Today’s show is the second episode in our season about Swiss machining.
I interviewed Chris Armstrong last week while he was parked at a rest stop somewhere in Texas. He was en route on an all day trip to service a customer’s Citizens. I met Chris and his partner, Ryan Madsen, owners of Texas Swiss, a few years ago, trying to sell them some Citizen L20s from Asia.
Texas Swiss, formerly named Mad Science, is a CNC Swiss job shop not far from Houston that focuses primarily on Oil & Gas and Defense, along with some medical and other work thrown in. Chris told me that some of the medical parts the company produces actually have similarities with gun parts because of their size and various other features and shapes.
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In the past, I’ve usually talked to Ryan when peddling machines because Chris always seemed to be on the road, servicing the machines of other shops. That puzzled me, but eventually it became clear that servicing machines is truly a second business for their company. Just cranking out parts isn’t enough for Chris because his true passion is wrenching on machines.
Chris’s Citizen odyssey began 15 years ago. He was 21 years old and had just gotten laid off of his job as a welder at a fab shop. The night he lost his job and the following day he let off steam by blaring Metallica and starting a rehab on his condo’s bathroom. His neighbors in the building complained about the noise. When Chris explained to them that he was pissed off about losing his job one of the neighbors suggested he visit her son’s machine shop the next day.
When Chris came to the shop he laid eyes on a 1993 Citizen L316, and it was love at first sight. The machine was a new addition to the shop because the company was bringing new work in-house, so nobody there knew how to run it yet. Chris seized the unclaimed position of operating the shop’s lone Swiss machine. He taught himself to run it, taking books home at night and memorizing them. He was the beginning of the company’s Swiss department. The company, which was a medical shop, grew exponentially the next few years, but Chris eventually left to work for Citizen. He traveled around doing applications, sales, and support for awhile before finally deciding to start his own Swiss shop. Eventually he teamed up with Ryan Madsen, a high school friend to start their company Mad Science (later renamed Texas Swiss). The company’s original name came from Chris’s nickname, “Mad Scientist,” which he was given when he learned to operate a Matsuura MX-520 in one legendary morning on his own.
Chris says he enjoys the “crime scene forensics” element of troubleshooting machines. Yet, he says the root of most problems he encounters in shops comes from simplest of culprits. He says a lot of problems occur just because machines are not kept clean. Stray swarf and chips can easily cause a chain reaction of production mishaps.
He also says machines often don’t work correctly because they were poorly set up. He says setup people are sometimes in such a hurry to get a job up and running they use the wrong tooling, which is the cause of a lot of machining issues. He told me he likes to say “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” His philosophy is that the machines are already plenty fast, so taking a little more time for a setup will make production a lot more efficient in the end. He adds, its always important check machines’ sleeves because they’re always suspect.
Just talking to Chris a few minutes you know he can’t be content with staying home running a production shop, never venturing out into the field. He told me it would be a waste of a God given gift for him not to service machine tools, and that helping people overcome their machining heartaches and bring their projects to life gives him purpose.