and SUVs.

Interest rates, inflation, the Fed, tariffs, the deficit, barely move the needle except to stock market junkies.  U.S.-China competition will continue whether Donald Trump wins or loses in 2020.

Enjoy the opportunities. Ignore the noise.

Question: Does “Purchasing” get in your way?

 

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Swarfcast Ep. 43 – Bruno Schmitter on Bringing Hydromat to America

By Lloyd and Noah Graff

Today’s podcast is part one of a two part interview we did with Bruno Schmitter, CEO and COO of Hydromat USA.

In 1979 at the age of 25, Bruno came to St. Louis to sell and popularize the previously unknown transfer machine in North America. Bruno told us that at a young age growing up in Switzerland his father began encouraging him to go into the machine tool business. He also discussed his first years in the United States when he traveled the country convincing multi-spindle screw machine shops to use Hydromats.

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Question: Did your father encourage you to go into the machining business?

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