Are They A Buyer?

By Noah Graff

Machinery deals are often like fruit. Sometimes you just have to wait for them to ripen. — Old machinery dealer proverb.

The Swiss CNC market is red hot. Of course, that’s if you have the right machine on the right day.

Graff-Pinkert has a beautiful Tornos GT-26 Swiss machine for sale. It’s manufactured 2015, has about 4,000 hours on it, and looks almost new. A lot of people have come close to buying it—I think.

In July, a dealer I enjoy with working on the West Coast “had it sold.” But when it was time to wire funds, his customer hesitated and then backed out.

Around the same time, another dealer told us he was very close to selling the machine to an old customer who had several of the same model. “A 70% chance they would buy!” he said.

A guy in Estonia has also inquired on it several times in the last year, texting price proposals back and forth with me on WhatsApp. We even reached the point where we were getting pricing to ship the machine to Helsinki, Finland, which I learned is a short ferry ride from from Tallinn, Estonia.

Tornos GT-26 being sold by Graff-Pinkert

A few weeks ago, the owner of a company in Savanah, Georgia, inquired on the Tornos. He makes a product called a KeyBar, a mechanism similar to a pocket knife but for keys. We talked a while about the machine and his company. He hasn’t purchased it yet, but at least it led to a fascinating podcast interview we posted a few weeks ago. Podcast interviews are often the consolation prize for deals that don’t work out.

A job shop in the Midwest called me Monday, saying they thought they were ready to buy the machine. I’ve talked to them several times this year about it. They seemed like they were serious about buying it then as well. Maybe this time they will buy the machine, maybe they won’t. I’m keeping my expectations tempered. 

I spoke to a different customer about this machine also on Monday. He has a business out West making body jewelry. He emailed us, inquiring about a Citizen L20 that we no longer have. I told him about the GT-26 and he got excited. He said he had researched the model but hadn’t thought he would ever find such a good deal on used one. He has never owned a Swiss machine before but told me he is the type of person who “jumps into the deep end of the pool feet first.” He says he’s not afraid of taking a risk if he sees a great opportunity. I told him about the other guy who called the same day, who said he was ready to buy the machine, and he was disappointed. He said finding the used Tornos GT-26 that day seemed like fate. I told him I loved his serendipity mindset and that he should listen to the podcast I recorded about the topic. As of today, the machine is still available, and it’s fair game. Is he another person who got excited but then couldn’t dive into the pool? I honestly don’t know.

I’ve learned it’s hard to tell when someone really is going to buy a machine. Often people I think are hot on a machine, just can’t pull the trigger. Part of my job is to figure out the difference between “someone who wants a machine” and “someone who is going to buy a machine.”

I know most of the machines we sell aren’t cheap. They can sometimes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t blame people for shopping around. They want to be sure of themselves before they spend the money.

Also, I have to always remind myself. For me, these machinery deals are the center of my attention. They pay the mortgage. Perhaps at a specific moment, while selling the machine is the most important thing to me, the customer has something entirely different on their mind. That is out of my control.

The question is, what is within my control? Maybe nobody has bought the machine because its price is too high. Maybe I haven’t been persuasive enough. Perhaps if I was more creative we could have made a deal. What I’d like to think is that the machine just hasn’t found its right match for a new owner.

A fellow dealer once told me that finding a wife is like finding the right machine. When you see it, you just know it’s right. That may be true. After all, these days the Web is a good place to find both.

Question: What’s your favorite used machine you’ve ever purchased?

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I Need To Be More Social

By Lloyd Graff

Noah had a long conversation yesterday with a young fellow machinery dealer who says he is “crushing it” this year. His secret sauce is social media. 

I listened to the conversation for 20 minutes before I wearied, but I have little doubt he is doing well. There is something to be gained for most businesses, including ours, by using social networks to reach the newer players in the machine tool world, from Montana to Morocco.

Believe it or not, I am writing this piece with a drawing pen on an 8×11 sketch pad. It’s the way I connect with the page and hopefully the reader. I send the finished pages, photographed by my iPhone, to Ridgely Dunn, who works for TMW. She types them into a computer and sends the copy back to me for editing. Laborious, very old school, but I can afford it, and it still works for me. We all need to find our own medium.

I do recognize that sending magazines through the mail and relying on flyers and catalogs to advertise used machinery is too sluggish and yesterday if you hope to “crush it,” whether business is jumping like right now, or you’re in survival mode like in 2020. 

In a Google and Amazon World, your customers and potential workers are not going to wait for you and I to wake up.

You have to compete with the shop owners who hire videographers to interview the people bringing their parts to life, and show plant tours to make their businesses unique in the marketplace.

You probably need a few videos on your YouTube channel with several thousand views to make you a credible player against cheap Chinese competition. Your competitors will be doing it soon if they are not doing it now. 

As travel becomes more expensive and laborious while COVID-19 continues to plague the world, we will have to use media and social networking to win the game. 

I am not thrilled to observe this shift from pen and ink to the metaverse. Right now, our businesses are prospering, even as the tide pulls us along. But to succeed in the end, we will have to compete with the people who are willing to focus not just on tooling and coolant, but the social networks and media outlets where younger people spend time, and you can’t just do it from 8 to 5. You have to keep going after the workday is over, while you could be watching Monday Night Football. 

And talking sports, the big money today is in online fantasy football and betting. ESPN is yesterday’s game. 

Machining people run their CNC lathes, lasers, and robots, and manufacture exquisite metal pieces. The problem is that other firms have similar machines and clever people and adequate capital to compete with you every day of the week.

What they lack is your uniqueness, and that is what social media can convey. It can connect you with other unique people who are hoping to reach you.

I am bewildered by all of the computer stuff, but what I do understand is the importance of networking, of reaching those people who need you and who you need. Today you can search and find them all over the world. 

You might not know how to use the maze of electronic highways at your disposal, but there are more people available out there who can navigate this stuff than there are capable machine operators. They work by the hour, and they can do their thing in their homes and when they are out of class. 

If you miss this opportunity, your competitor will connect the dots that you didn’t even know existed.

Question: Have you found customers through Instagram or other social media?

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Sharing What’s Working and What Isn’t, with Reid Leland

By Noah Graff

Our guest on the podcast today is Reid Leland, founder and President of LeanWerks, a precision machining job shop in Ogden, Utah. Lean Works operates using open-book management, which means the company shares its financial information with all its employees on a regular basis.

Reid says this transparent management style makes its employees aware of how their performance impacts the company’s success. They feel accountable to not only work hard but more intelligently, in a way that benefits the company the most.

Reid learned about the open-book management approach at his previous company, Setpoint Engineered Systems. It was popularized by entrepreneur Jack Stack, author of the best selling book The Great Game of Business.

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.

Main Points

Employees Must Understand the Company’s Financial Score

All employees at LeanWerks are required to complete a rigorous training program in which they learn how to understand income statements, balance sheets, and cashflow. 

The object is to teach employees the ultimate financial score of whether the company is winning or losing. Open-book management is intended to illuminate the strategies and practices that make a company profitable and eliminate waste. For instance, at LeanWerks, shop employees might look at how many parts are being scrapped on a job and then study the balance sheet to understand how much the scrap impacts profitability. After analyzing the data, they might adapt some practices—not because they are told to do so from upper management, but because they understand and believe in what they are doing.

Flat Organization With No Hierarchy

Open-book management is based on the tenet that the intelligence of the group is better than the intelligence of any one individual. It also proposes that if everyone at a company shares information, the company will make better decisions. LeanWerks has weekly huddles in which its people discuss what’s going on at the company, what they need to fix, and what will happen if things don’t change. The company’s 35 employees all have the power to influence its decisions. This is advantageous because people working in various departments can contribute valuable perspectives that an upper management team might overlook. 

Reid says he likes that transparency eliminates hierarchy and makes everybody accountable, including him. He is OK with the fact that if he makes mistakes they are out in the open for people to see and call him on.

During the interview, I grilled Reid repeatedly about the obstacles open-book management could create. I asked him if he runs into the problem of having too many cooks in the kitchen who have conflicting ideas about how to direct the business. Surprisingly, he says the company does not waste a lot of time bickering over decisions. 

Reid Leland, Founder and President of LeanWerks

Psychic Ownership

Every month, LeanWerks’ employees have the potential to receive monthly bonuses if the company has turned a profit. This gives them extra incentive to make the company succeed, but Reid says the inclusion of employees in the decision making process is a more significant element in making them feel invested in the company’s success.

Reid says that LeanWerks’ people feel stress when the company is having a hard time and feel good when the company is doing well. He is proud to say that these emotional swings don’t only fall to him and his wife, who also manages the company.

He says that during three financial crises the company faced in 2009, 2015, and 2020, open-book management was instrumental in the company’s survival. All of the company’s people taking ownership and feeling accountable enabled it to endure. They were adept at taking difficult steps when necessary.

In the past, some talented employees left LeanWerks because they didn’t want to participate in open-book management. One talented machinist who quit lamented to Reid that his job at LeanWerks was the one job he had in his life where he would go home and worry. Reid says he is ok with missing out on some talented people who are not a good fit for his company. Talented employees are not enough for him, he wants partners.

Question: Would open-book management work for you? Why?

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Finally Bearing Fruit

By Lloyd Graff

The apple tree on the west side of the Graff-Pinkert warehouse is having a big year. After over 30 years of failure, it has finally hit its stride. Yesterday, I ate one of its sweetish-tart apples as a late afternoon treat. 

We built the Graff-Pinkert building over 35 years ago, and I planted the tree as a sapling right after we moved in. We gave it a boost this year by spraying in the spring to counter the nasty insects that have made the small amount of visible fruit inedible these many years. It stands a few feet away from a 40-foot ocean container, which flanks our driveway with its original mural that I commissioned 20 years ago adorning its side.

A picnic table sits a few feet away from both the tree and container. It is well used these days for lunch breaks and conversation. 

The apple tree is a magnet for my attention these days. It feels like a symbol of my life and work.

The tree has wounds. One of the major branches, reaching west out of the trunk, is totally dead. For me, it is a reminder of the lateral anterior descending artery of my heart that was completely blocked exactly 13 years ago this week. This kind of blockage kills almost every person who suffers from it. Fortunately, I had enough peripheral circulation, developed most likely from a few thousand miles of morning runs over many years, to live long enough to have a successful quadruple bypass surgery.

The used machinery business has been a struggle, too, these last two decades as machining companies lost so many customers to China and other low-wage countries. The vitality in the turned parts industry faded. Computer work and services pulled so many talented people from businesses that had looked so appealing to post-World War II men and their children. Women and African Americans found the industry unattractive. Machine tools and the people who used them stayed alive like my apple tree, but neither pollinated or bore much fruit.

An apple tree usually requires another apple tree within 40 feet, even a crabapple tree will suffice, to blossom, pollinate, and bear fruit. Our closest crabapple tree is on the east side of the warehouse. The bees have seemed disinterested in doing their work, separated by a 20,000-square-foot warehouse plus 80 feet. No apples year after year. I forgot that the tree was an apple tree capable of giving beautiful tasty fruit.

Two years ago, I spotted a couple of apples. They were small and covered with black insect holes, but still apples. Last year we got an ugly bunch of apples, so, I vowed to spray in 2021. This year, spraying made all the difference. The bounty is remarkable, the tree has close to 100 apples, and they taste wonderful eaten right off the tree.

The resilience of the tree reminds me so much of the 2021 American economy. The vaccines, which defied the usual slowness of modern medicine to come up with effective new drugs, beat back the terror of last year’s COVID pandemic. 

The economy roared back with growth America has not seen for many decades. Our machinery business thrived in a way I doubted I would ever see again. My family regrouped in Michigan with our four grandchildren, which we have not done for two years.

I don’t know what variety of apple we have outside my window, but I do know it tastes sensational and symbolizes resilience and the power to give abundantly in later life. 

Every day I come to the plant, I check the apples. When my daughter Sarah drove me to Graff-Pinkert a few weeks ago, I insisted that she see the tree. She sampled a not quite ripe apple but loved its tart flavor. 

In a few days, we will celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, when eating apples and honey is a traditional ritual. This year the apples will be extra sweet.

Question: What’s your favorite apple? Why?

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Innovation from Playing with Machines, with Mike Taylor

By Noah Graff

Two weeks ago, Mike Taylor inquired on a Tornos GT26 Swiss lathe Graff-Pinkert had for sale. He told me that for him the machine would be like buying a new motorcycle. If he bought it, he would spend months learning how to use it himself before expecting to make any money with it, and it would be a lot of fun.

If Mike buys the machine it will be used to make screws that go into a KeyBar, the product he has been selling since 2013. A KeyBar is an organizer for keys and other tools that fold out in a style similar to that of a Swiss Army knife. Some of the tools available include a screw driver, blade, bottle opener, or even a comb. They’re often made of titanium, featuring distinct textures and colorful designs.

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.

Before he started KeyBar, Mike had been a chief engineer for several hotels in Georgia. He had a decent sized staff working under him and had to carry around a lot of keys that constantly jangled wherever he walked. The loud keys tipped off his slacking staff as he approached, so he always found them working diligently. His noisy key problem had be solved.

Mike is a knife guy. He won a pumpkin carving contest by carving a pumpkin under water. He was awarded a prize of $6,000 worth of knives and a trip to BLADE Show, the largest knife show in the world. At the show he was exposed to new machines, processes, materials and tools. When he got home he was inspired to create the first KeyBar—a stealth weapon to solve the problem of his slacking staff.

Titanium KeyBars

Mike started making KeyBars by hand for friends, but eventually they became so popular he started a business selling them. For several years, all of his components were outsourced, but gradually he brought the production process in-house, purchasing equipment such as a laser engraver, waterjet, and Haas VF4.

Throughout our interview, Mike kept telling me how much he was constantly learning and how learning fueled his business. That day alone, he had experimented with machining carbon fiber composites and learned to use a new printer for making labels.

Mike has a small but excellent staff at his company, who he trusts to handle most of the production and busy work. This frees him up to learn about new processes and play with the shop’s equipment. Often he enjoys making things other than KeyBars. He showed me a skateboard he fabricated out of a 3/8” thick titanium billet plate. The skateboard has a honeycombed design made with a waterjet. It features knurled and milled textures. It’s laser engraved, flame anodized and electro anodized. Mike plans to bring it trade shows to start conversations with skateboarding enthusiasts. He said producing the skateboard pushed the limits of the machine tools in his shop, which gave him important insight into their strengths and limitations. 

In my first conversation with Mike I asked him if a letter opener tool was available in a KeyBar—there wasn’t one. He told me that after our conversation he was going create one that day. One week later, on the day of our interview, the KeyBar website was offering a 100% titanium letter opener dubbed “The Noah.” It has a fleur de lis thumb tab and is available in Polished Titanium, Anodized Bronze and Radiant Teal. 

I wonder what fun stuff he will make when he finally gets to take a new Swiss machine for a spin.

Question: What would you make if you had free time to play with the machines in your shop?

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Together Again

By Lloyd Graff

A month ago, my son Noah pulled a hamstring lunging for a forehand while playing tennis after work with a client and friend. His opponent drove him to our house a few minutes away to assess the damage.

All of us discussed the injury, and I suggested we call Keith, a doctor and friend of 30 years, to diagnose it. “Risa, ask him if he’ll come over,” I proposed. I handed her the cell phone to call. It was dinnertime on a Monday in July. I figured there was a good chance we would find him at home. 

“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” he said, and he was. He diagnosed the injury and told Noah he didn’t need to go to the emergency room. We pulled out the Elasto-Gel cold packs always waiting in our freezer. Keith stayed for a while to talk. The conversation shifted back and forth between discussing the injury and pizza restaurants in Chicago.

Noah stayed at our house several days, and our business client spent the night as well, which turned out to be a great chance to get to know him better.

When Noah called his wife to tell her about the injury, she was astonished that we could call a doctor and he would interrupt his dinner and immediately drive over. Noah explained that Keith was a close friend and a member of the community. It was just natural that he would do it.

I remembered that 13 years earlier Keith drove 60 miles to be with Risa and our family when I was drugged in a hospital bed, teetering between life and death after a heart attack and stent, struggling to gain the strength to undergo quadruple bypass surgery. 

Risa had taught Keith’s daughter for many years before she succumbed to a horrible genetic malady. She was more than just her private teacher. She was virtually a part of her family as the child suffered crisis after crisis, yet maintained her spirit. 

When I had my second grand mal seizure three months ago in Palo Alto, my daughter, Sarah, called a doctor friend at midnight to come over to check me out and lay out my options. She arrived in a couple minutes, though I don’t even remember the visit. She arranged to get me into Stanford hospital with a minimum of rigmarole. It’s what people who are a part of your community do for friends. 

I am writing this piece not to enumerate Graff family health emergencies, but to discuss friends, family, and community that are becoming harder to come by these days as we forsake organizations and tribes, religious institutions, sewing circles, and men’s baseball leagues that used to pull us together over long periods of time.

We also move more and further away from each other, which dilutes communities and tribes. Screens also deprive us of personal contact that in-person meetings and dinner parties and barbecues used to irrigate. 

Part of the Graff Tribe Blueberry Picking on Vacation

Kids teams were excellent meeting areas for parents and children, but today sports have become more specialized. Parents hook their kids up with personal coaches to help them get college scholarships. The best players are siphoned off into elite amateur teams so local parents lose the incubating arena for long-term friendships.

Families used to be mini tribes, with big weekend dinners prepared by a matriarch. With women working almost universally, there is little time and energy to devote to pulling families together in that way. These days, young men and women use their independence to move away from the fold. 

I am grateful that our immediate family got together for a week recently in South Haven, Michigan, after almost two years of separation. The great feeling of having the tribe together, not on Zoom, was a blessing. 

Family, community, games at almost midnight. No substitute for it. Especially when it seems so rare today.

Question: When was the last time you got together with your family in person?

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Make Your Employees Want to Stay, with Adam Wiltsie, EP 130

By Noah Graff

After Graff-Pinkert sold a second used Lico CNC lathe to Vanamatic, a 3rd generation screw machine shop in Delphos, Ohio, I had a great conversation with Adam Wiltsie, the company’s Director of Operations. At that moment, I was quite envious of Adam—I was sitting at my desk in my office, while he was outside on a beautiful July Friday afternoon, waiting in line his local ice cream institution Dairy Hut.

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.

Adam gets out of the office on Friday afternoons. He gets to tailor his work schedule, and contrary to what one might assume, this is not just a perk for members of the company’s leadership team. Vanamatic allows a flexible work schedule for all its 103 employees. Adam says this is a key reason why the company has not been suffering from a shortage of skilled people, that so many other manufacturing companies often complain about. In fact, 103 employees is a record number for the company, which happens to be located in a town of 6,000 people.

Vanamatic was founded in 1953 by Adam’s grandfather in Delphos, Ohio. Today, the company is run by a leadership team made up of Adam, his brothers Scott and Jared, Steve Schroeder and Dave Ricker. The company makes parts for a variety of sectors including automotive, aerospace, fluid power, agriculture, construction, fittings, and refrigeration. The majority of its machines are 8-Spindle VNA Conomatics— 1-5/8” and 2-5/8” capacity. For those unfamiliar with Conomatics, or “Cones” as they’re often called, think of an ACME-GRIDLEY but heavier and a larger tool zone. Adam says the company loves the machines because “they can push feed rates like no other.” Cones aren’t built anymore so Vanamatic has its own rebuilding program for the machines. The company also has CNC turning centers, a few other brands of multi-spindles, and 10 Lico CNC lathes—picture a sexy, beefed up 11-axis CNC Brown & Sharpe. 

Adam is 42 years old, with three kids. He says having kids influenced his management style because it made him realize that every person works differently. Vanamatic’s management philosophy takes into account that all of the company’s employees have different requirements to bring out their peak performance and make them happy. Treating every individual employee uniquely bucks the traditional collective style of management in manufacturing companies, which Vanamatic had employed for the majority of the company’s life.

Adam Wiltsie, Director of Operations of Vanamatic

A while back, Adam and his brother Scott, head of Human Resources, implemented a management strategy called Start, Stop, Improve. Every year, they sit with each individual employee and ask them what they would start, stop or improve on a company level, a department level and an individual level. In the process, they learned that many people at the company desired a better work-life balance. They realized that by implementing flexible hours they could improve the lives of employees who prefer to be with their families at different times of day. Flexible hours could also accommodate employees who have hobbies or outside projects they want to pursue.

For most of Vanamatic’s existence, the company had a standard work week for every employee, of four 10-hour days and one 8-hour day. Fifteen years ago, the collective model was thrown out. Currently, all shop employees, aside from primary production operators, have the choice to work between 35 to 50 hours per week. Primary production operators can work 45 to 60 hours per week. Employees have the right to work within those ranges at their discretion without approval from supervisors. Every two weeks, the company takes a look at what work needs to be done and maps out a plan. Shop workers manage schedules amongst themselves to get the necessary work completed.

In the past, some of Vanamatic’s customers came to the company and demanded it implement a policy making its people work a minimum of 56 to 60 hours per week, but it refused to change its policy. Adam says loyal, happy, skilled employees are the essential element to keep the company successful, so it can’t afford to alienate or lose them. They take precedence over an annoyed customer.

Vanamatic’s management philosophy was a lifesaver in May of 2020, when its business fell 50%. The company gave its employees the choice to work 0 to 50 hours per week. It even laid off employees if they volunteered to be and then helped them sign up for unemployment benefits. When work came roaring back later in 2020, Vanamatic needed to get all of its people back fast. Instead of complaining about unfair competition against government assistance money, the company raised wages $5 above what workers were previously earning. Employees came back and felt valued. Now they are fueling Vanamatic to set a record pace for the company in 2021.

Question: How would you plan your own flexible hours?

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A Noisy Truck Market

By Lloyd Graff

There may never be a more fascinating and trying time to be in the automotive business. 

Demand for trucks and SUVs is powerful, but manufacturers cannot build them in the quantities people want because computer chips are short. The executives can blame themselves for being much too conservative in their ordering last year, but demand has been a yo-yo because of the defiant and devious nature of the COVID-19 variants. People didn’t buy cars in 2020 because they were afraid to walk out of their homes. This year things have flipped as folks hit the road. Money is still cheap, old F-150s are looking dilapidated, and the Feds have given so many freebies out that trucks and SUVs look too attractive to pass up. 

Big demand, not enough product. That’s one interesting problem to navigate. 

Then there is your very rich and powerful Uncle Joe (Biden) who observed the Obama Administration resuscitate General Motors in 2009. He feels this is his moment to impact the car builders, forcing electric on them by setting virtually unreachable emissions and gas mileage regulations on their windshields. 

It is possible that Biden really believes that he is saving the planet by dictating a massive changeover from gas to electric by 2030. After all, we do have the convenient existential threat of “climate change” to justify everything from the switch to veggie burgers at McDonald’s to giving billions of dollars to the government operated Washington to Boston trains that never run on time. 

The auto executives and the world of Tier One, Two, and Three manufacturers, whose businesses revolve around Biden’s decisions, are now living in a world of mirrors. Do they prepare for an environment in which the big car makers struggle to build trucks and SUVs that are rechargeable? Does Exxon plan to abandon oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and refining operations near Houston? Do the frackers try to raise money to start drilling again with oil prices around $60 a barrel?

It is an utterly confusing world in which Putin and the Saudis set oil prices by jiggering output and Biden thinks he’s saving the world, or at least his presidency, by setting virtually impossible gas mileage goals to increase electric vehicle sales, which he thinks will be made by union workers who will vote for Democrats in the 2022 and 2024 elections. 

Amidst all of the competing interests, you have market research that tells car executives and dealers that real people really do not care much about carbon emissions. They want their Ford F-150s, GM Silverados, and Chrysler Jeeps, and they want them to reliably transport them and their cargo from Boise to Bozeman and Nashville to Memphis. Gas, electric, hydrogen, or pretzels, it really doesn’t matter much to them. The latest data predicts only 15% of the vehicles which will be sold in 2030 will be electric and 3% hybrid. 

So we have the 2021 Dancing with the Stars with Joe Biden and the car bosses doing the tango. Dance and dip. The car guys plead their devotion to defeating the dreaded climate change. Billions upon billions of dollars are pledged to be spent, yet Tesla is the only car company that builds an electric car people will buy. When will that change? Nobody knows.

Demand for gas guzzlers far surpasses the ability to produce them, and gas prices approach $5 a gallon in California. It is pretty weird and goofy, but in the real world of brakes and gas pedals and transmissions, people are trying to plan and order stuff. Meanwhile, used cars are flying off the lots.

Question: What’s stopping you from getting an electric car?

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Best of Swarfcast: Ep. 46 – Building Bikes in Detroit, With Zak Pashak

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

The Today’s Machining World team is on vacation this week. We will be back next week with our regular blog and podcast. We hope you enjoy this edition of Swarfblog from August 7th, 2019!

Our guest on today’s podcast is Zak Pashak, founder of Detroit Bikes, the largest bike frame manufacturer in the United States. All bikes that the company sells are assembled in Detroit, and its high-end models have frames constructed of high quality American Chromoly steel.

Zak lamented to us that he couldn’t find many companies in the U.S. to supply parts for wheels and other bike components. We told him we would take on the mission personally to find him some.

Scroll down to listen to the podcast, or find us on Google Podcasts, iTunes, or Spotify.

Zak hales from Calgary, Canada, where he had success in the bar business and organizing one of Canada’s largest music festivals. He eventually developed an interest in politics and urban planning, which would inspire his next venture. In 2011, he sold all of his assets in Canada and moved to Detroit where he started Detroit Bikes in the building of an old sign company.

Zak said he chose Detroit because he saw the city as a place with rich history. He remarked that it was where cars were first mass produced, where great genres of music were invented, and a place with talent in the manufacturing field. He also said he wanted to go to a challenging place where he could be part of positive change.

Zak Pashak of Detroit Bikes

We could feel a real sense of purpose when Zak talked about his company. He takes pride in assembling bicycles in the U.S., a country where most of them are imported. He appreciates boosting the economy of a revitalizing city. But Zak said his primary mission is changing urban landscapes. He really wants to contribute to changing the paradigm of how people get around in cities, making them less congested and more environmentally friendly. He said this ultimately will be decided by governments who invest in new types of transportation infrastructure—including bike lanes.

Question: Does it make you want to buy a product more if it is made in the U.S.?

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Best of Swarfblog: Machining a Pancreas

By Lloyd Graff

The Today’s Machining World team is on vacation this week. We will be back next week with our regular blog and podcast. We hope you enjoy this edition of Swarfblog from August 7th, 2019!

The 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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