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. 

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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)

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