Billets and Booties

By Lloyd Graff

Amazon buys Central Steel and Wire.

That’s an odd couple.

Not really.

What Jeff Bezos wants is the 70 acres of land on the southwest side of Chicago near the old stock yards. No bundles of half inch 12L14 bars in with the bananas for the moment. 

The Central Steel and Wire Company and its real estate in Chicago was sold to Ryerson Steel in 2018. The firm was an odd duck because it had no debt. It was 56% owned by the James Lowenstine Trust, which was dedicated to using 1,200 acres of natural beauty in Northern Wisconsin as an environmental school known as Conserve School. Lowenstine, son of the founder of the company, died in 1996. He had no children. His will also left a loophole for the trust to be controlled by his Alma Mater, Culver Military Academy in Indiana. The competing interests fought over control of the trust, and therefore the future of Central Steel, for over 20 years. Today’s Machining World wrote a feature story about the conflict back in 2006. In 2018, Culver gained control of the trust, installed its slate of directors to run the Conserve School, and sold the company to Ryerson Steel for $150 million. It turned out to be a sweetheart deal for its old rival, Ryerson, also based in Chicago.

Amazon just paid $45 million for the real estate and leased it back to the company for two years. For a little more than $100 million, Ryerson became the dominant metal distributor in the Midwest.

Central Steel & Wire Company at 3000 West 51st Street in Chicago

The deal interests me for many reasons. Graff-Pinkert has been a customer of Central Steel for as long as I can remember. If a company, even for the smallest of customers like us, could exemplify caring, efficient service for decades, it was Central Steel. With Ryerson, it becomes a global “maybe,” with their interests in China and Mexico and elsewhere. 

But what is also fascinating is the shifting of real estate patterns over the past several years, with Amazon leading the way. 

Retail is withering. Find me a shopping center that is thriving. Few are even in the black. Rents of retail locations are falling. Many retail centers are being demolished or will be converted into housing, marijuana farms, or vaccination centers. 

Office space today is in disuse, but giant warehouses are proliferating near many highways, especially where there is easy access. The new real estate magnates are using cheap money to build massive windowless 35-foot high concrete wall rectangles with a lot of asphalt to enable vehicles to get in and out of fast. 

Amazon is employing hundreds of thousands of people processing boxes. That means loads of hand and wrist injuries now, but in the future robots will do most of the work. In 5 to 10 years, we will probably see driverless delivery vehicles. 

This is why Bezos continues to buy real estate, even in sick cities like Chicago. For an Amazon, the southwest side of Chicago, which used to have many small machine shops served by Central Steel that have since fled Chicago with its taxes, rampant corruption, and lousy schools, is now fertile ground for a company that needs huge numbers of $15 per hour employees to load vans with boxes of booties.

Amazon, for the moment, needs people. Central Steel has strategic ground and hundreds of motivated, well-managed employees. While Amazon says it is not interested in steel distribution, I can imagine Bezos studying the Central Steel operation and deciding Amazon can do it better. 

If it works for bananas and booties, it could work for billets.

Question: Do you think steel distribution could be improved upon?

Share this post

Ep. 114 – Live Tooling and Accessories for CNC Swiss with Jim Gosselin

By Noah Graff

Our guest on the podcast today is Jim Gosselin, owner and President of Genevieve Swiss Industries. Genevieve Swiss sells innovative accessories specifically for Swiss CNC lathes, such as live tooling and cutting tools, to combat the problems small parts manufacturers constantly deal with.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast, or listen with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts or your favorite app.

 

Main Points

Jim gives an overview of Genevieve Swiss. He says the company’s mission is to make the job of the machinists easier. If machinists have the right tools to get better efficiency and quicker setups then machining companies will be more profitable. (2:30)

Jim says he was always interested in mechanical stuff from a young age. He liked to take apart his toys as a kid to try to understand how things worked. He dropped out of high school in his Junior year and went into the military where he became a combat engineer. He summarized that job as “building things and blowing things up.” (3:00) 

After getting out of the military, Jim got a GED and took college courses at night. He worked at a machining company called Savage Arms in Westfield, Massachusetts, that made shotguns and other hunting equipment. In 1983 he became a programer and ran the new Citizen CNC machines that the company purchased. The machines had 2 turrets with 5 stations each, with cross drilling and milling capability. He says those machines were not actually sliding headstock. Rather, they were sliding guide bushing machines. The turret and the guide bushing slid together on the machines. (4:00)

In 1987 Jim became an applications engineer and salesperson at Brookdale Associates, a Citizen distributor in New England. In the late 1980s Brookdale Associates began building high pressure coolant systems for Swiss machines. He says before then, high pressure pumps were not used for Swiss turning. The company also sold a line of accessories, including tool holders for Swiss machines. In 2002, he and his colleagues traveled to Switzerland where they began a relationship with PCM, a company that sold high quality live tools. Jim thought that Brookdale would distribute PCM’s tooling, but it was a difficult year for the machining industry, so his boss didn’t want the risk of taking on a new product line. He told Jim if he wanted to start his own company he supported the idea and would be his best customer. That was the start of Genevieve Swiss. (5:45)

Jim says that when he started Genevieve Swiss he realized at the time that many Swiss operators were getting older and they were burning out because the Swiss machining process caused too many headaches. He decided his company’s mission would be to make Swiss machinists’ lives easier by supplying them with products that enable faster setups and better cycle times. (8:00)

Jim talks about developing gear-driven head live tools for Swiss machines with PCM. He says that prior to gear-driven live tools, typically live tools on CNC Swiss machines turned at 4000-5000 RPM for cross drilling or cross milling. He says this wasn’t efficient for end-mills that could be as small as a diameter of .020” or .030”. The slower turning speeds caused burrs and slower cycle times. The new gear-driven heads produced 3 times the output as the older technology. (9:25)

Jim talks about the products Genevieve Swiss sells. The company sells accessories specifically for Swiss machines such as live tools and cutting tools. It sells arbors for slitting as well as coolant that is specifically designed for high pressure delivery. He talks about a thread whirling head for a Citizen L20 that is designed to have coolant flow right through the head and then delivered to the cutters. (see video above) (10:30)

Jim says that chip control problems are one of the most significant hurdles for Swiss operators. He says often in medical work that uses difficult metals like 465 stainless, chips can come off the machine like ribbons. Genevieve Swiss is working with its insert tooling supplier UTILIS to sell laser ground chip breakers. (see demonstration video below) (12:40)

Jim talks about insert tooling developed by UTILIS in which coolant flows through the tool and is focused on the tool tip. (17:00)

Jim says most of the Genevieve Swiss’ innovations come from listening to customers on the shop floor. He says the company talks to customers and distributors to find out what machining problems operators are complaining about. (20:00)

Jim compares the construction of older Swiss CNC machines to those of today. He says that Swiss machines used to have heavier castings to achieve rigidity. While today’s Swiss machines are built with lighter castings, Jim says they are designed more intelligently based on factors such as stress analysis, which enables them to stay ridged. (21:30)

Jim says the incorporation of lasers is one of the most interesting recent innovations on Swiss machines. Lasers can do cutting, milling, cross drilling, and knurling. They also enable welding two parts together while still on the machine. He says though 3D printing is slow right now, it could be a disruptor in small parts manufacturing one day. He brings up a scenario of a Swiss machine that also incorporates 3D printing. (22:30)

Learn more about Genevieve Swiss at Genswiss.com.

Question: What are the biggest challenges you run into running CNC Swiss machines?

Share this post

An Imperfect Union

By Lloyd Graff

Are schools that much different than factories? 

At this moment in America, virtually every factory is open and many are producing full out. Production is rising nicely. Confidence levels are high. The parking lots are full. Some steel may be a short delay and truckers seem flummoxed, but on the whole, business is jumping and the stock market is bouncing up and down off record highs.

Yet in many places, kids are still on Zoom if they own computers, and teachers unions and administrators are growling at each other. Parents are reaching their boiling point as they see their kids’ mental health sink dangerously and their finances fall apart because they can’t work when their children are at home. The quality of Zoom teaching and children’s ability to absorb content fluctuates wildly.

It’s a blown year of school that’s still continuing for many. 

In Chicago, teachers are retiring with $100,000 per year pensions. Yet they have kept their students at home or on the streets because they claim their classrooms are unsafe for them to teach in if students are present. Meanwhile, many students are leaving public school enrollment for Catholic schools, which have been open most of the pandemic.

My five-year-old grandson has gone to private nursery school throughout the entire pandemic. They have had a few cases, but never enough to close more than a couple of days. This has enabled my son to do his job as a psychotherapist in a hospital, helping COVID-19 survivors with emotional problems.

Parents and kids protest closed schools

We know now that kids, especially younger ones, do very well managing the illness. Still, the teachers union in Chicago and in other big cities are using kids as hostages in the power struggle with government authorities they are looking to humiliate. In Chicago, it is a battle between Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former teacher, and her arch foe, Toni Preckwinkle, head of the County, who was crushed by Lightfoot in the last mayoral election. Lightfoot wants kids to go to school. Preckwinkle wants the teachers union clout.

We are now seeing parents demonstrating against unions and the politicians who are in their pocket all over the country. Even my old high school, the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School, which now charges tuition of $37,000 a year for kids whose parents do not work for the U of C, is dealing with parents making a very big stink about the unionized teachers destroying the kids’ school year.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom, who has managed to mismanage everything from power outages to his unmasked birthday party at a ritzy San Francisco restaurant, will soon be facing a recall election mainly because he has kept the schools closed. COVID-19 has accelerated many aspects of American life: working from home, Amazon deliveries of your morning coffee, the demise of the local barber, and now, perhaps, the ability of entrenched unions to be seen as the champions of education. 

In Chicago, the head of the teachers union idolizes the regime of Castro’s Cuba and goes to Venezuela to refine his communist tropes. Windy City students sit out the year and teachers can’t seem to find a mask that fits. 

The union has lost the PR battle in Chicago. This may be one of the best things that the pandemic has accelerated.

Question: Should kids go back to the classroom while the pandemic continues?

Share this post

Ep. 113 – A MultiSwiss Screw Machine to Maximize Production, with John Belmonte

By Noah Graff

On today’s podcast we continue our series about Swiss machining. Our guest is John Belmonte, owner and President of Mitotec, a precision turning company in Necedah, Wisconsin.

Recently Mitotec purchased a Tornos MultiSwiss 8X26 multi-spindle screw machine. The unique design of the MultiSwiss enables such quick changeovers the machine is running many of the same jobs the company has on its single spindle Swiss machines, but in a fraction of the cycle time.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast, or listen with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts or your favorite app.

 

Main Points

John gives an overview of Mitotec Precision. The company is located in Necedah, Wisconsin. It features Tsugami Swiss machines, Miyano CNC lathes, cam multi-spindle Tornos SAS16s, Tornos DECOs, and recently purchased a Tornos MultiSwiss 8X26, a 26mm 8-spindle CNC multi-spindle. (3:00)

John tells the story of Mitotec Precision. The company was started by John’s grandfather in 1963 in Necedah, Wisconsin, and originally was called Necedah Screw Machine Products. John says the company changed the name in 2018 because it was using newer technology than just cam screw machines. It wanted customers to understand that it had become a CNC Swiss shop. Also, the company changed the name to help recruit young talent—people interested in working with sophisticated technology, rather than only cam screw machines. (4:10)

John Belamonte with the Tornos MultiSwiss 8×26

Mike says while growing up he worked at his family’s shop in the summers but didn’t always think he would go into the business later in life. He was interested in studying to be a lawyer but eventually realized that he didn’t have the grades to go in that direction, so he returned to Necedah to work in the business. Over the years he has had lots of jobs at the company. He started on the shop floor, which at the time mainly featured Brown & Sharpe screw machines. His learned estimating from his grandfather, and then he gravitated toward screw machine engineering. (5:50)

John says the first CNC machines the company bought were CNC Brown & Sharpes. Then it bought Miyano CNC lathes, and then Swiss machines starting with Tornos DECOs. (7:20)

John says the company produces a lot of parts for the medical industry, as well as electrical components and firearm components. He tells Noah about a medical part made on Miyanos that goes into a system to inoculate people in Africa without using a needle. (8:50)

John says the company tries to “make parts that matter.” He says it’s good for his team to feel they are making parts that make life better for people. He says if employees know how important the company’s parts are they will make sure they are high quality. (9:45) 

John says that making medical parts is a good place to be in manufacturing. He says Mitotec Precision is constantly trying to use its expertise in machining to improve the parts for its customers. (11:00)

John explains how the Tornos MultiSwiss works. The machine has eight spindles that move in and out like a Swiss machine, however they don’t have guide bushings. The company decided it needed more capacity, but rather than buy a lot more Swiss machines, it decided to buy a CNC multi-spindle to cut cycle times. Even though there were only around 20 8X26 MultiSwiss machines in the United States, Mitotec chose that machine over an INDEX CNC multi-spindle because the MultiSwiss has a design that makes it quick and easy to change over. Unlike many companies that buy CNC multi-spindles for long runs, Mitotec wanted a machine to do a lot of short runs. The company’s goal is to be able to change over jobs on the MultiSwiss in the same amount of time it would take on a conventional Swiss machine. He says the company can make many parts on the MultiSwiss 3-5 times faster than on a traditional CNC Swiss lathe. For example, he says he can take a complex part that takes 90 seconds on one of his Tsugamis and produce it in 10-15 seconds on the MultiSwiss. This means he needs fewer machine operators because one machine could be running the same work as several machines. (13:00)

John talks about how the company has changed its organization in the last several years, implementing a management system called EOS. The company sets strategic 10-year goals, 3-year goals, and annual goals. In the new organization he has a senior leadership team that meets weekly, consisting of himself as the integrator, an engineering manager, an ops manager, sales manager, and HR. He says the new organization has had great results. (20:00)

John says another change the company has made in recent years is that it is not afraid to let go of certain customers if they they are not profitable or good to work with. (23:30)

John says when he hears the word “happiness” he thinks of being with family. He also says for him it means getting to do something every day that makes him want to get up in the morning. He says he likes being a good leader, getting to solve complex problems that matter, and having a great team around him. (24:20)

John says to create a good company culture, first a person has to define his core values. He says some of Mitotec’s core values are creativity, drive, adaptability, reliability, and thoroughness. (25:30)

John says it is usually necessary for Mitotec to train its own employees because it is hard to find good people already experienced in machining. He says people in his area of central Wisconsin generally have a good work ethic. Mitotec tries to get the interest of young people in the area by going into middle schools and high schools to expose them to oportunites to work in manufacturing that uses modern technology. He says there are some young people in the area who leave to see what life is like in big cities, but often they come back because they like life in smaller Wisconsin towns and feel it is a good place to raise a family. (26:15)

Noah asks John what he learned last week. John says he learned that the company had such a great year in 2020 it was now going to distribute a significant profit-sharing contribution to its employees. (29:30)

Question: What technology has made your shop more efficient?

 

Share this post

A Typical Tuesday for a Machinery Dealer

By Noah Graff

Yesterday, I started my workday by returning a phone call to customer in Italy as soon as I finished my home workout. I had read their email to try to distract myself while doing wall squats.

Later I spoke with people in Czech Republic, Germany, California, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York, and emailed others in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Albania, and probably other places. Most of the people were making parts or peddling iron like myself.

Customers often ask me how Graff-Pinkert’s used machinery business is doing, and they ask me how I think the manufacturing economy is doing. After all, I’m in contact with manufacturers worldwide, and of course, I’m “the journalist.”

It’s hard to make generalizations about the machining world’s ecosystem. The majority of customers tell me business is at least stable. Many say they made money in 2020 or at least held their own. When they gush about their success in 2020 I always joke to them, “damn, I’m in the wrong business!”

Anecdotes from customers are more useful barometers for gaging the state of the machining economy than looking at the day to day events of our own business. I’m sure my fellow dealers will attest that the business is a rollercoaster because of it’s illiquidity. There could be no cash flow for weeks, and all of a sudden three big deals happen in a day. Suddenly the economy must be on an upswing!

Noah Graff in the Graff-Pinkert shop

You have to be very patient if you’re a used machinery dealer. My dad likes to say that often deals are like fruit, you just have to wait for them to ripen before they are ready to harvest—sometimes years! God willing, yesterday we finally sold two beautiful CNC multi-spindles that have been ripening in our warehouse for several years. They were built in Germany, traveled to Spain, then to Texas, then to Chicago, and now if all goes well they will go back to the place they started from. I hope I’m not jinxing the deal by writing this. Until we have received compensation for them, it’s not a sale.

Right now we have three multi-spindles, almost as old as me, ready to ship Mexico. Two other multi-spindles, older than me, we are hoping will go to Australia. There’s also a sweet Swiss machine I hope is bound for Europe.  

We have a tool and cutter grinder that we are quoting to companies in China, Mexico, the United States, Spain, Brazil and Turkey, and the supposed value seems to fluctuate dramatically from country to country—and not exactly how one would predict. We don’t know what the sell price should be. It’s constant internal debate.

That was my Tuesday (leaving out quite a few details). I think the day gave me a decent survey of the international turned parts industry. I’ll reiterate, it’s important to listen to a lot of different people to get a feel for the industry. I can’t go by what one person says because I hear so many diverse views. I can’t totally trust my own business’s day to day vibe either because, I, like everyone, live in my own bubble. Lots of our customers say business is great right now, and as I write this, 5-10 good deals seem like they are on the verge of breaking. But right when I think I understand something, or a deal seems great, or a deal is about to happen, or a deal is going flop, or my favorite ice-cream shop will have the flavor I’ve been waiting for, things take a turn in an unexpected direction—not necessarily a bad one though.

One more thing. Shameless self-promotion–the Doosan TT1800SY in this blog’s email blast ad is a real find. You won’t find treasure like this on your typical Wednesday!

Question: How do you feel the machining economy is doing?

Share this post

Lessons from the Pandemic

By Lloyd Graff

I spent several hours working at the Graff-Pinkert office today for the first time since last April. 

I am beginning the process of coming out of my fear induced hibernation, three weeks after my first COVID-19 vaccine shot. The statistics say I have 80% immunity after one Moderna vaccine hit. I sort of trust the number, but not enough to do without the mask, which is my constant annoyance when I leave my home. 

I hate the COVID necessitated hibernation. At my age, with a heart attack and heart surgery in my past, I am still COVID’s emotional captive. I know I am vulnerable, even if only one in 200 of those who catch the illness die of it. 

I have learned from my COVID home prison sentence. I’ve learned that I can happily do without many of the appointments I thought were necessary. 

I can officially forget about going to the barber. I used to be a customer at a little suburban shop run by a woman who seemed to find me irritating because I came by irregularly and liked Saturday morning appointments. She cut my hair in 14 minutes, so I was easily sandwiched in, but she told me she had no appointments one too many times, so I decided to try the barbers at a local Meijer supermarket. They were okay, but I have learned that I can successfully cut my own hair and shave my neck without any barber. The pandemic teaches us what we can do without.

I have also learned that I can live without visiting the dentist every three months for a cleaning. It was more about cleaning out my bank account than a necessity. Semi-annually or yearly will do quite fine from now on. 

****

Lloyd Graff in the Graff-Pinkert shop

My relationship with my work has changed over the past year. I have found that it is unnecessary for me to be at my office much of the time, and I am happy to not be there every day. But working at home I almost never turn off my work channel. There is always another email, another blog, another call to make. 

When I go to work physically I am much more likely to walk around, to connect with people in the plant, to ask questions. Working from home is more iPad-based, less face-to-face connection. I get the news and the numbers, but I miss the vibe. I am more distant, and it has to be noticed.

I find that the longer I am away, the harder it is to come in. COVID-19 is the rationale, but the reality is that I could mask up if I really wanted to go in. I cannot put a financial value on this, but I know it is real. 

Last year was a down year financially for our machinery business. Everybody in the company made less money than in 2019. Two full-time employees were let go. 

This year appears to have much more activity from all over the world, yet COVID-19 limits our willingness to travel and inhibits our customers’ travel. This hampers our ability to close deals. We have to trust other people to inspect machines without us. Our network is extensive, but it does not make up for physical movement completely. 

What have I learned?

I have learned that I love the business and I never want to quit unless my health forces me to do it. I have learned that I don’t have to be at the office a lot but I cannot be a phantom. I have learned that it helps to physically travel to close deals.

I believe that the worst of the pandemic is now behind us. Now is the time to really push to harvest the good times coming. 

Risa and I are taking our second Moderna shot in a few days. After waiting two weeks for maximum immunity, we are going to take off in a plane to California to see family. 

Questions:

Are you going to be vaccinated?

Will you make changes in your lifestyle after getting vaccinated?

Share this post

Best of Swarfcast Ep. 31 – Ken Mandile, Employees Are Buying His Business

By Noah and Lloyd Graff

We’re currently working on fresh new episodes of Swarfcast. In the meantime, we felt this “Best of” was fitting for the recent season on CNC Swiss machining. 

In March of 2019, we interviewed Ken Mandile, founder of Swissturn, a successful CNC Swiss machine shop in Oxford, Massachusetts. Ken’s children are not interested in taking over Swissturn when he eventually retires, so five years ago Ken began restructuring his company into an employee stock ownership plan or ESOP, in which he will gradually transfer ownership and management to his employees.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast, or listen with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts or your favorite app.

 

Main Points

Before going the ESOP route Ken turned down two lucrative buyout offers from private equity firms. Ken reported that after the first year of restructuring as an ESOP, the value of the company increased by 51%.

Question: Would you want to work at an employee-owned business?

Share this post

Ep. 112 Developing a World-Class CNC Turning Company with Mike Reader

By Noah Graff

Today’s podcast is the fourth episode of our season interviewing people involved in CNC Swiss machining.

Our guest is Mike Reader, owner and president of Precision Plus, a CNC turning company in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Mike came into the machining business at 31 years old following a career in the fast paced finance industry. When he first arrived, the company was using old school Tornos cam Swiss machines and running a lot of commodity-type parts. Over the years Mike has built a world-class machining company, diversifying the company’s product lines with the help of newer technology. All the while, his original cam Swiss machines still keep spitting out parts.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast, or listen with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts or your favorite app.

 

Main Points

Mike gives an overview of Precision Plus. The company has 30 CNC Swiss machines, 40 older Tornos Cam Swiss machines, and some Miyano CNC lathes (single, double and triple turret). Mike says he has diversified the company’s clientele over the years. Precision Plus focuses on medical/dental, aerospace, and a variety of products in the industrial sectors. He says he has purposefully stayed away from doing automotive work because in his past experiences those clients were not looking for “a win for both sides.” (3:15)

Mike talks about being interested mechanical stuff when he was growing up in Delavan, Wisconsin. He says he was always the kid in the garage trying to make the go-cart go faster—the adrenaline guy. In high school he did well in technical classes as well as the standard curriculum. (4:45)

With encouragement from his guidance counselors he went to University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he majored in Economics with an emphasis in finance. After graduating he went to Chicago to get into the commodity futures world, starting out as a runner at the Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade. Eventually he moved up to working in clearing operations and then got a job at Bank of America running their clearing operations. He says that world was intense and competitive—a lot of “work hard play hard” 80-hour weeks. (6:00)

Mike talks about using the Predictive Index Personality Assessment to organize his workforce at Precision Plus. He gives the assessment to employees in order find the correct spot to put people in to be successful. He also talks about the importance of pushing his people on the shop floor to keep stretching themselves. He likes to make his people strive to figure out how to do things better, faster, and smarter. He says if he ever gets to a point when he is no longer doing that, it will mean the business is in decline. (8:00)

Mike says when he first started managing he wanted to hire people who reminded him of himself. He says we all think instinctively that others should think the same way we do, but he learned from the Predictive Index tool that people don’t all think the same and they don’t all hear the same. His says the first time he looked for employees his instinct was to look for the pedigree of the “best and the brightest,” but that was difficult because college graduates often don’t want to start their careers working in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. They want to go off and see the world like he did. Later, Mike changed his criteria for new employees. He started looking for smart, driven people who wanted to get to work right out of high school, in addition to graduates of technical colleges and 4-year universities. (9:50)

Mike says Precision Plus often likes employees who are trained in-house, so they learn to to things the way company prefers. It also helps create a good company culture. (11:15)

Mike tells the story of moving his family to London to work for Bank of America and then coming back home to Wisconsin only 10 months later when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. His father had bought Precision Plus only seven years before but had to go care for Mike’s mom. All of a sudden at 31 years old Mike was thrust into running a machine shop, which at the time was still pretty rough around the edges. It was a dark oily screw machine house in 1995—no CNC lathes, only Tornos mechanical Swiss machines and secondary equipment. (12:15)

Mike says when he first got started at Precision Plus he looked at the customer portfolio and could see that the company had a lot of opportunities to grow. At the time the company was doing a lot of brass connector pins on Tornos cam Swiss machines. (15:40)

Mike says that he really enjoyed working in the commodity futures arena in the first chapter of his life. He says the last 25 years in manufacturing have been meaningful for him. He talks about how in the early 2000s a lot of companies sold out American manufacturing to make greater margins by making parts overseas. At that point he realized that the had to move up market. He saw that the company needed to get into more highly engineered products than simple connector pins. He said it gave him purpose to keep manufacturing in the United States and create rewarding, good careers for Americans. (17:00)

Mike talks about the parts that go into musical instruments which Precision Plus produces. He says the company has been making parts for that customer since before he arrived at the company. They make screws and arbors that go into oboes, bassoons, and piccolos. (19:00)

Noah asks Mike what he thinks of when he hears the word “happiness.” Mike says it means being successful and being in control of your destiny. He says its important to him that Precision Plus is a private company where he has the freedom to make the decisions that are best for the company. (20:30)

Mike says the key to future growth for Precision Plus is continuing to increase the complexity of the parts it produces, setting it apart from other companies making more commodity-type parts. He says the way to accomplish this is by investing in better machines and pushing his people to keep upping their game. (21:20)

Mike talks about the roles of his various machines. He says there are no bad machine tools, just bad applications of machine tools. He says the Tornos cam Swiss machines are still a good solution for lower complexity parts with tight tolerances. For more complex parts Precision Plus uses Miyano CNC lathes. He holds up an aerospace parts the company makes complete on a triple turret machine, which he says had 98 different features on the print. (See video below). He says the shop also features many Tsugami and Star CNC Swiss machines that produce great parts and have great support. (22:15)

Mike says Precision Plus is interested in acquiring another machining company if he can find the right fit. He would prefer to buy a turning company not doing automotive work located in the Midwest because he likes the work ethic that the Midwest is known for. Also it would be best if the company can also add to Precision Plus’s current capabilities. (25:40)

Mike says the thing that bothers him the most running a machining company is that not everyone sees the world as he does, and he can’t stand missed opportunities. He says the most important thing is for people to work to the best their abilities, with a positive attitude, no matter what they are tasked with. (26:35)

Question: What do you think of when you hear the word “happiness?”

Share this post

A Present for a Big Birthday

By Lloyd Graff

(The comments section on our website is live again so please give me your thoughts.)

My wife, Risa, will celebrate a big birthday next week, and I do not know what to give her. I have considered the usual presents–jewelry, clothes, a trip. None seem right.

This brings back a conversation that I had with my father a couple of years after my mother had died. We often talked about business, and he told me many stories about his family and his youth but very little about his relationship with his wife. 

A few years before he died, about five years after my mom had died, I visited him in Florida by myself. He was in an unusually pensive mood one night, and he told me with great feeling that he wished he’d “given her more jewelry.” 

I was shocked by the remark because it had never occurred to me that she lacked for rings or pins or necklaces. 

I filed the comment away, but I was seeing a psychotherapist at the time and asked him about the phrase that had struck a nerve in me. He said “the jewelry” was not gold or diamonds. It was a substitute term for love and sex. I had never heard that before, but I guess it runs through the therapy literature.

I can honestly say that I have given, and am still giving Risa all my love at the age of 76, but I still want to give her a memorable gift that is not a nightgown or a sweater on this big birthday.

COVID-19 has definitely been a problem for us this year. We haven’t traveled to California to visit my daughter and family for well over a year, and they have not visited us since last February. We have seen our Chicago family, but the visits have been short and masked, except for the month when Noah and his wife lived with us. With our second vaccination shots coming up soon, we hope to improve on that, but the steps will be cautious for a while.

This year we had a 50th Anniversary Zoom party, and we have family Zoom sessions frequently.

I am stumped for a memorable present that defies the commonplace. I am sure you have faced the issue of giving a gift that will be valued and remembered.

As a couple, we have been truly blessed. We live in America and have the joys of affluence. Everybody our age has health issues, but both of us get to work rather than have to work. We also exercise and read.

I have some ideas, and I still have enough time to move on them, but I would also like to hear about presents that you have given to a special person on a special day. 

(The comments section on our website is live again so please give me your thoughts. )

Question: What is your suggestion for a present for my wife’s 70th birthday?

Share this post

Ep. 111 – Producing Tiny Parts on Swiss with Dan Rudolph

By Noah Graff

On today’s podcast we continue our season about Swiss machining. Our guest is Dan Rudolph, co-owner and founder of Rudolph LLC. Rudolph LLC produces medical parts as small as .1 millimeter on Citizen lathes. The company has only three staff members, Dan, his wife, and his father, but Dan says he has no plans to hire employees and the company continues to grow. 

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast, or listen with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts or your favorite app.

 

Dan describes Rudolph LLC. The company produces medical device components particularly for eye surgery. It manufactures mainly stainless steel and titanium components on Citizen Swiss lathes. The company has eight machines and plans on adding several next year. It also has various secondary and finishing equipment, as well as Universal Robots. (3:00)

Dan says when the company started he and his father gravitated toward smaller parts that required smaller sized equipment. They had no employees, and the company started in a 900-square-foot shop. Now it has a second 900-square-foot room available for machinery, and a second floor for finishing equipment. (3:50)

Dan talks about his career path. Growing up, his father was a supervisor for a Swiss department at an eye surgery OEM. In the evenings he ran a small foundry that did brass castings. Dan often tagged along with his father to the foundry as a kid. He attended Penn State for industrial engineering and worked in foundries after college, but decided that career path wasn’t what he was looking for. He and his dad had been talking about starting a medical Swiss shop together for a while because his father had knowledge of the industry and good contacts from his former company. Dan says since he was young he had an affinity for the elements involved in running CNC Swiss machines—a lot of moving parts, math, and computer programming. (5:30)

Dan says his dad prefers a supervisory role as well as handling quality and secondary operations, while he loves running production and setting up machines. (9:45)

Dan says the smallest part Rudolph LLC runs is .1 millimeter. The company does a lot of work with thin-walled parts (.002” thick). They drill holes as small as .007” in diameter in stainless or titanium. (10:40)

Dan says often he sees working on small parts as “imagining a half inch part but in a smaller world.” Though, he says often with very small parts the bar stock can break off in production. He says when he is working on very small parts he breaks up the work. He will turn a few features and then stop the machine to see what’s going on. Sometimes he will program the sub-spindle to grab the part just to make sure he can find it. He says when the parts are in the sub-spindle you sometimes have to use a razor blade and fish them out. He says for a lot of the parts after the sub-spindle picks them off he opens the collet and then an air blower puts them into jars or tubes. Then he evaluates them using a vision system or other measuring system. (11:30)

Dan says Rudolph LLC’s shop is located on what used to be a farm. The barn has been replaced by two 900-square-foot garage-type buildings. The company started in one of the garages and then when it grew took over the second garage and connected the two. Then they built second a floor on top. His father’s house is located across the driveway from shop. (14:30)

Dan talks about his wife leaving her CPA job to join he and his dad at the company. She has been shadowing Dan’s father so she can eventually take over his role as he gets closer to retirement. (16:00)

Noah asks Dan, how he can “replace himself?” What happens if he needs to step away from the business for some reason, or go on vacation? (17:45) 

Dan says when he and his dad founded the company they decided they didn’t want to be “people managers.” He jokes that people at other shops warned them against the complications and headaches that come with hiring a lot of employees. He says that he and his dad prefer doing the actual production work. Automating with Universal Robots for secondary operations and Swiss machining that can finish an entire part enable the company to function and thrive without requiring extra manpower. He says in 2021 the company is not taking on new customers and instead trying to improve the work it does currently. (18:45)

Dan says one of the main things he wants to improve upon is reducing the rough edges on parts. He wants them cleaner with less burrs and loose material. Increasing his quality consistency will mean spending less time at the microscope troubleshooting. (22:15)

Dan Rudolph of Rudolph LLC

Noah asks how Dan how he is able to come up with new ideas and solutions if he is continuously busy producing parts. Dan says being spread thin is a constant obstacle, but even so, he and his father do not want to hire help. He says if they can perfect the work themselves they won’t need to hire anybody. He says his wife has been a huge addition to the company because she knows how he thinks, so she can help solve problems without creating a new problem of people management. She takes on some of the work, which has smoothed out the operations such as shipping and running the Universal Robots. (22:50)

Noah asks Dan if he has advice for someone else who wants to start small shop similar to his. Dan says he can’t fathom starting a shop without at least one other person because with two people you can divide the work between your strengths and weaknesses. (25:15)

Dan says he sees his company’s mindset as a game to see how much he and his dad can do within their constraints. He says having limited space is advantageous because walking around a big shop takes time. (26:00) 

Dan says something interesting he learned last week was his research on various ways he can renovate his home’s deck. He says he has spent time searching on Instagram for photos of work done by contractors. (28:00) 

Dan says social networking on Instagram has been beneficial for him. It has given him a peer group of other people in the machining world, which he lacks in his own 3-person company. He says his Rudolph LLC has even gotten some customers from Instagram. (29:30)

Share this post