Category Archives: Swarfblog

Ready to Travel?

By Lloyd Graff

The reopening of 90% of the Starbucks stores in the US over the next 4-6 weeks is a signal moment in the COVID-19 recovery, but what does it mean for the machining world?

I think it is a significant moment, but not a game-changer in itself. Nor are the very hopeful results coming in on the new Gilead drug remdesivir, which is already in use but not approved yet as an antiviral in America.

For many of our clients who make so much product for cars, trucks, and airplanes, as well as the oil and gas industry, the big question is when will people feel confident about getting out of their homes and doing the things they did routinely last year when the economy was humming along.

Unfortunately, this is much less clear because we are dealing with the big issue of fear of sickness and dying, especially if you are over 70 or have issues such as diabetes, heart disease, breathing problems, or lack of immunity. These categories probably affect over 25% of the American population.

If you take out 80 million people in America, plus millions in other countries with a lot of older people, such as those in Europe, it is hard to imagine robust auto, aviation, and travel business for quite a while. A second wave of COVID would cement the fear factor well into the next year.

Travelers cautiously brave O’Hare Airport

It seems to me that America really goes back to work when illness and death from COVID-19 is no longer the lead story in the news. This is why I keep thinking how important it is for the 2020 election and big time sports to become the focus on TV. The news media has correctly gauged the interest in the pandemic but have also fanned the panic.

We are really getting closer to it becoming just an addition to the flu season, but it will probably not happen until we have a credible vaccine. The scientists who know the regulatory hurdles, which will probably be more significant than the successful development ones, say it is very unlikely until next year sometime.

The question that I keep noodling is when will my wife and I feel confident enough to go to the airport, get on a plane, and visit our daughter and family in the Bay Area and vice versa. I know it will take longer than just for Starbucks to open its doors. It will take longer than the NBA and Major League Baseball to restart, which I project to restart by early June.

I will throw out my guess and ask you to give me yours. When will you feel safe to travel? When will you jump into an Uber car? When will COVID-19 be old news?

I will go with August 15th 2020. The Cubs will be in first place then. The presidential campaign will be starting to get nasty, and the 2021 cars will be ready to roll out.

Your guess?

Question: When will you feel confident enough to travel?


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Ep. 79 – Building the Ultimate E-Bike with Taber West

By Noah Graff

Today’s guest on the podcast is Taber West, founder of Gravity Worx, the manufacturer of a high performance suspension electric bike, called the E160FS.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast

When Taber was younger he raced bikes professionally, but as he aged and gained weight he no longer could do the type of cycling he used to enjoy, particularly mountain biking. When he discovered that a high performance e-bike could empower him to ride places he had thought were impossible, he set out to build his own.

Main Points

(3:50) Taber gives his background. He started out as a junior electrical engineer in the Navy. He has worked at various tech companies such as Unisys and Intel. He worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory (in his home town), where he worked on projects such as constructing super computers, running fiber networks, and various classified projects for United States military and security agencies. This gave him a wide background in fields such as advanced manufacturing, digital systems, and programming. He has three engineering degrees in electrical engineering, complex systems, and software engineering.

(5:22) Taber says when he was younger he raced bicycles professionally in triathlons and mountain biking, which he calls “painful and financially ungainful.” He says he liked mountain biking the best, even though mountain bikes back then were primitive and braze welded, with no suspension. He says he has tested just about every mountain bike component over the last 30 years.

(6:30) Taber talks about restarting his old bicycle company, Gravity Worx, 6 years ago, focusing on building state of the art carbon fiber mountain bike wheels. He designed a multiple wheel mold and started producing composite wheels and testing them under extreme riding conditions. He wanted to create a mountain bike built to withstand hitting the trails hard or carrying a heavy rider such as himself—Taber says he is 6 feet and weighs 300 pounds.

(9:25) Taber says he knew that with the right technology he could build a mountain bike stronger, faster, and better than anything else out there. The problem was that the best technologies which were being used in aerospace and ballistics had not yet been applied to building bicycles.

(10:00) Taber shows Noah a cut section of one of his rims, a hollow composite layup in a three piece mold that has no holes in the spokes.

(12:00) Taber says that after he engineered his components he had to search for the right machine tool to produce them.

(12:50) Taber explains in detail the components for his bikes’ hub shells. The body of the hub shell is forged from a 7075 ingot of aluminum alloy, then heat treated, then machined down.

(16:40) Taber talks about the production process for the hub. He says to make the hub at a typical machine shop it would probably require 2 different 5-axis mills and 4 different operations. He discovered that Samsung has multi-axis Swiss-type mills designed for feeding in bar stock that can machine the part in about 9 and a half minutes. He said another option is the INDEX C300 turning center priced around $1million (he estimates), which can make the part in about 4 and a half minutes.

(22:30) Taber talks about his prototype rear derailleur, the mechanism that shifts the chain at the rear sprockets (see video). He says his is different from all other rear derailleurs in the world because it’s designed specifically for his mountain bikes and e-bikes. He says an e-bike bike is extra heavy and has to withstand significantly more torc.

(23:25) Taber talks about how he has to produce very precise bike components because even a few extra grams can effect performance.

(24:25) Taber compares his e-bike’s features with competitors. He says he can get 55 hours of heavy climbing out of a single battery charge. He says part of the reason he can get such long battery life is that his bike weighs 44 and half pounds while a typical e-bike is in the 53-55 pound range. Thus, his bike is lighter, but is built to hold more weight. He says he designs his bikes to climb a hill at a 20% grade over rock. Taber says that his initial prototype bikes have passed 500 miles of riding and 63,000 feet of climbing.

Question: What is your experience with e-bikes?


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The COVID Conundrum

By Lloyd Graff

Norm and I were born on the same day. We grew up together. We did Cub Scouts in his basement. His mom, Miriam, was the den mother. Norm died from COVID-19 last Friday.

I was stunned when I received the news, even though I had not had any contact with Norm for over seven years, and didn’t know of his Alzheimer’s. He was the first of my high school classmates to die from it. I heard this from the internet listserv our class maintains. It brought the COVID plague off the CNBC news streamer into my heart.

The cold brutal fact is that most of the people who are dying from this terrible plague are like Norm. They are over 70 with other complicating health issues like Alzheimer’s, kidney dysfunction, lung disease, cancer, and diabetes. Their defenses are very weak and COVID-19 devastates them quickly. 

* * * 

In the past week the narrative in the country has rapidly shifted from desperate New York City and shortages of respirators, to what do we do when we loosen up the nation’s economic strait jacket. Many of the vital facts needed in the national and individual decision-making process are gradually emerging from the fog, and the MSNBCization of the news media. 

Most of the people who are dying are people like Norm. He is “the norm.” It kills mostly the weak who can’t fight back. It kills old people on cruise ships, but not sailors on aircraft carriers.

We know this because it hit the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and virtually every one of the 4860 crewmembers was exposed. Only one person, 41-year old Chief Petty Officer Robert Thacker, died.

Old people on cruise ships got infected and several succumbed. One person out of nearly 5,000 was the unlucky one on the carrier. Anecdotal evidence, yes, but also very important for the country to make its decision on going back to work. Opening up the economy is not just President Trump’s call, or Andrew Cuomo’s call, or Gavin Newsom’s or Jim Cramer’s on CNBC.

The decision will ultimately rise up from the people in a democracy because the politicians will be polling incessantly. Real people are gradually going to start coming out of their homes, meeting their friends, going into grocery stores, and returning to their barbers and hair salons. 

Temporarily closed barber shop in Bucktown, Chicago

The shutdown will begin to collapse because people will gradually, very gradually, start to shed their fear and their masks. They will quietly start asking Starbucks about when it will open its stores, and then they will ask to go back to work. Soon after that they will demand that they go back to work.

When the news trickles out that the number of people who have been exposed to Covid-19 but did not get really sick is 50 to 100 times higher than the published statistics, which is what the data coming out of Santa Clara County, home of Stanford, Google, and Apple indicates, the decision for the fearful politicians will almost be made for them. The people will decide.

More folks like my Cub Scout buddy Norm will die. The statistics in Italy are about as blunt and awful as it gets—55% of those who have died were 80 or older. People age 70 or older have accounted for 80% of deaths.

COVID-19 is the Grim Reaper for the old, infirm, and defenseless. For everybody else it is the flu. 

We had to shut down the country to save the hospitals in the big urban areas from being overwhelmed. That moment has passed. 

If we open up the country gradually, more of the old and weak will die, but the vast majority of people will be okay. People like me, born on the same day as my childhood buddy Norm, but hopefully in better shape, will ultimately have to decide for themselves when to get back in the fray.

Question: Do you feel safe enough to go back to work?


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Ep. 78 – Is the Hot Hand Real, with Ben Cohen

By Lloyd and Noah Graff

Our guest on today’s podcast is Ben Cohen, sports writer for the Wall Street Journal and author of the new book, The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast.

In the book, Ben analyzes many types of hot streaks, from basketball shooting streaks, to investing streaks, even a streak of hit plays by William Shakespeare. Most people have had a moment in their lives where a string of successes have given them the confidence that the next thing they try will also be successful. This book explores whether that belief is actually true.

Main Points of the Interview

(4:40) Ben gives his background and what inspired him to write The Hot Hand. He says he has always been obsessed with sports, and while at Duke University he got an internship in the sports department of the Wall Street Journal. In 2014 and 2015, Ben wrote some articles about the “Hot Hand” concept, and he thought it could be a neat way to look at a lot of industries beyond basketball.

(6:30) Ben says that when he started looking for examples of the Hot Hand, he saw it everywhere. He says we all have felt the Hot Hand at one point in our life and that the Hot Hand applies to all industries.

(7:00) Ben defines the Hot Hand as “when success leads to more success.” In basketball, where it has often been studied, it applies to the phenomenon of when a player makes several shots in a row and then it seems like the player has a higher likelihood of making the following shot. He says that this feeling applies to moments in all different professions or activities, and if we take advantage of those moments it can change our lives. He first noticed the feeling personally during a Junior Varsity high school basketball game where he scored 18 points in one quarter, more points than the rest of his entire basketball career put together.

(8:50) Ben says that several years ago while researching for his first piece on the Hot Hand he discovered a paper based on 30 years of research by world renown psychologists Gilovich and Tversky, which stated that the Hot Hand does not exist, but is cognitive bias. When the paper came out most people didn’t believe it, including a lot of basketball folk. 

Ben Cohen, author of The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks

(16:30) Ben says that the Hot Hand seems to be the product of talent, circumstance, and a little bit of luck. One Hot Hand Ben writes about in the book is a string of successful plays by William Shakespeare. During one of the most prolific periods of Shakespeare’s career, he premiered King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra in a span that some say was as short as two months. Prior to then he had not come out with a play in two years. Ben says this occurred during a plague year that had killed off much of his competition. Satires starring children had been a trend in theater, but when the plague hit, an adult audience more interested in tragedies became a better market.

Ben says that like during Shakespeare’s time, Covid 19 will inspire art movements or industry innovations. One never knows what a catalyst will be for a Hot Hand. 

(20:10) Ben discusses a chapter in his book about Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman and diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II.

(24:35) Ben discusses another part of the book that recounts Steph Curry’s extraordinary game against the Knicks in 2013, in which he scored 54 points and hit 13 3-pointers. He hadn’t ever put on a performance like it prior to that game. After that game the Golden State Warriors encouraged Steph Curry and other players on the team to focus on 3-pointers much more they had previously, breaking conventional basketball wisdom of the time.

(30:10) Ben concludes by saying that really smart people have come to different beliefs about whether or not the Hot Hand is real. But, he says how individuals respond when it seems they are getting the Hot Hand is what determines whether it is a force to enable extraordinary feats.

Question: Do you believe in the Hot Hand?

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False Positive?

By Lloyd Graff

Are we getting a false positive signal from the stock market, or is it a predictor of the economy in 3 to 6 months? This is the question business folk, big, small, and tiny, are asking themselves as the markets regain the ground lost in the early March slaughter.

The big tech stocks, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook, plus Amazon, Walmart, and Costco, are still sitting near all-time highs, while unemployment swells, small businesses languish, and Macy’s and Kohl’s starve. GM and Ford stock shrink, and Tesla stock hits $700 per share.

Are we on the eve of a depression or is this just a temporary misstep on the great trampoline of growth in America?

The machining business is straddling the chasm between panic and smiles of confidence. If a firm is predominantly an automotive supplier to anybody but Tesla, things look bleak. But for how long? There is plenty of potential demand waiting in the bushes.

People fear public transportation, which may translate to car sales. My sister bought an Audi SUV in February and my wife and daughter were both on the cusp of buying new vehicles. They will be back in the market when it feels safe to test drive some possibilities. My daughter is looking at the Jeep-Chrysler Pacifica, while my wife’s lease expired 3 months ago on her Camry.

We are waiting for the waters to calm. I’m sure there are many others in our shoes. But when will it be safe to do something, when right now a big trip is to visit the local supermarket for groceries to be put in the trunk after ordering ahead? The crazy thing is that we know our fear will dissipate and mostly be forgotten, but will it take 2 months, 6 months, or a year to regain our mojo?

We are just beginning the early spring of revival. I can feel it on good days when the sun is shining and neighbors are venturing out and talking without masks on. My sons are going out on walks together. My granddaughters recently met up with some close friends (10 feet away). I’ve almost gone to Dunkin Donuts to pick up coffee. My cardiologist tells me that his hundreds of patients are doing well and that the few who tested positive have recovered, except for the one frail man who died. I have friends who have recovered. It almost gives me confidence, but not enough to end my 33 day quarantine.

Yet business goes on. Most of my precision machining clients are working and reasonably busy. Medical and guns are strong. Military is okay but hesitant. Auctions are still taking place.

When will the umps say “Play Ball!”?

There will be a warm gust that begins to clear the fog of hesitation. It may be Major League Baseball or the NBA that gives the signal that we are waiting for. Yes, they will probably play without crowds and all of the participants will take their temperatures before play or practice begins. There will be missteps. A player or coach or ump will get sick, but one misstep does not mean it isn’t worth resuming. People always get sick and the world doesn’t fall apart.

Eventually we will have to coexist with COVID-19. We are social beings. We need to connect, travel, touch, and do business. We need to shed fear and take some calculated risks. The politicians and bureaucrats will dither, but the stock market is telling us, hopefully correctly, that good news is coming soon. Maybe when the ump yells “Play Ball!”

Question:  What is the first thing you plan to do when shelter-in-place orders are lifted?

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Ep. 77 – Niche Products and Injection Molding with Rick Wheeler

By Noah Graff

On today’s podcast we interviewed Rick Wheeler, owner of O’Malley Manufacturing in St. Petersburg, Florida, a company originally founded in 1910.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast.

Over the years O’Malley has had a knack for finding niche products to produce such as the Hair Snare, Lint Snare and Bait Bucket, which are all made with robotic injection molding. Rick likes to manufacture with injection molding because it allows him to make his products in-house from start to finish, and to sell them at competitive prices compared to products coming from overseas.

Main points of the interview 

(3:30)  Rick gives some history of O’Malley Manufacturing, which was started in 1910 as Edward O’Malley Valve Company. Rick’s great aunt married the company’s owner, Tom Reed, and when Reed died, Rick’s grandfather took over the business. After serving as a pilot in the Navy for six years, Rick came to work at the business in 1991.

(5:45) When Rick joined the business in 1991, O’Malley’s primary product were faucet and valve reseater kits, which they called Drip Stoppers. The company used Brown & Sharpe screw machines to make cutters and stems.  

Rick Wheeler of O’Malley Manufacturing, holding a Bait Bucket

(7:30) Rick talks about some of O’Malley’s main products. In 1969, an inventor brought the company a product she had come up with called the Hair Snare. The Hair Snare has a raised screen that typically goes over a bathroom sink drain to catch hair and small objects like jewelry and contact lenses. The inventor had first sought out much larger plumbing suppliers such as BrassCraft to make her product, but they weren’t interested. O’Malley was recommended to the woman by several people because they knew the company from the National Hardware Show and International Home + Housewares Show where it had exhibited for decades. This was the first product the O’Malley produced with injection molding.

(10:30) Rick talks about another product from O’Malley called a Lint Snare, which is kind of like the Hair Snare, but instead of preventing hair from going down a bathroom sink drain, it is a filter that prevents laundry lint from going down the drain of a laundry tub. When one of O’Malley’s salesmen brought the product to Rick’s father in 1985, he balked because the product required knitting. Eventually he was convinced the product had potential and bought six knitting machines to make it from start to finish.

(13:00) Rick talks about O’Malley’s relationship with the Hair Snare inventor. O’Malley bought the patent from her and paid her a royalty of 2% of gross sales until the patent ran out. 

(14:00) Rick explains that his bait bucket can transport 1 to 2 dozen live shrimp to use as fish bait. It needs to have a top to keep water in, but still be has to be easy to open. Rick bought the bait bucket business, which came with the molds and a customer base. 

(16:00) Rick talks about O’Malley’s entry into the injection molding business. For the first several years of producing the Hair Snare, O’Malley used contract molders. O’Malley owned a mold, which at the time cost $25,000. Contractors held the mold and made pieces as needed. After several years using contract injection molding companies successfully, O’Malley’s mold was stolen by one of its contractors. After this incident, the company decided to do its injection molding in-house. It purchased its own molding machine along with an integrated robot, and was able to eventually produce parts lights out.

(21:20) Rick says he likes the injection molding business because enables him to make products cheaply enough to compete with overseas competitors. He says he prefers this business to precision machining metal parts because he thinks it would be much more labor intensive. He says he doesn’t want to be spending hours in the office quoting lots of jobs and have to employ setup people. Also, he says he likes the process of injection molding. He likes the challenge of understanding the pressures and temperatures, the tonnage of the machines, the clamping and how to adjust the settings of a machine to get his desired part. 

(24:40) Rick says much of his success in acquiring products to make comes from good networking. He advises people make products rather than just selling other people’s products. He says that with the right equipment, injection molding provides a lot of possibilities to make products from start to finish. He says he knows many successful entrepreneurs who make their own molds, finding product ideas by searching the internet for popular items.

Question: Have you been able to make your own niche product?

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Political Virus

By Lloyd Graff

I am so tired of never ending graphs of suffering. I am tuning out more each day. But I am highly intrigued by the politics of COVID-19, particularly in a presidential election year.

Monday, Joe Biden, likely the Democratic nominee to run against President Donald Trump, called him to chat. This was a play right out of The West Wing playbook. With the Democratic primaries all but over, Biden has been pushed off the screens of America. Trump’s approval ratings have been going up by the day as he holds 2-hour “news” briefings, answering almost every question from reporters who he usually dismisses with scowls and sarcasm. He defers to VP Mike Pence, Dr. Deborah Birx, and the 4-star general handling logistics. He is generally holding his egotism in check and acting like a leader who is in command, and the role becomes him.

Biden’s aides must be tearing their hair out as they see their guy look like the janitor waiting to clean the room when the CEO finishes the meeting.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, possible presidential nominee?

Equally worrisome for Biden is the blossoming of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, who does his briefings in the mornings. Cuomo comes off as a capable, self-effacing, CEO handling the complex needs of New York City, often in a growing partnership with President Trump and the military. His stage presence and command of details set him up, at least to me, as the Democrat’s logical Presidential nominee, though he did not enter any primaries.

I am sure the rise of Cuomo, with his rapport with the media which is so New York centric, has to make Joe Biden and his associates very shaky. Perhaps Trump’s growing respect for Cuomo is pushing an interesting triangle into the presidential election. Biden not only has the Bernie Sanders wing of the democratic party to contend with. Now he has the unexpected rising star of Andrew Cuomo.

Am I crazy to imagine that a Democratic convention in which not enough primaries have been held to give Biden the easy nomination, punts on round one of the voting and a groundswell of support from right, left, and center in the party, hungry for a winner, begins a Cuomo for President snowball at the Milwaukee convention?

Joe Biden has no passion in his campaign. He has become the front runner almost by default. If Cuomo appears to guide New York through its COVID-19 crisis and continues to look like the president of a besieged state and region, Joe Biden ought to be plenty scared.

Question: Have you tuned out the daily COVID-19 news?

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